ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 31 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Moonlight Over Zandvoort

  by Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.

Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are scheduled to make a guest appearance at the Marlboro Masters event, to be held this weekend at the historic Zandvoort track. A year before, Thomas O'Keefe visited the track under cover of darkness to soak up the ambiance and memories of F1 legends

I am on a layover in Brussels on my way back to the United States from the Nurburgring, where I had just taken in the 1999 European Grand Prix. After doing some rough calculations, I speculate that I have just enough time to go to Holland, visit the historic Zandvoort Formula One circuit and still make my flight home. I decide to give it a whirl.

Why did I want to see Zandvoort, where there has not been a Grand Prix since 1985? This is the place where Jimmy Clark ran in his first Grand Prix, on June 6th 1960, when he drove a Lotus 18 - the first rear-engined Lotus; and then on June 4th 1967, Lotus introduced the Lotus 49 with its world-beating Cosworth DFV engine at Zandvoort, and the car won first time out, with Graham Hill taking pole and teammate Jim Clark winning the race. Lotus and Jimmy Clark are what got me hooked on motorsports.

Zandvoort in 1963In addition to being the place Lotus tended to introduce its new cars, Zandvoort also produced its share of contributions to Grand Prix History in the course of the 17 Dutch Grands Prix held there. Ferrari domination was common at Zandvoort, right from the start. In 1952, the Ascari era, Ferrari finished first, second and third, and in 1953, first and second.

In subsequent eras we see the same pattern: the shark-nosed Ferraris of von Trips and Phil Hill took first and second in 1961; Lauda and Reggazoni in 1974; and Arnoux and Tambay repeated the same feat in 1983. Didier Pironi had his last victory at Zandvoort in July 1982, as the only bright spot for Ferrari during the somber three-month period between Gilles Villeneuve's death during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix in May 1982 and Pironi's own career-ending crash during practice for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in August 1982.

Zandvoort is also no stranger to tragedy. In 1970, Piers Courage, a 28 year-old member of the Courage brewing family, crashed and burned to death in his De Tomaso-Ford, which Frank Williams prepared for him, when it turned over and he was unable to get out. Even after money had been spent to upgrade the Zandvoort track for safety with Armco barriers, tragedy struck again: in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Roger Williamson, a 23 year-old in only his second Grand Prix, had a suspension failure and hit an Armco barrier with his March-Ford, which gave in and had the effect of launching the car into the air, which ultimately landed on the track, upside down, in flames. David Purley, Williamson's friend and fellow March-Ford privateer, stopped his car to help, trying on his own to turn the car over and free Williamson, because the corner marshals could not or would not help: during that era the marshals had no fire-retardant clothing.

On a less gruesome note, Zandvoort also has the distinction of being the only place that a Grand Prix has been held where all fifteen cars that took the grid finished, all without making a pit stop: the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix, during the 1.5 litre era. And Zandvoort has been good for the British Commonwealth cars as well, not just the Ferrari's. BRM, with Jo Bonnier, finally got its first Grand Prix victory at Zandvoort in 1959 in its fifth season (BAR-Honda take heart); Vanwall too got one of its nine victories at Zandvoort in 1958, with Stirling Moss at the wheel, his and Vanwall's only Dutch Grand Prix victory. And in the 1960s, in addition to Lotus winning four times, Cooper, BRM and Brabham also had their innings.

Jim Clark on  his way to win in 1963Lord Hesketh's only win came at Zandvoort, in 1975, with James Hunt driving. Mercedes-Benz also has one victory at Zandvoort, on June 19th 1955, when Fangio and Moss ran first and second, only a week after the horrific loss of life at LeMans, where over 80 spectators and one driver were killed, and which involved one of the Mercedes-Benz SLRs. This disaster led to the cancellation of Grands Prix in France, Switzerland, Germany and Spain that season. Even the legendary Mercedes-Benz team manager Alfred Neubauer, who had seen it all with Mercedes from Hitler's day and the original Silver Arrows to the post-war period, must still have been numb with shock that day at Zandvoort, but The Show Must Go On.

Another reason I was fascinated with Zandvoort is that I was interested in seeing its unusual setting, as I understood it was a seaside resort town and that the circuit ran amongst the dunes adjacent to the North Sea. Indeed, the memory of an aerial shot of the Zandvoort track in the 1967 movie "Grand Prix", showing waves breaking quite close to the track, is probably what captivated me most about seeing the circuit in the flesh. I had also read that the origins of Zandvoort go back to the system of defense roads cut through the dunes by the Wehrmacht in World War II, which was used to connect the inland forces to the German shore batteries that were positioned as part of the Atlantic Wall Garrison to protect that part of the North Sea from invasion by sea or air.

But however the track developed, it was clear to me that it was a racetrack with real character and atmosphere - the elevation changes, the Tarzan hairpin/corner, the Hunzerug or "hunchback" switchback corner behind the pits, the tight right hander leading to the main straight and the long main straight itself - qualities that are in short supply these days on Formula One circuits. The post-war circuit had been designed by John Hugenholtz, who later on was responsible for the Suzuka circuit in Japan and the Jarama circuit in Spain, but Zandvoort is regarded as his most inspired work.

