When Formula 1’s return to the Netherlands for the first time in 36 years was announced, there was a mix of excitement and trepidation.
Zandvoort is an old-school circuit that is draped among the sand dunes on the coast of the North Sea, and the majority of drivers had raced there at some stage in their junior careers. But a Formula 3 car and a Formula 1 car are very different beasts, and most agreed the circuit was going to struggle to host the latter.
That was before a major redesign of the circuit took place. Dromo Circuit Design was brought in, tasked with retaining the feel of the old Zandvoort but making it suitable for modern F1 machinery having last been fit to host an F1 race in 1985.
For circuit designer Jarno Zafelli — who can list Imola, Mugello, Portimao, Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Zandvoort, Yas Marina and Singapore among the current F1 tracks he’s worked on, as well as GoPro Motoplex in the United States — that was an exciting task that actually came with a lot of freedom.
“They wanted to be sure that we were keeping the roller coaster effect without destroying the track in terms of what they already knew,” Zafelli tells RACER. “The history of the track is that it was carved into the dunes and they didn’t want to create straight lines or hairpins or things that weren’t organic in shape. This was the brief, basically.
“They wanted to keep the roller coaster effect and if possible to empower it, and that’s what we tried to do.”
The standout areas are Turn 2-3 and the final corner — Turn 14 — that feature heavy banking. It’s an approach that was required because of the restrictions in terms of space at Zandvoort, and were priority areas given to the circuit designers.
“There was a hint of what we had to do in the last corner because the FIA and F1 were keen to have a long straight to open the DRS. Because actually the track itself doesn’t have the long straights we’re are used to — it’s not like Baku. for example. The longest one is 600m (0.37 mile) and the back is a bit shorter.
“So that was the first challenge we had, and then we had to move Turn 3 because the paddock needed more space to be able to maneuver the trucks. These were the two points that we had to do, but how to do it they were completely open. So it was up to us to make proposals and to understand what was feasible and what was not, also because we were following the construction.
“The idea was that Zandvoort needed to assess and improve the overtaking. Many times they were concerned that the previous track was nice but that overtaking was a bit difficult and we need to try and improve that. So we were thinking about corners with multiple racing lines like we did at Silverstone and Paul Ricard recently, and I think that was the driving force in choosing us.”
Turn 3 features 18 degrees of banking, and while the track is tight it opens up different lines. Like many U.S. ovals, there’s now going to be the opportunity to run the wall and carry more speed, but it took a lot of planning and research to get approved. Given so much freedom to make changes, Zafelli says it can be difficult to work out how extreme to go, because even subtle tweaks to a track can have a major impact.
“This is the challenge of the designer — it’s the fun part. In every place you have constraints; from an engineering perspective you need to face them. So when you have the freedom given by the brief and you can use your mind, technology and other things to find solutions to propose to stakeholders, it’s massively fun. If we can just have the opportunity to make changes in whatever way and we have an open mind in approaching them, then every change is doing something and every detail can have a consequence in overtaking or not.
“At Silverstone we remodeled the track without changing the layout but suddenly there was much more overtaking, because drivers were able to try different lines. For example at Copse — we’ve seen it over the past few years. If you know how to realize your vision then you can do very good things, and in Zandvoort we had the opportunity to bring a lot to the track. We had the availability from the client to allow us to modify things in different ways, like in Turn 3 and Turn 14, that are giving the circuit a uniqueness.
“On the Formula 1 calendar there are no other corners like that — it’s unique. We strive to do something that is not comparable every time, but it’s not always possible. So when we have the chance to do it, it’s great.”
Ever wondered just how steep the banks are at Zandvoort? 👀
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 2, 2021
The final corner at Turn 14 similarly features heavy banking to launch cars onto the pit straight, and turning both solutions into reality is one of the things Zafelli is most proud of.
“I guess it’s the biggest achievement, but I’m still waiting to see how Formula 1 drivers will react and how the cars will perform on those corners. It’s only now that with the event that we will actually see if our ideas, our simulations, our calculations and our construction is leading to something surprising or unexpected.
“Everyone from the past is thinking there might be a procession or it might be difficult to overtake, but there are four dimensions, not only three. The track is in three dimensions, but the fourth is the weather, along with the Dutch people!
“You will see a place that is very different to any other circuit we regularly see because it’s very compact and cosy; there is a very nice atmosphere, and the track itself is built in nature but it’s fully surrounding by grandstands. It’s impressive because I built it and I was here in January and then when I came here three days ago I wasn’t recognizing anything because it’s like a stadium now.”
While most of the drivers haven’t yet had a taste of the remodeled Zandvoort, save for a track walk on Wednesday or Thursday, Max Verstappen completed demonstration laps in an old Red Bull last year that left a big impression on the home favorite.
“He was really excited. Of course you have to take out the fact that it was his home circuit, but even without that he was impressed by Turn 3. The major hype in the media is generally the last corner that is banked similarly to NASCAR and the Indy ovals, but actually what is difficult is Turn 3 because it’s a progressive section.
“Some of your ovals are progressive but not that much. Here we are passing through four degrees to 19 degrees but there is a drop of six meters in and eight meters out. So it’s like the roller coaster effect, and that’s what he discovered.”
Zandvoort’s solutions are clearly unique, but it retains the old-school feel of the track, in part because of its compact nature and location in the heart of a small seaside town. But it’s not alone in being a classic venue that has returned to the F1 calendar in recent years, a trend that that Zafelli is a fan of because it shows that tracks can evolve alongside the machinery racing on them.
“It’s wonderful. To me, looking at the historic circuits having Formula 1 and looking at the action that we have at them, you think of Imola but also Mugello, and then circuits that are newer like Portimao but also nice. I guess on the calendar there should be a balance between the historic and the new ones, but if the new ones are keeping the same soul of the histories — because they became historic not for the date but because of the soul that they have — to me it’s fine. All tracks can be new in that case.
“The point is that from a designer perspective I think we have demonstrated you don’t need major changes, it’s more about details. It’s about the soul of the track — you need to talk to the track and understand if what you’re doing is something it likes or not.
“The perspective is that to be a driver can sometimes be very boring, so we try to think about the fact that drivers can be bored and we want them excited.
“Take for example Sepang — when we remodeled Sepang’s last corner we did a corner that was completely off-camber. 1.5m (5ft) to the outside instead of the inside, and that created a lot of discussion. Hate it or love it, you have to pass by there and if you miss it then you’re losing lap time. So we like to create these kind of things in response to engineering challenges.
“Now Zandvoort, hate it or love it, definitely on Friday night the drivers will have something to talk about because they’ve never been on a track like that. On the simulators you cannot feel it, so I hope they will enjoy what we did and that they will be brave enough to try the impossible. We want to see the bravery here.”