Time to make history again, proclaim the billboards that ring the Zandvoort circuit for this weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix. Formula One is revelling in a return to this marvellous track that sweeps and undulates through the sand dunes nestling on the edge of the North Sea. The past is rich here, there are glories to celebrate and tragedies to honour, even as it looks to the future.
Many of the fans of Max Verstappen, the home hero, will not have been born when F1 last raced here in 1985 but until then Zandvoort had been a staple of the calendar.
It hosted its first F1 race in 1952 and was an immediate favourite of the drivers; the fast, sweeping turns, narrow track and unforgiving run-off making for a challenge they appreciated.
They raced on a track born of conflict and hope after the destruction of the second world war. Zandvoort held its first race on the town’s streets in 1939 but after the war adopted a plan to create a permanent circuit around the communication roads built in the dunes by the occupying Nazis. They laid foundations from rubble salvaged from the Art Nouveau buildings of Zandvoort’s boulevard which had been demolished by the Germans.
It opened in 1948 and was a cheerfully anarchic affair from the off. Without pit boxes teams used garages in the nearby town, some towed their cars to the track, while many of the enthusiastic spectators would be there by dint of having sneaked in under a fence.
Soon afterwards, these 2.6 miles of tarmac were delivering classic moments, some that would echo across the sport. BRM broke their F1 duck here with a win for Sweden’s Jo Bonnier in 1959. An achievement of note not least because the car was so unreliable, underlined a year later at the same race when Dan Gurney’s BRM’s brakes failed at the intense 180-degree first corner, the infamous “Tarzan”. A spectator was killed in the crash, affecting Gurney deeply and later he adapted his driving style to use his brakes more sparingly. He went on to win in F1, at Le Mans, in IndyCar, Can-Am and Nascar.
Between 1963 and 1965 Jim Clark took a hat-trick at Zandvoort but for the sport itself the standout moment was the race he won here in 1967. It was the debut of Ford’s Cosworth Double Four Valve (DFV) V8 engine in Colin Chapman’s Lotus 49 and heralded the future of F1. Chapman had, brilliantly, made the engine a stress-bearing part of the car, bolted to the monocoque and the suspension and gearbox. It was revolutionary and became the benchmark for how F1 cars are made. The engine too was an absolute masterpiece dominating the sport for more than a decade.
Indeed it was a DFV that powered James Hunt’s Hesketh when he took his first and the team’s only F1 win here in 1975. Hunt later described it as the most important of his life. Hesketh, the team created by Lord Hesketh, were the party outfit but had a genuinely decent car in 1975 with the 308. In the Netherlands however Ferrari and Niki Lauda were expected to dominate.
Hunt gambled on switching to slick tyres very early on a wet track. It paid off and he took the lead. He then had to fend off Lauda for the final third but Hunt discovered if he took the final corner with absolute precision it was enough to hold his pace and the lead through turn one. A similar strategy may well be useful this weekend. Hunt did it brilliantly and learned he could win under intense pressure without making an error. “That was the completion of my training as an F1 driver,” he said later. “It enabled me to win the 1976 championship, at my first and only chance in a competitive car.”
Lauda had his moments here too, winning in 1977 and again with the final victory of his career in 1985 in his last season, the highlight of his difficult final year at McLaren. The master held off a charging Alain Prost by just two-tenths of a second.
Four years after Hunt’s first win, Zandvoort was treated to another extraordinary spectacle. Gilles Villeneuve was in second when his left-rear tyre exploded with the Canadian having just passed the pits. Refusing to give up the ghost Villeneuve manhandled his car round the track on two wheels. The remnant of the left rear dragging on the ground with his right front consequently waving in the air. Decried by some as futile (after pitting, his car was too damaged to continue) and dangerous, for many this was the heart and soul of a tenacious competitor.
Sadly some of these great fighters also met their ends in the dunes. The much-liked British driver Piers Courage was killed here in a De Tomaso car being run by Frank Williams in 1970. He went off in a horrific accident at the high-speed Tunnel bend on the old layout and his car was consumed by flames.
Three years later one of F1’s most tragic accidents took place, when Roger Williamson’s March suffered a tyre failure and turned over. Williamson was trapped in the burning car but marshals, without fireproof clothing were unable to help him. His friend the driver David Purley pulled over to help him but could neither extinguish the fire nor turn the car over on his own. Racing went on as he tried in vain, with other drivers believing Purley was attempting only to extinguish the fire of his own car and unaware that Williamson was dying of asphyxiation in the wreckage. Afterwards fire retardant clothing was made compulsory for all marshals, a practice in place to this day. Purley, who was distraught at being unable to save his friend, was later awarded the George Medal for his bravery.
By 1985, in financial difficulties and with the facilities no longer suited to modern F1, the sport left Zandvoort behind. The track was truncated to a new layout in 1990 and its current configuration in 1999. More tight and twisting, this year it features two corners banked to 18 degrees. A new era and perhaps as the fans that have descended in their thousands this week hope, Verstappen will be the newest entry into Zandvoort’s history books, making his own mark in the sand.
Lewis Hamilton was quickest in first practice in front of Verstappen although running was limited after Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin ground to a halt on the track and took some time to be removed. In the afternoon Hamilton suffered a setback when his car lost power after only three laps. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were quickest for Ferrari with Verstappen fifth.