Monday 27 May 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XII - Dutch Grand Prix - Part I

Last Turn of Circuit Park Zandvoort
Two memories come to my mind as I write this. Mind you, these are just the two out of many memorable ones I have since the time I have known F1. The decision to visit Singapore GP and watching the first ever night race in 2008 tops the list and secondly driving around the streets of Monaco to complete a lap on a busy traffic day. I was happy with the latter because I tested myself mentally with the circuit route to replicate the one used in Monaco Grand Prix. Let’s just say it was more than satisfying. BMW X5 driven by my co-brother is not such a bad car, but the traffic made sure we went in the speed range comparable to the pit lane speed limits. I always wondered then, how it would be to drive on a purpose built F1 circuit. In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I write about Dutch Grand Prix (in two parts), about the Circuit Park in Zandvoort where a race was completed without a single pit stop and notoriously known for few appalling deaths on track of the likes of Piers Courage who incidentally was born today a good 71 years ago and Roger Williamson (in Part II).

 The road trip to the country of Orange from Switzerland was breathtaking. Driving majorly through the limitless speed highways of Germany was filled with pleasure, thrill and excitement. I had made up my mind to visit Circuit Park at Zandvoort which is North of Holland at any cost, while we were at Netherlands. The idea was to just have a look at the F1 circuit and its surroundings. What followed is indeed interesting. I drove the Ford (hired rental) into the circuit and managed to complete an uninterrupted lap on the same. The timing was just perfect; the junior racing competition had just completed that evening and the track from the parking lot was open. I didn’t know what I was getting in to, and the next moment I found myself at the last corner, few meters from the start-finish line. The track was empty and barely could I see people around me. I was hesitant, but seconds later decided to just lay some rubber on the track. What followed is a lap to remember, that’s another story. 

Races began under the banner of Dutch Grand Prix in the late 1940’s. By the time F1 World Championship finished its 3rd year, the circuit at Zandvoort had made its way to the annual F1 calendar. The track which is just over 4 km long was dominated by the Ferrari powered engines driven by Alberto Ascari and won consecutively in its first two years. There was no race held in 1954 and the 1955 race was hosted just a week after the disastrous 1955 LeMans race which was tragically remembered for many spectator deaths. The Mercedes duo of Fangio and Moss was unbeatable as they won the race comfortably 1-2 in the 1955 race.

 The race did not return until the 1958 season by which time the focus in the paddock had entirely shifted to Stirling Moss from the legendary five times World Champion Fangio. Moss, under the shadow of Fangio for three years running finally had an opportunity to claim his maiden World Championships. He won the Dutch Grand Prix in his Vanwall but could not win the championships that year. He won four races that season, but was overhauled by a point. Mike Hawthorn who had just one victory the entire season won the driver’s crown by a solitary point and retired from racing at the end of that season.

 With emergence of Jack Brabham and other talented rookie drivers, Moss did not get enough opportunities and thus remained to this day the best driver never to have won driver’s World Championship.
Joakim Bonnier, the first Swedish driver to win a F1 race won it in 1959 which incidentally also happened to be his sole Grand Prix of his 15 year career in F1. The 1960 race saw the future two-time World Champion Jim Clark make his debut at Zandvoort but the race was marred by Dan Gurney’s unfortunate accident which resulted in killing of a spectator who at the time of the incident was in a prohibited zone. The race was won by the then reigning champion Jack Brabham. 

 The 1961 race saw a German winning a Grand Prix for the first time in F1. Wolfgang Von Trips in his Ferrari won the race. This race was the first time all drivers on the starting grid completed the race (since then it has happened in 2005 Italian GP and 2011 European GP) and even more interesting the 1961 race had no pit stops. Quite a contrast when you compare with the current season and complaints we hear on the number of pit stops.

 Graham Hill driving in a BRM won his first GP in 1962. In those years, each circuit in Europe took turns to be designated as the European Grand Prix. Dutch Grand Prix was to be known as ‘European GP’ in 1962. The next three years it was the dominant Jim Clark who took the top step of the podium. In those three years, Clark went on to win two World Championships.

 Ford Cosworth with its revolutionary design DFV (Double Four Valve) made its first appearance at the 1967 Grand Prix. The defending champion and the previous year winner Jack Brabham had no chance as Jim Clark went on to win his 4th Dutch GP. 

 By the time the season of 1968 began, the French race car constructor Matra had roped in the talented British driver Jackie Stewart. Jackie Stewart won the race and thereby gave the first victory to a French constructor in the history of F1. He also won the next year’s edition. The only posthumous World Champion in F1, Jochen Rindt won the race in 1970.

 It is not Jochen Rindt and his victory which people remember from the 1970 edition. A lot of them recall the race for the sad demise of Piers Courage who died after a crash on lap 22; the failed suspension causing the car to hit the curbs and the grass embankment. Earlier that season, Williams had opted to use the newly designed De Tomaso 505 through a business arrangement with Alessandro de Tomaso, rather than the tried-and-tested Brabham, for the 1970 season. The problems began to unfold due to the new design’s unreliability and overweight. For more than half of the season’s races, the team struggled to finish in points scoring positions. However, the entire team had high hopes just before the start of Dutch Grand Prix.

 Courage qualified in 9th position looked all set to improve from the failures of the previous races.
Twenty-three laps of the Grand Prix were down and by that time the Williams driver was in pursuit of Clay Regazzoni. The cars reached the Turn 8 of the circuit - Tunnel Oost; Courage’s front suspension of the car broke loose and went straight instead of turning to complete the bend.

 The scenes were very disturbing as the car somersaulted and exploded like a ball of fire. The car was lined heavily with Magnesium in suspension and chassis which made matters even worse. The flames from the car were so intense; trees surrounding the accident site were lit up as a result. During the impact, one of the wheels from the car hit Courage on his head, thereby breaking his helmet. From what I have read, he died on track due to sheer impact and from the head and neck injuries he sustained in the course of that crash. 

 He passed away just shy of one month after celebrating his 28th birthday leaving behind Sally Courage, his wife of four years and their two kids.

 Sir Frank Williams, Courage’s boss at that time summed up nicely in his foreword to a book titled - Piers Courage: Last of the Gentleman Racers written by renowned F1 expert Adam Cooper - "He was a great man, highly popular, and I remember clearly that when he died a nation grieved, as did all of us in Formula One at that time. He was the greatest fun, utterly charming. They don't make them like that anymore."

 People poured in their comments, consoled Courage's family. However in few days time, the life in the world of Grand Prix and F1 went on, knowing such incidents can happen to anyone. In the next part, I write about the races and the fall of Dutch Grand Prix post 1970. 

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