Thursday 13 June 2013

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

Driving on the Zandvoort track

With ghosts of 1970 Dutch GP haunting the organisers and fresh in driver’s memory, the race in 1971 went ahead smoothly. Though there were no casualties, the track was slippery and the conditions tested the wet weather driving skills of Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez, who prevailed when compared to the rest of the field to finish one and two. Interestingly, Rodriguez was the last podium finisher for a Mexican until recently when Sergio Perez, in 2012 came second in the Malaysian GP. 

The race in 1972 was cancelled because of safety reasons as the Zandvoort track had not been upgraded with the much improved racing standards at other circuits. The track underwent severe modifications and safety upgrades. The hard work paid as the race was reinstated in 1973.

Welcomed back to the F1 circus, Zandvoort circuit with its new avatar saw a lot of crowd. The excitement was seen and the race was a carnival. With race safely underway, the organisers who, until then had done a great job, saw their worst nightmare come true. Roger Williamson on lap 8, crashed out courtesy of a tyre failure. Within no time, his car was in fumes, inverted with the driver stuck inside it. The petrol tank ignited while lying on the track and caught fire.

David Purley stopped his car and came to Williamson’s rescue. The race continued but with yellow flags as they believed it was Purley’s car which had suffered this fate. He tried stopping other drivers, but they all thought it was his car that had gone off track.

Purley calls out the on-field fire marshals for help; they hesitate initially, he snatches the fire extinguisher and tries to quench the flames, but in vain. He hears his friend’s screams from the car and tries unsuccessfully to overturn the car to safety. The track side assistants were poorly trained, ill-equipped (without fire retardant suits) and bad communication didn’t help the situation as the fire rescue truck came around eight minutes later. Purley was left disappointed, helpless as he saw his friend consumed by the fire and die of suffocation. 

He was awarded the George Medal for his bravery, but he knew the medal meant nothing when compared to the way the whole situation was handled. 

Jackie Stewart won the race, his 26th and thereby took his tally of wins one more than Jim Clark’s total Grand Prix victories (which was a record then). He retired at the end of 1973 season after winning his 3rd Driver's World Championships.

Nikki Lauda by this time in 1974 had emerged as one of the stars in F1. Ferrari made it 1-2 with Lauda and the Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni claiming the top two places. 

James Hunt was steadily making his way up in his F1 career and in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, he won the race by 1 second over Nikki Lauda. The Austrian driving ace Lauda was quicker than the rest all weekend, had the pole position and fastest lap. James Hunt gave his constructor Hesketh Racing their first and only race win in F1.

With Lauda’s life threatening accident in West Germany during the German GP, Ferrari dropped out of the next race in Austria keeping in mind of Lauda’s condition. Call it a miracle, the Ferrari ace driver recovered well and ended up missing just the two GP’s. Ferrari returned to racing without Lauda to Zandvoort where Hunt again won the race, this time in a McLaren. The rest of the 1976 season is well documented in the forthcoming Ron Howard’s movie ‘Rush’.

The 1977 edition was won by Nikki Lauda aided by the accidents and retirements of Mario Andretti and James Hunt. Mario Andretti had a successful 1978 season. In Zandvoort, it was no different. He won the race after starting the race from pole. Incidentally this win also happened to be his final GP victory. Its been 25 years since an American driver has won a F1 race since that Andretti’s victory; and it will remain this way unless there is an influx of American race drivers in F1.

Alan Jones won the 1979 race and the 1980 edition saw the future 3-time World Champion Nelson Piquet battle it out with Alan Jones for the top spot. After an impressive debut season for the McLaren, Alain Prost was racing with his home team Renault in the 1981 season. He won his second of his 51 victories at Zandvoort.

1982 is one of the landmark years in the history of F1. Boycott of constructors, tussle with the F1 heads (FISA-FOCA war) and death of few drivers on track including that of Gilles Villeneuve.  For three races after Villeneuve’s death, Ferrari had just one of its cars running during the races. Patrick Tambay, an experienced French driver was called in to replace Gilles Villeneuve. Didier Pironi won the race, which also happened to be his last win in F1. 

Ferrari dominated the next year’s Dutch GP with Rene Arnoux winning last of his seven GP victories here and Patrick Tambay coming in second. In 1984, McLaren-TAG was close to unbeatable barring for few races (four); Alain Prost and Nikki Lauda won the remaining 12 races. Alain Prost won the race with his team mate coming in second.

Nikki Lauda after winning his third World Championships, raced one last time with McLaren in 1985. Alain Prost was fresh and had all the hunger while it was clear Lauda was well past his previous best. The season belonged to Prost hands down; however the race in Zandvoort will be remembered for the Austrian racing legend’s victory, his 25th win and most notably his last GP win.

After the 1985 season, it was curtains for Zandvoort as it turned to be the last time they hosted the Grand Prix. Outdated track and facilities which needed up gradation and housing facilities in the proximity protested against the sound levels were some of the infrastructural reasons given for the closure.

A lot of history, fatal accidents, deaths on track and yet Dutch Grand Prix hosted the F1 family no less than 30 years since the start of F1 World Championships.

I can only say I was privileged to have had an opportunity to burn some rubber on this track. Zandvoort is no Spa, Silverstone or Monza; nevertheless it has its own stories to share and the racing cars at different levels do make a visit even today to this dune town close to North Sea.

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