Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Just ahead of the Belgium Grand Prix next weekend, two Formula One teams participated in the traditional Bavaria City Racing event in the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Ferrari and Mercedes GP had sent their Formula One cars to the city to entertain the spectators who visited the already seventh edition of the hugely popular event.
According to local authorities a record breaking 600,000 spectators crowded the city center of Rotterdam to watch a seemingly endless parade of race and rally cars, but most were just interested in one thing: the Formula One cars. It was the first time Ferrari participated in the event, after they had participated in the Bavaria City Racing event in Moscow last month the Italian team had sent two cars and test and reserve driver Marc Gene to Rotterdam, while GP2 driver Briton Sam Bird represented the Mercedes GP team.
The event requires a massive organization, and building the five km long track and all the safety barriers and grandstands in the middle of one of the largest and busiest cities in the Netherlands has been compared with building the track at Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix, except in Rotterdam the organization only had two days and not two weeks to complete the circuit.
Organizer Herman Vaanholt about the event, “For this year’s edition a dream has come true for us, Scuderia Ferrari, the most successful team in Formula One agreed to send two cars to Rotterdam, for us the icing on the cake in the seven years of history of this event. Sunday it was one of the best editions of the venue, and I would also like to thank the hundreds of volunteers and marshals and the city of Rotterdam for their efforts.”
The city racing ‘formula’ is so popular that next year a similar event will be organized in Dublin, Ireland and the organizers had invited ex-Formula One team owner and now BBC pundit and commentator Eddie Jordan, who was especially impressed by the number of spectators that had turned up on Sunday. The flamboyant Irishman gave a concert in the VIP village on the top of the Willems Bridge with his band Eddie Jordan and the Robbers, and during the morning press conference couldn’t resist giving one of his controversial but always amusing comments when he was asked about Michael Schumacher’s return to Formula One.
“This sport has many champions. And as for Michael Schumacher, he really is an old fart at this stage,” Jordan said. And added, “He should make way, he’s had his time, he’s had seven World Championships, I have been outspoken about this for a very long time. He’s a huge successful driver, the most successful in the entire history of our sport, but somebody needs to have a word with him to move aside because it is time other guys get a chance.”
But spectators hadn’t come to Rotterdam for Jordan’s comments, but for the race cars that soon took possession of the city center. The city race track runs straight through the heart of Rotterdam from the crest of the Willems Bridge where the start and finish line is, to the Hofplein roundabout and from there it is back to the Willems Bridge again. In the past the event had sometimes been hampered by heavy rain, but this year it stayed dry and sunny and many tenths of thousands of spectators lined the track to cheer on their race heroes. With the last Formula One race being held at the circuit of Zandvoort in 1985, the Bavaria City Racing event is now the only chance for Dutch fans to see a Formula One car in action.
Gene was the first Formula One driver to venture onto the narrow track, but the Spaniard got a bit overexcited and damaged the 2010 F10 Ferrari while making a few donuts in front of the fans. He hit the barrier backwards, not hard, but just enough to damage the left rear suspension and he had to abandon his demonstration. As Ferrari had brought two cars, Gene was able to give a second demonstration in the 2009 Ferrari in the afternoon, this time everything went smooth and Gene completed three laps, much to the delight of the fans who relished the sound of the Ferrari engine echoing through the streets.
Gene about his experience, “To take part in this event, as requested by our sponsor Santander, means that this was the first time in Rotterdam both for me and for the Ferrari Formula One car.” He was also impressed by the circuit, “Compared to my previous experiences this is the longest track that I have ever seen at a road show -- and also the most twisty -- usually at this kind of event you see long straights which you drive down in both directions, but here the layout of the track reminds you of a real circuit and allows you to really test out the speed and braking areas.”
Indeed, this year Gene recorded a top speed of 297 km/h on the straight of the Coolsingel and he paid tribute to the organizers, “I must pass on my compliments to the city of Rotterdam and to the organizers of the event, who knew how to design such an interesting circuit on these streets that are normally reserved for city traffic, thus offering the fans the chance to see a Formula One car in real live action.”
Anthony Davidson would originally pilot the Mercedes GP car, but broke his collarbone during a bicycle accident just a week ahead of the event and he was replaced by Mercedes protégé Sam Bird who gave a smoking hot demo in Rotterdam. After getting out of his car Bird was excited about the track. “What a great way to get around a city!” Bird said with a big smile on his face. “It beats taking a train or a bus, doesn’t it? What a great experience and what a great host Rotterdam has been! I would like to thank all the organizers and the hundreds of thousands of people that have been here today, I think it has been a very successful event,” he commented.
Frenchman Alexander Premat had been invited to race a very special single-seater in Rotterdam: the electric Formulec race car which has been developed together with Mercedes GP. The electric single seater is a project for the future and has an incredible 300 bhp on board which accelerates the car from 0 to 100 km in just three seconds. Apart from the environmental aspects of the Formulec, the car has another advantage, it is completely automatic and doesn‘t have a gearbox, which makes the car light and easy to drive.
For a race driver a special feeling, there is no engine sound and the car feels completely different. Premat about the electric formula car, “I would say you hear and feel the wind more in this car and you car hear the friction between the motor and the drive shaft very well.” Asked about the future of the project Premat replied: “There are plans for a championship for 2012 or 2013, but we need to find investors for this project. In the future it could certainly become a very interesting race series. And if they need more testing I will certainly be available for that.”
Apart from the modern Formula One cars, there was also a parade of historic Formula One cars, German Bernt Maylander was present to demonstrate the Mercedes SLS Formula One safety car, Dutch-Chinese driver Ho Pin Tung demonstrated the unique futuristic Renault Dezir concept car with its wing doors, there were drift and rally demonstrations and six classic Mille Miglia Porsche 550 Spyders also drew the attention of the crowd as they were piloted by ex-Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and current Minister of Finance Jan-Kees de Jager who are both huge Formula One fans.
Also present was Dutchman and ex-Formula One driver Robert Doornbos, who drove for Red Bull and Minardi, he gave a demonstration in his Superleague Formula race car and was cheered on by his Dutch fans. Doornbos, who was born and raised in Rotterdam, has also been active in the IndyCar and ChampCar series, and finished in third place in the 2007 Champ Car championship.
Doornbos gave a demonstration in the by far loudest car on Sunday, his 12 cylinder and 750 bhp strong Superleague Formula car. After adding his signature on the city tarmac in the form of numerous donuts, Doornbos ended his demo on top of the Willems Bridge, climbed out of his car and became the hero of the day by tossing his gloves into the crowd.
”What a great experience this is,” he commented. “The enthusiasm of the fans, incredible, that was really cool!” And added, “It looks if every year more and more people come to this event, and they become wilder and wilder, and they want to see more and more donuts every year.”
But most important of all, the spectators got to see a spectacular show, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the screaming engines in the city center, a true family outing, and even Gene brought his little son and daughter to Rotterdam and the Spaniard could leisurely walk through the city with his family without being harassed by photographers or reporters, for him and his family it was a day out as well.
And with a similar event now in Dublin next year, the street races in Moscow and especially in Rotterdam, with the attendance of 600,000 spectators, proves that Formula One is still very much alive, even in a country that hasn’t seen a Formula One Grand Prix for 26 years.