Why F1 drivers are returning to their roots at Zandvoort

In the COVID era, Formula 1 has quickly grown used to arriving at unfamiliar tracks, or returning to venues that have not been used for a while.

Why F1 drivers are returning to their roots at Zandvoort
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Last year the sport went to Portimao and Mugello for the first time, and returned to the previously forgotten Nurburgring, Istanbul Park and Imola. In the case of the last three, the previous visits were still recent enough for many team folk and some drivers to still have useful knowledge of them.

Zandvoort is far from a new addition to the calendar, and it has played a huge role in the history of the sport.

In terms of the world championship, it's the fifth oldest current venue after Silverstone, Monaco, Spa and Monza, having first been used in 1952. In fact, it hosted its first non-championship F1 race in 1948, just before the inaugural event at Silverstone, so on that measure it's the fourth oldest.

However, it's not been used for F1 since 1985, and there are relatively few people in the current paddock who were already involved in the sport at that time. Up and down the pitlane there are some who know it from a previous life working in the DTM or F3, but not many. And yet oddly enough it is a familiar place for many the drivers.

Max Verstappen is the only man on the grid with some proper knowledge of the current track, having driven a Red Bull F1 demo car when the new version was unveiled.

However, Zandvoort's regular place on the schedule of Formula Renault and F3 (prior to the category hooking up with F1 weekends) means that the majority of drivers have raced at the track already, albeit in some cases a few years ago.

Elio de Angelis, Lotus 97T Renault, leads Marc Surer, Brabham BT54 BMW, Stefan Johansson, Ferrari 156/85, and Michele Alboreto, Ferrari 156/85

Elio de Angelis, Lotus 97T Renault, leads Marc Surer, Brabham BT54 BMW, Stefan Johansson, Ferrari 156/85, and Michele Alboreto, Ferrari 156/85

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The track they knew didn't have the two banked corners added as part of the rebuild to convince Liberty Media to bring F1 back, but much of the rest is just as they experienced it.

As such, this weekend will be a step back in the past for many, and it will probably feel like they're returning to Brands Hatch or Thruxton or some other venue from their past that they thought they would never see again.

The intriguing thing is that most have similar positive memories – and agree that even with changes, there might not be much overtaking this weekend.

"It's bumpy, very tricky, like an old school track," says Lando Norris, a double F3 race winner as recently as 2017. "Not a lot of run-offs in a lot of corners. But a very cool track, very high speed in some places, but basically impossible to overtake.

"The only thing I'm hoping for is there's at least one chance - well, I think the only chance will be down into turn one. But I don't even know how easy that's going to be. So we'll have to wait and see."

Lando Norris, Carlin Dallara F317 - Volkswagen

Lando Norris, Carlin Dallara F317 - Volkswagen

Photo by: FIA F3 / Suer

That "old school" phrase will pop up a lot this weekend. There's no hiding the fact that despite the upgrades, Zandvoort is from another era, and has little in common with tracks built in the last 20 years.

However, for most drivers and indeed fans, that is no bad thing, and indeed the venues added to the schedule last year moved the goalposts in terms of everyone's perception of what a modern F1 track needs to be like.

"It's old school for sure, some of the corners are fast," agrees Daniel Ricciardo, whose last Zandvoort visit was for the F3 Masters event in 2009. "I think, on one lap, it's going to be awesome.

"I don't want to be pessimistic before we've gone there for a race but it is hard to see, overtaking or at least opportunities, I think that's a reality, or at least a realistic thought to have approaching the weekend.

"Just because it is so fast, and obviously as you know, following F1 that's where it's so hard to follow it is high speed so it will be tricky to get to get a run on someone.

"So let's see I mean hopefully we're pleasantly surprised but let's say that that might be the downside but I think in quali, it's going to be big kahunas..."

The potential challenge of a fast lap in qualifying has occurred to others, including Carlos Sainz, who raced at Zandvoort in F3 in 2012. The Spaniard enjoyed the new version when he tried it in the Maranello sim.

"The banking is going to change everything," says Sainz. "I think it's going to just make it even faster. I mean in an F3 it was crazy fast, it was a joy to drive, very narrow. I don't see how F1 is planning to see any kind of overtaking there, but it's proper challenging for the driver over a quali lap I think."

Pierre Gasly's last experience of Zandvoort stretches back to his Formula Renault days, almost a decade ago.

"I think it's some sort of Monaco with no walls, pretty much," says the AlphaTauri man. "So qualifying is going to be extremely important. And we expect the race to be very difficult to overtake.

Pierre Gasly, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB7

Pierre Gasly, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB7

Photo by: Justin van Densen

"Hopefully, I'm wrong, because as a driver, you always want close battles and good racing. But I think objectively, you don't have any long straights. It might not be that easy.

"The banking is easy flat, it's nothing special, you feel a bit like an IndyCar driver for a couple of seconds! And then back to F1 feeling."

For just a few drivers, racing at Zandvoort will be a new experience, including veterans Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at one extreme, and rookie Yuki Tsunoda at the other.

The fact is that the event is a step into the unknown for everyone, in terms of both on the track action and the surrounding organisation. After the troubled Belgian GP we could do with a smooth weekend.

"There will be a lot of expectation because we go to a place where I'm sure there will be a lot of orange shirts around," F1 boss Stefano Domenicali said after the Spa event.

"And there will be a new event, a new place where there will be a lot of excitement. And really let's hope to have a good race for all the fans of F1, after this Sunday has been difficult for sure."

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