The Netherlands is renowned for its love of two wheels but after a 36-year hiatus four-wheeled motorsport is back in town.
Formula 1 this weekend returns to Circuit Zandvoort for the first time since 1985. Zandvoort, nestled within the sand dunes across the road from the North Sea, has been heavily reprofiled and renovated since the days of Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet, though most of its challenges remain for the current generation.
Unlike some overhauled or bland new-build Formula 1 circuits there is little in the way of tarmac run-off or room for error, as grass, gravel traps and barriers line the narrow and twisty circuit. Of greatest intrigue is the steep 18-degree banking that has been added to two turns, most prominently the flat-out final corner that leads drivers onto the pit straight.
Formula 1 drivers, many of who raced at Zandvoort during their Formula 3 careers, could hardly contain their excitement on Thursday.
“I loved racing here,” said seven-tim world champion Lewis Hamilton. “It was a beautiful track in the old Formula 3 cars. It was massively challenging. I would say after Turn 3, through that first complex up the hill, down into that long fast right-hander you’re looking at the sky for a second and you couldn’t see the dirt on the left-hand side, it was difficult to know where you were.”
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc concurred. “I love it,” he said. “I drove here in F3 and I enjoyed it. With the F1 cars it is going to be ‘proper’, especially in qualifying, you cannot afford to do any mistakes and that’s what I like.”
“It’ll be crazy in a Formula 1 car,” agreed Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, while Williams’ George Russell, fresh from his maiden podium, was eager for the experience.
“Yeah it is an incredible circuit, an incredible place, it’s a real pure old-school circuit and you’ve got go put everything on the line to extract the maximum,” he said. “There is no room for error. It’s almost like a street circuit in a way, if you drop a wheel on the grass or gravel you will be in the barriers.”
It has been a long wait for the locals, who previously had to traipse across the border to Belgium or Germany for a glimpse of Formula 1. The race’s return was confirmed in early 2019, facilitated by the popularity of Max Verstappen, who heads into his home event off the back of the 16th win of his career. He is the only Dutchman in history to have ever won a Formula 1 race.
Verstappen’s ‘Orange Army’ is set to form the majority of the 70,000 in the grandstands each day this weekend, and demand for tickets far outweighed the capacity, which was originally 105,000 before pandemic-related restrictions led to a reduction. The race’s comeback was scheduled for May 2020, before being abandoned for the year due to the pandemic, with a later date issued for its eventual 2021 return.
“I have to say they’ve done an incredible job setting all of this up,” said Verstappen. “First of all in hosting the Grand Prix but also now you look at the complex as a whole. It looks very cool and I hope we can have a good, fun weekend.”
Verstappen heads into the weekend—which is round 13 of 22 scheduled— just three points behind Hamilton in the Drivers’ standings. A partisan atmosphere is expected and that could lead to some boos being hurled in Hamilton’s direction.
“When you go to a football match, you come into the home ground, the opposition will be booed at some point and it’s not up to the local club to go on to the speakers and say ‘guys, you cannot boo’ as it will naturally happen,” said Verstappen. “I don’t think it’s up to me to then say ‘guys you cannot boo’ because at the end of the day I am not them and I have to just focus on what I am doing on the track.”
Hamilton nonetheless played down the influence on the crowd actively rooting against him.
“Ultimately I’ve never been someone who would go to an event and boo, but I understand it, you see it in football events, it’s just a passion that the fans have—or the dislike that some of them have of their opponents,” he said. I respect it, I know I do have some of my fans in the Netherlands, which I really appreciate.
“They’re probably a small portion in the grandstand out there and I admire them for being able to withstand the boos too, but that’s the sport. What I do is try and churn that energy that they propel towards me, however you want to take it, and turn it to positive and try and put it into driving.”
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