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MEMORIES / An unburdened visit to Zandvoort



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XXV Dutch GP, GP of Europe (August 29, 1976)


The first time I saw a Grand Prix car it was on fire. Seconds before, it had left the track, disappeared into the woods and bounced back onto the circuit, twisting around its center, now engulfed in flames. I was sitting there, in front of the television screen, and the scenes of Niki Lauda's fiery Nürburgring accident were engraved in my 8-year-old mind. Somehow it didn't put me off motor racing. Instead my interest was sparked. One month later, still unburdened by historic knowledge of the sport, I was present at my first Grand Prix, wondering how these men dared what they did.

And that was a coincidence too. My father had seen me watch the Austrian GP on television and became aware of my new passion. He could have thought it was one those passing phases that goes with 8-year-olds, just like desperately wanting a pet and neglecting to care for it once you got it, or getting fed up with an expensive new toy within a week after having been longing for it for months. Yet he got me a four-feet wide wall poster of the car that had particularly caught my attention as it made it through the long sweeps of the Österreichring - the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34. And then, as a rabbit out of a hat, he showed up with two full-blown paddock passes for the 1976 Grand Prix of Europe at Zandvoort. It turned out that he had been ideally placed for them all along, being a senior PR executive at the Dutch Esso branch, which just happened to have a VIP box in the pit building, directly overlooking Zandvoort's huge main straight and its cramped pit area. How appropriate…

I was feeling anxious on the Sunday morning of the race. I had no idea what to expect - what would the noise be like? How fast would the cars go in real life instead of caught on television? Would I be able to see any of it? Would I be able to keep them apart? The idea of keeping a lapchart was still far from my mind, although I had studied some car magazines that were on loan from the neighbours, but they held little information on F1 racing. Yes, I now knew who Niki Lauda was - he'd been the talk of the month everywhere - but did I know the rest of them? I can't even remember if I did but I'm almost sure I didn't. What I do know is that I was oblivious to the controversy that had raged in Spain and Britain. I knew nothing of the catching-up James Hunt was doing in the championship race. I was equally unaware of the importance that names like Colin Chapman, Bernie Ecclestone or Mauro Forghieri held with the seventies Grand Prix fanatic.

We were living quite nearby, some 20 miles south of Zandvoort - another happy coincidence - but still we decided to leave early as my father knew of the single road leading to the village in the dunes. As soon as we approached it we were stuck and took one hour to get from nearby Aerdenhout to Zandvoort proper. There we were supposed to show up at Hotel Keur in the Zeestraat where the Esso PR people had gathered in the lounge to hand out the properly stamped passes.

Dad's crummy photography shows me in front of Mass's McLaren.

It was a bright day and the wind was coming from the North, so as we walked the Van Lennepweg towards the gate the track sounds were blowing towards us. It was pure noise, unspoiled by knowledge. Were these F Fords? Or Dutch touring cars doing their round of the national championship ahead of the main event? Only after I got hold of the programme I knew. It also gave me my first glance at a Grand Prix entry list. I must have only remembered the important bits. They were there but I totally missed out on my chance of taking a closer look at such cars as the Boro, the Wolf-Williams, the Heskeths, the Norev Surtees or the Gulf-Rondini Tyrrell, although that last car may have already left after its DNQ on Saturday. My focus as a kid was on the big names up front: the sole Ferrari, the McLarens, the JPS Lotus cars, the pretty Brabhams, the Marches with their separate liveries. I had come to learn the names of Hunt, Regazzoni, Andretti, Reutemann, Peterson, Scheckter, Nilsson, Pace, Depailler, Laffite, and of course Zeltweg winner John Watson. Fittipaldi and Ickx were no strangers either, but while I was memorizing the entry list on our way past numerous souvenir stands along the entry road to Tunnel West I paid no attention to the really interesting names on the list, ranging from Pryce to Andersson to Pescarolo. But I do remember asking my father what sort of company Durex was. He won't have given me a straight answer, as I would have remembered that!

I don't remember much from the race itself. Esso's VIP box allowed for a small viewing range over the pitlane and the Zandvoort straight, and didn't have CCTV until about 1980. All I know is that I was mesmerized by the sparkly sound of Cosworths on the overrun as the drivers downshifted and braked into Tarzan corner - lap after lap. I missed Merzario crashing the Wolf-Williams, and Perkins trashing the Dutch Boro-née-Ensign. I didn't see Ertl spin off, nor did I witness the blow-ups of Andersson and Stuck. I did see the race unfold into a thriller all the way to the line, Hunt beating Regga, Mario and the amazing Tom Pryce for a win that brought him within 14 points of Niki Lauda.

The way back home took as long as our arrival. Traffic was already a disaster in the seventies and nothing has changed since. At home, the shock news that the Austrian would be racing again at the next Grand Prix emphasized the heroic nature of the sport with which I had just made my first live acquaintance. I was forever smitten. But I was still a long way from being an anorak, even though I was wearing one at the time…

Post scriptum (April 4, 2005)

It's a horrible but inescapable fact - memories tend to play tricks with the truth.

I was confronted with the human mind's unreliability once again when reader Ruerd Halbertsma contacted me on the first paragraph of this episode of Memories. It's some opening sentence - "The first time I saw a Grand Prix car it was on fire" - but Ruerd proved to me that it must be based on a misgiving. As he points out, Heinz Prüller's 1976 Grand Prix annual tells us that the amateur footage of Lauda's crash on which my memories are based was only released the Monday after the Dutch GP.

So whereas the written news of Lauda's ghastly fate may well have been tantalizing my youthful imagination back in 1976, it was hopeless old-fart romanticism that situated the memory of seeing the graphic crash footage on television ahead of my first Grand Prix visit, as it obviously made for a better story - both in my mind and for 8W.

Clearly, Mother Nostalgia's workings are never to be trusted at face value.