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Memories of Zandvoort

Grand Prix races! Monaco, Spain, Le Mans!!! Attend these famous races with *******j recently featured on "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Party with drivers, teams and sponsors. Visit vineyards, bask on golden beaches and be around the cars you've dreamed of all your life!!!

Well, now... A nightmare? No. A spoof, then, surely? Not a bit of it. This, I swear it, is a genuine magazine ad from an American travel company, whose name, on grounds of compassion, I have omitted.

The man behind it is clearly a person of some influence. Not to say optimism. However, time may be getting short for him. Take Monaco, for example. Has he spoken yet with Prince Rainier about locating a 'golden beach' in the Principality, let alone a vineyard? Then there's the trifle of separating Bernie from some FOCA passes so his clients can 'be around the cars they've dreamed of all their lives!' Which leaves him with the party side of it: 'A Rollicking Evening with Ayrton", or whatever...

I think this fellow must be in some sort of time-warp. Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, he should know, are long gone. There never was any golden beach in Monte Carlo. And these days you don't get to 'be around the cars you've dreamed of, etc' by buying an old-fashioned paddock pass; these days you need to be a 'corporate guest'.

To qualify, no previous experience of (or interest in) motor racing is necessary. Gelt, brother, is what you need. Ackers. It is increasingly the fad for companies to reward employees with 'a right good day out', and racing has not been backward in coming forward for this market. Hence, the man who sold most car phones or battery-operated corkscrews on South Humberside in the 1988 financial year may well find himself at the British Grand Prix this July. They'll helicopter him in and out, wine and dine him in a marquee somewhere near the paddock, give him a special badge and a grandstand ticket. An accountant somewhere will write out a cheque.

Seized by whim. I went the other weekend to Holland. In the days when we had a Dutch Grand Prix, it was one of the season's high points. August, in fact, was a fine month all the way around, taking in Zeltweg and Zandvoort, both now defunct as Formula 1 circuits. The second-gear Hungaroring is hardly cut-glass motor racing, and Budapest - yes, yes, I know about its architectural glories - does not compensate for the loss of Amsterdam.

After four years away, I wondered if the place might have changed, but I should have known better. Somewhere in the yonder there is always the strumming of a guitar, a cracked voice working through 'We Shall Overcome'. In the cafe, at the next table, someone lights a joint. It is, they say, 'the city where anything goes, and nothing goes too far', and it feels that way, too, somehow gentle and at peace with itself. All the clocks stopped in 1967. If you were to see a green and yellow Team Lotus transporter weaving down the Damrak between the trams, you wouldn't give it a second glance.

It's the same with the paddock at Zandvoort - which, of course, is one of the reasons we no longer have a Dutch Grand Prix. It was not designed for countless spare cars and motorhomes. Or, for that matter, corporate guests.

So the race is gone. Which is more than a shame, I thought as I wandered around in the sun. The paddock is indeed small by contemporary standards, the pits cramped. But the track itself is still in fine condition, and to this day I hold it was the best circuit for racing I ever saw.

Nor was it conceived by computer. During the occupation of Holland, German gun emplacements in the sand dunes were linked by a series of service roads, and after the war these formed the basis of part of a new race circuit, designed by John Hugenholtz, later responsible for Jarama and Suzuka.

Who knows why it was that Zandvoort invariably gave us the most exciting Grand Prix of the year? What was its special quality?

Well, for one thing, it had a long straight, followed by a slow corner, a combination which guarantees overtaking opportunities, and should therefore be intrinsic to the design of any circuit forthwith. The entry to Tarzan made you very acutely aware of what men in cars can do. I never watched the race from anywhere else.

In the hazy distance, you'd see them come out of Bos Uit, a long crocodile in a tow on the horizon, then beginning to splinter, reds and yellows and blues fanning out and darting across the road as Tarzan rushed up to meet them. At that stage it was a matter of staying off the brakes as long as you dared.

This was a stretch of asphalt to concentrate the mind. I remember Patrick Tambay talking about pit signals at Zandvoort. "I found myself acting like a computer," he said. "You're doing close to 200mph, but you know where your pit is - so you know that board is for you. You see it, store it away, but you can't do anything more with it immediately because here's Tarzan, and you can't miss your braking point. Then, out of the corner, your pit signal comes back, and you register what it means.

For onlookers, too, it was exhilarating but scary. I always got through a great many cigarettes in the course of a Dutch Grand Prix. Once in a while, as with Patrese's Arrows in 1979, you'd get a complete brake failure. In 1980 the front suspension of Daly's Tyrrell collapsed under braking, and two years later it happened to Arnoux's Renault. In every case the car went straight on through the inadequate run-off sand and head on into the tyre wall. Always the accident was of shocking violence, and old notebooks reveal a sudden deterioration in my writing on each occasion.

Remarkably, all three drivers walked away, but Zandvoort knew some truly dark days. As I looked across the circuit towards the sea I couldn't but remember again that pillar of black smoke twisting its wretched way into a grey sky; remembered scanning my lap chart, realising Siffert and Courage were missing; remembered seeing Seppi in the pits later, which meant it was Piers; remembered, too, the joyless face of Rindt on the rostrum afterwards. And three years later, in 1973, it happened again, this time to Roger Williamson.

Any circuit with some bottle-age, of course, inevitably has a residue of tragedy among the lees, but usually Zandvoort was all pleasure, with an atmosphere unique, redolent of barrel-organ music and chips with mayonnaise and fresh, blustery, North Sea winds.

As well as providing a race of unusual sensation, it had also the knack of turning up an unexpected result. In 1959, for example, the race was won by Jo Bonnier in a BRM, the first Grand Prix win for the team and the only one of the Swede's long career. Wolfgang von Trips won his first Grand Prix there, and so did Graham Hill and James Hunt. Jimmy Clark took the race in 1967 (for the fourth time), giving the revolutionary Lotus 49 a debut victory, and three years later the equally innovative 72 won for the first time, in the hands of Jochen Rindt.

All kinds of images came back to me that Saturday afternoon: the mesmeric fight in the rain between Ickx and Rodriguez in 1971; Hunt closing the door on Watson's Penske at the exit of Tarzan in '76, and getting away with it; Hunt trying the same with Andretti a year later - and not getting away with it; Mario, fibreglass burning, leading Ronnie in the year of the Lotus 79; Villeneuve passing Jones on the outside of Tarzan, spectacular prelude to his notorious three-wheeled return to the pits in '79; Jones taking the lead from Prost in '81, then losing it again within seconds; the coming-together of Prost and Piquet - aspiring World Champions - in '83; the memorable closing hips of the last race, with Lauda holding off Prost for the final victory of his career...

Zandvoort looked good when I was there. There was some sort of private test day in progress, and a singularly arresting blonde was hurling a red Corvette round with some enthusiasm. In the distance, though, was a sight rather less beguiling. I thought my ultimate nightmare had to be Wogan advertising nappies on TV, but no. Stacked around Zandvoort now are flocks of ghastly 'holiday homes', doubtless with names like 'Duncyclin'. They extend right up to the guardrail at Bos Uit.

I felt a little sad as I walked away, troubled by an attack of acute nostalgia; glad, though, that I had memories of a great race track. A race track for fans. If not one suitable for corporate guests.

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