Formula 1 returns to Zandvoort this week for the first Dutch Grand Prix in 36 years, and boy, does Stefano Domenicali and his team sure need it to be a good one. The debacle at Spa would have been a disaster at any time, but in a year when the pandemic has forced another hasty reshuffle of the schedule and a drop from the planned 23 races to 22, the (non-)Belgian GP is a disastrous blow for the commercial rights holder and threatens to hurt F1 further where it feels it the most. F1 is always about the money.
That’s why I’d be amazed if those poor souls who waited so patiently in atrocious conditions, that absolutely were unsuitable for motor racing, get a sniff of a refund. Domenicali has a light, friendly touch in the paddock and for the TV cameras, but we hear F1 is not the happiest or easiest place to work under his watch. You don’t climb to where he did at Ferrari, run Lamborghini or land the top job in F1 working for hardboiled US suits for whom the bottom line is all that counts by being a touchy-feely softie. I might be wrong. Perhaps the PR disaster, which in its perceived cynicism only just falls short of the US GP tyre travesty of 2005, might enforce F1 to do the right thing. But I won’t hold my breath.
[As I’ve written that paragraph, a press release from F1 has just landed in my inbox. Have pigs learnt to fly? No. It’s the announcement of a broadcast partnership extension in France. Bully for Canal+. They must be delighted at the timing.]
Instead, we turn to Zandvoort, surely the most unlikely F1 return since, well, Imola last year. But this one isn’t an any-port-in-a-storm fallback to an old, outdated favourite driven by a needs-must emergency; instead, the circuit in the sand dunes is back purely because of the significant pulling power of the Max Factor and the Verstappen ‘orange army’ that has added a welcome dash of colour and Klaxon-blaring noise to F1 grandstands all over the world. F1 wasn’t about to miss milking Max’s moment, and credit too to the circuit co-owner Bernhard van Oranje and his investors for seizing the day. Like Brands Hatch, which hosted its final grand prix a year after Zandvoort’s apparent 1985 swansong, this was a track long considered lost in the slipstream of the expansive (and expensive) autodromes that have since sprouted in countries with zero connection to motor sport and its rich heritage. Cut almost in half during the circuit’s financial crisis – holiday homes now sit on what used to be the second half of the lap – the modern, compact 2.64-mile, 14-turn track is a shadow of its popular, sweeping and super-fast predecessor while at the same time still managing to be a relic, in relative F1 terms. Whatever, it’s lovely to have Zandvoort back.
But will the revisions be enough to change the perception it’s outdated in the modern world? The developments include banking at the Hugenholtz left-hander behind the paddock and more crucially the 18-degree oval-style new final corner designed as a special DRS zone to slingshot cars down the start/finish and encourage overtaking into Tarzan. Let’s see if it works. Late-braking heroics into the 180-degree first corner were always hairy, Alain Prost famously overcooking it when his Renault slithered into Nelson Piquet’sBrabham back in 1983. Overtaking is expected to be no less tricky this weekend, although more northern European rain might open up the action (as long as it doesn’t close it down again).
The atmosphere will be electric – Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel a little daunted heading into Verstappen’s orange-hued backyard. But is the track any good? John Watson, veteran of 10 Zandvoort grands prix between 1974 and ’83, loved the old place because it had “the essence of road circuits”. He knows the modern version through TV commentary on GT races and via some laps in an A1 GP car back in the 2000s, and while his enthusiasm for the place today is well under control, he’s far from hostile. “The circuit has lost a lot of the challenges that made it a great race track,” he says. “What they’ve got in its place is a three-quarter version. But the drivers will be shocked at just how demanding the circuit might prove in F1, even in its revised configuration. It will be unforgiving.”
Back in 1985, what we’ve thought for more than three decades was the last Dutch GP proved to be a turning point in the fight for the world championship. Alain Prost had won the preceding Austrian GP, only after McLaren team-mate Niki Lauda suffered a blown TAG turbo in what was his final appearance at his home race, and now the Frenchman arrived in The Netherlands level on points with Ferrari’s surprise title contender Michele Alboreto.
That year, Lauda had been forced to accept he no longer had what it took to live with the brilliant Prost, confirming what he suspected that his half-point world title the year before had only been a brief quelling of an inevitable tide. Typically, the great man was brutally honest enough with himself and the rest of the world to recognise his time was nearly up. So after the disappointment of the Osterreichring, how lovely it was that he had one final big day left in him, at a circuit where he’d won long ago in 1974 and ’77 and — amid growing tension with Ron Dennis — where he chose to announce his imminent retirement.
Piquet took pole for Brabham, but stalled at the start to cause havoc for those behind him, who all somehow contrived to miss the BMW-powered BT54. That left Keke Rosberg and Ayrton Senna heading the field respectively for Williams and Lotus – until the latter’s Renault engine briefly cut out, allowing the McLarens past, and the former’s Honda blew its turbo a few laps later. That left Prost leading Lauda, only for a slow tyre stop to drop the Frenchman behind his team-mate and Senna with 30 laps still to go.
Drivers can gain up to a second a lap in a single corner through the “scary” banked sections of Zandvoort, says the man who has led the redesign of the…
Prost was in his own metronomic little world, as he tended to be in the mid-80s, and cut the deficit before passing Senna without drama, the Brazilian struggling with a power shortfall. The Professor honed in on The Rat, but Niki wasn’t about to let this one slip past him. He won by just 0.232sec for his 25th and final F1 victory, as Senna held off Alboreto – up from P16 on the grid – for the final podium spot.
That result lifted Prost into a three-point lead in the standings, for the first time since the Rio season opener. Alboreto had led the way since his win in Montréal in June, but now his bid to become the first Italian to win the championship since Alberto Ascari in 1952-53 began to derail. Prost won again at Monza (where Alboreto retired, to the Tifosi’s disdain), finished third at Spa and suddenly became a fully deserving champion with two rounds to spare thanks to a fourth place at the European GP at Brands.
Thirty-six years. It’s another world away, but at the same time might seem like yesterday if you happened to see one of those races in the metal (I was at Silverstone, where clever Prost won on economy after 160mph pole-winning Rosberg dropped out with a broken exhaust and Senna’s Renault ran dry way too early. Alboreto finished second, a lap down…).
This time at Zandvoort, Verstappen arrives three points in arrears to Hamilton after the Red Bull ace’s Spa ‘victory’, and like Prost all those decades ago will hope to leave on top. Just like 1985, the circuit in the sand dunes could prove an important turning point in the title battle, even if this one is much harder to call than Prost vs dear old Alboreto.