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Zandvoort 1975, My First Foreign Grand Prix

Zandvoort 1975, My First Foreign Grand Prix

In 1975 I went to my first foreign Grand Prix. The decision to go Dutch was made in a pub one evening after work when I got chatting to a girl who was a travel agent. She told me that Olau Line were offering promotional fares on their Sheerness to Vlissingen (Flushing) ferry service. Vlissingen is a long way from Zandvoort but at least it is in the same country.

So, a few weeks later on a balmy mid-summer Friday evening I set off in my open-top MG Midget for Sheerness and a weekend of adventure. For I had made no other arrangements apart from purchasing my foot passenger’s ferry ticket, everything else I would sort out along the way. The overnight ferry arriving in Holland on Saturday morning should allow plenty of time to get to my destination.

Ultimately it was all quite straightforward. An awaiting train at Vlissingen took me to Amsterdam where I spent most of the day sightseeing and generally chilling until late afternoon when I took another train for the short hop to Zandvoort.

As we approached the terminus of Zandvoort aan Zee the sound of racing engines was clearly audible from behind the sand dunes alongside the railway track. This, my programme would tell me was the last of the day’s action, practice for the touring cars. I am not surprised the circuit has had noise-related issues with the local inhabitants. A short walk to find the circuit brought my first encounter with Dutch security patrolling the dunes with their dogs. Although the day’s action had finished ‘I’m looking for a place for tomorrow’ wasn’t an acceptable excuse for my presence. Over the years I found that the Dutch police take their security duties very seriously.

Zandvoort town was full so I took the train to Haarlem just 7 km back up the track but could find no available accommodation there either. No matter, after 7 years in the merchant navy I was able to sleep pretty much anywhere, anytime. I whiled away the hours with a drawn-out meal in a Chinese restaurant and then found a small bar with music and dancing until the early hours.

We got turfed out at 2.00 am and as I stood on the deserted streets of Haarlem it started to rain. I took refuge in a bus shelter and then found an unlocked railway carriage in the station where I settled down for some sleep hoping the train was not going to depart to some unknown destination. Fortunately when I awoke to bright sunlight we were still there.

Back at Zandvoort I was surprised at the number of English race fans there. I thought I was on some sort of pioneering adventure, not realising there were specialist British tour operators taking petrolheads around the racetracks of Europe. Zandvoort with it’s weekend in Amsterdam being one of the most popular.

I found a good spot on top of a dune on the back stretch of the circuit between the right hand bend of ‘Scheivlak’ and ‘Tunnel Ost’. My only experience of active racetracks was restricted to Brands Hatch and Silverstone and by comparison Zandvoort seemed extremely basic, primitive even. I cannot recall there being any amenities in my area at all. There was, however, an excellent view overlooking a very fast and sweeping section of track, the problem being there was nothing happening on it. What I did not know was that Dutch law prohibited noise making on Sunday mornings which meant the first track action would be the Renault 5 Gordini race at 1300. It also meant there would be no usual 30 minute F1 morning warm-up session.

And then it started to rain again. Heavily. The ‘Ballonvaart’ and ‘Parachute Springen’ were cancelled and standing there absolutely drenched looking at nothing but deserted track the thought crossed my mind that maybe this was not such a glamorous sport to follow after all. I anotated my programme when the public address announced the qualifying times and changes. The Hesketh of Alan Jones had been scratched as had the Parnelli of Mario Andretti and the Maki of Dave Walker. Ian Scheckter had replaced Arturo Merzario at Williams, Alan Jones had replaced François Migault at Hill and Gijs van Lennep had replaced Roelef Wunderink in the Ensign.

I cannot recall if the Renault 5 race actually went ahead, but as the rain eased off approaching the 2.15 Grand Prix start time the Formula 1 cars were allowed out for some wet weather set-up laps as all the the practice sessions had been run in the dry. With Formula 1 cars on track suddenly the hardship all seemed worthwhile despite being soaked through, and then, it started to rain heavily again and all the cars disappeared.

Finally, more than 30 minutes later than scheduled the Dutch Grand Prix of 1975 got underway. James Hunt’s first, and Hesketh’s only win is well-documented, but I spent a lot of the race without much idea of what was going on. After the early pitstops to change from wet to dry tyres I lost track of the running order and could not hear the public address over the noise of the engines. The reaction of the crowd made me think that the Shadow of Jean-Pierre Jarier and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari were the leading pair. The Hesketh of James Hunt was so far ahead of them I assumed he was running at the back almost a lap behind. But once Lauda passed Jarier and started closing up on Hunt the crowd really starting getting animated and that is when it dawned on me that it was the Hesketh in the lead.

Hesketh, run by a bunch of eccentrics holding off and beating the might of Ferrari is now F1 folklore. But in the context of the time, great race though it was, such things were not quite so unlikely. Many teams were run by eccentric privateers, although maybe Hesketh pushed the boundaries on that, and on any given day with the right circumstance, any one of half of the field of starters could be capable of winning. But whatever, I was there to witness what has become an historic F1 moment.

Afterwards I did not hang around for the touring cars but made straight for the station and the return home, the reverse arrangements of the outward journey. I slept most of the way, even through the heavy swell on the overnight ferry back to Sheerness. I was woken occasionally by the various moans and accompanying sounds from my fellow seasick travellers, but I hardly noticed it apart from getting pitched out of my seat once or twice.

A couple of incidents from my night in Haarlem have remained with me over the years. A fight broke out between two girls in the bar but instead of breaking it up everyone stood back to clear space and watch them go for it. Eventually when it became a little too serious, security stepped in. Then later whilst taking refuge in the bus shelter I was approached by a ‘lady of the night.’ The thought of a warm dry bed (assuming that was part of the arrangement) was tempting but I declined. Certainly an unexpected encounter on a wet deserted street in Haarlem in the early hours of a Sunday morning.

And as a footnote, the next time I went to Zandvoort was for the 1978 Grand Prix. This time I had a pass for the pits and paddock and worked a passage as courier for one of the specialist tour companies, a hotel in Amsterdam included. Travelling on our coach incognito, so even now I am sworn not to reveal their names, were the parents of one of the participating British Grand Prix drivers. All I will say is that I saw him win his first Grand Prix and in the interim he had been the World Champion.