Thirty-six years after the chequered flag fell for the last time on a Dutch Grand Prix, the circuit in the dunes is back on the Formula One calendar.
Some 67,000 racing fans will pack the stands hoping to witness a titanic battle between world champion Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, the 23-year-old pretender to the throne.
A win for Verstappen in front of his home crowd would propel him to the top of the standings with nine races to go.
But the race has also attracted plenty of criticism. Environmental campaigners argue it flies in the face of the Netherlands’ obligations to reduce pollution, while some in neighbouring communities are fed up with the engine noise from the circuit and traffic congestion.
The events industry is incensed that Zandvoort is able to put on a three-day extravaganza while much smaller music festivals have been cancelled under coronavirus restrictions.
And the sight of hordes of fans at the circuit – despite the government classifying the Grand Prix as a ‘placed event’ where spectators are supposed to stay in their seats – has angered critics of the Dutch pandemic response.
Een geplaceerd evenement. pic.twitter.com/izUQav5AHN
— Elias Mazian (@EliasMazian) September 3, 2021
The first free practice session on Friday was accompanied by a protest by 20 farmers who are pressing supermarket chain Jumbo, one of the race’s main sponsors, to pay fairer prices.
More concerted opposition has come from environmental groups such as Mobilisation for the Environment, (MOB) who claimed it would generate excessive levels of pollution. The group failed this week to obtain an injunction to stop the race, but has vowed to continue its legal challenge to the race, which is on the calendar until 2023.
There have also been objections on grounds of noise pollution, with the Zandvoort circuit restricted to 12 days a year on which it can exceed the normal legal limits. Other races have been cancelled or folded into the Formula One weekend to comply with the rules.
Some people living in the area are unhappy with the ban on traffic passing through Zandvoort, which has only one main access road out of the dunes. Children who rely on minibus transport to get to Haarlem were kept off school on Friday because the bus operator was not prepared to ask for permits for its 350 vehicles.
The most vocal criticism has come from events organisers, who had to cancel almost the entire programme of summer music festivals after the government imposed strict limits of 750 tickets and no overnight camping.
‘This casts a very unsettling light on the 18 months of lockdown,’ Hans Paul Nieskens, one of the organisers of ParkCity Live in Heerlen, told 1Limburg. ‘It’s incredible that this can go ahead. It gives me a sick feeling in my stomach.’
The circuit’s co-owner Prince Bernhard, a cousin of King Willem-Alexander, said this week that ‘only a small group of people’ were against the race taking place.
‘I think a lot of people are in favour of it and there are some people who, with good reason, are against it,’ he said. ‘Of course they’ll get a platform.’
‘And you see that the people who are in favour are really enjoying themselves and you see how happy they are. That gives me so much energy.’
The road back
Formula One fell out of love with Zandvoort in the 1980s. The facilities were outdated, the venue was too inaccessible and, crucially for the sport’s boss Bernie Ecclestone, it was losing money. In 1985, after Niki Lauda pipped Alain Prost in a thrilling race, Ecclestone pulled the plug.
The road back to Grand Prix status was long and difficult. Ecclestone’s departure in 2017 removed a major obstacle, while Prince Bernhard’s investment added to the circuit’s financial and lobbying clout.
Zandvoort town council put up more than €4 million to improve the infrastructure around the circuit, including a new €500,000 new access road.
The track itself has also been modernised, with two new corners added to the 4.3km circuit at a cost of €15 million. Veteran Dutch racing driver Jan Lammers said drivers would have few opportunities to overtake on the narrow, twisting racetrack, which gives little margin for error.
‘This is a very fast track, the average speed will be very high,’ Lammers told Reuters. ‘The newly introduced banked curves especially make it truly unique. There is no other circuit like it in Formula One.’
The drivers reacted enthusiastically to Zandvoort’s ‘old-school’ circuit after Friday’s free practice session, with Hamilton describing it as ‘epic’. ‘I knew it was great when I was in Formula Three, but it’s crazy in a Formula One car,’ he said.
French driver Esteban Ocon said it was a ‘pure pleasure to drive on this track. It’s good fun, the banking but also just the layout in general.’
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