Finally, these days there is hope in some circles that Zandvoort could make a comeback as a Formula One circuit, provided the funds can be found to upgrade the circuit for safety reasons, as well as reconstruct the pit and paddock area to suit the current clientele of Formula One - always a big If. Zandvoort did manage to obtain a T1 license from the FIA, which permits Formula One teams to use it for testing, as they now use Kyalami and Estoril - other circuits waiting in the wings and looking to be awarded a Formula One race.

And Zandvoort has already entertained some guests from the Formula One teams. In August 1999, Mika Salo and Luca Badoer visited the track for some demonstration runs in the Ferrari F399; the Williams team did the same field trip in September 1999. And next weekend, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello will once again rejoice the local crowd with some F1 action, at the tenth Marlboro Masters. So part of my reason for going was that I wanted to see this historic track before it was spoiled.

I had one hour to visit the track. I arrive at the picturesque Zandvoort Railroad station with all my luggage: bad sign, no taxis are there, but the taxi dispatcher, Martin, offers me a rental bike, telling me Zandvoort is Bike Country and that we are only a 10-15 minute ride from the track. Martin says the circuit is closed but wishes me luck and agrees to hold on to my bags while I pursue folly. It is dusk and it is drizzling.

I bike out to the circuit. Astonishingly, contrary to Martin's guess, the outer gate to the racetrack is open. I ride in cautiously, first into the area outside the track, then to the Inner Sanctum - the pits and paddock areas - where in all likelihood I will probably never be again. I ride up and down the paddock looking for an opening to the pits and track and on through to the garage area. Only one garage is open: one team is working on the suspension uprights of a car in what would be the inspection garage on race weekend, which is a pass through open to the pits on one side and open to the paddock on the other side. I navigate the pass-through garage on my bike, and suddenly I am on the Pit Lane at Zandvoort, all alone and with very little light. It is raining now and it's windy and cold, but fabulous.

I look across from the pits to the Grandstands, which seem very close - much closer than at Nurburgring two days ago, when I sat across from the Ferrari Pits, and it seemed like a gulf between Us and Them. I am reluctant to go any further.

It must be remembered that in the days of my hero, Jim Clark, the Zandvoort police were known to be vigilant about such things as who had access to their circuit, and once physically removed Clark (who was still wearing his driving suit!), from the Hunzerug corner behind the pits, where he was watching his rivals during practice for the 1963 Dutch Grand Prix, which he went on to win. The Great Scot did not think to wear his pit pass, having just finished practicing in his Lotus 25. If they could throw Jimmy Clark off the premises, someone who won the race there four times, just think what they might do to me on my rent-a-bike! But on this dark, dank night I could hear the whispers of the Quiet Scot urging me forward, so on I went.

I headed cautiously down the track toward the Tarzan corner, fully expecting a security guard to be whistling at or chasing me, but no one cared. I pass what appears to be a bar at the end of the pit lane, where a party seems to be in progress, probably the reason the circuit is open.

The next 20-30 minutes is bliss, pumping the bike uphill for the elevation changes, then coasting down the hills amongst the carpet of greenery and the abundant sand dunes. All is still, except for a group of rollerbladers learning their trade on the circuit. I glide by them too: no one notices. Am I invisible? Is this a Dream? Or, is this just Holland!

There are apparently several versions of the circuit and I passed the rollerbladers a couple of times as I peddle up and glide down the graceful turns with their authentic Formula One red and white candy-striped "kerbing," hitting my apexes of course.

As darkness fell I passed for last time the rollerbladers who were still practicing in some of the turns near the paddock.

Now that the sky was almost pitch black (no lights on the circuit), I began to look for the way out and found No Exit, except going back the way I came, reversing direction going counter-clockwise now back to the pit lane where I fully expected to see a Town of Zandvoort Sheriff's Car waiting for me, knowing that there was only One Way Out. But still no official presence.

I pass the party - still going on - and ride down the pit lane, where, Thank God, the mechanics are still working on the car in the pass-through garage, and I glide past the mechanics, lost in animated discussion over what to do with the car, as I breeze on through the pit garage and head for the exit, the lights from the paddock area just bright enough to point the way back out of the circuit. Still no Gendarmerie: this could never happen in America.

I stopped the bike and took my bearings. The Golden Tulip Hotel was just across from the entrance to the circuit: I'll have to book a room there in advance and walk to the pits next time - hopefully for the Formula One race in the Year 2001 and beyond, when Bernie Ecclestone has threatened to replace Spa with Zandvoort. Hopefully, someday we will have both...

I was exhilarated at seeing the racetrack, but I wanted to see one more thing before I left this Sacred Ground. I bicycled to the right from the circuit entrance and in less than three minutes I was overlooking the North Sea on the bike path "duinsand", with the wine dark ocean on one side of me and the dunes of the Zandvoort circuit on the other side of me, both visible from the bike path. A Magical Moment. Can't wait to see it all in the daytime!

Thomas O'Keefe© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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