Considering that Spa-Francorchamps has more orange than the Whitehouse this weekend, my thoughts have drifted back to a time when Holland had its very own Grand Prix, long before Max Verstappen was a twinkle in his Jos’s eye.
The 1983 Dutch Grand Prix was the first Formula One race I attended in a professional capacity, coming just two months after I joined Autosport magazine’s advertising department. I had already lucked in with a trip to that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, but being dispatched to Zandvoort with a bunch of magazines and posters to distribute was something else.
This, after all, was Formula One.
Zandvoort had hosted World Championship events on 27 occasions since 1952. Sitting amidst sand dunes on the edge of the North Sea, it had seen its fair share of triumphs and tragedies, and its configuration often promoted epic battles.
The 1983 event came two years before Zandvoort dropped off the Formula One schedule for good when the company operating it went out of business. The date was August 28th and it was round twelve of a 15-round World Championship. That season’s schedule saw ten European races augmented by Grands Prix in Brazil, Canada and South Africa, plus two in the United States; the wonderful Long Beach and slightly less wonderful Detroit.
There were 16 teams, including three single car entries from ATS, Spirit and RAM, which meant 29 drivers trying to qualify for the 26 starting positions. I remember being very disappointed, but perhaps not surprised, that Kenny Acheson failed to the make the cut in the awful RAM. As a teenager in Northern Ireland I used to hitch a lift to Kirkistown to watch his brilliance in a Crosslé Formula Ford.
The field contained a formidable line-up, however, and to make matters interesting there were three tyre suppliers in the mix; Pirelli, Goodyear and Michelin. Tyre wars aside, this race was also notable for being something of a cross-over point in the history of Formula One’s engines. Half the field was still using either the venerable Ford DFV or the freer reviving DFY updated by Cosworth’s Mario Illien. Michele Alboreto’s victory for Tyrrell in Detroit in June would turn out to be the last one for the remarkable Double Four Valve which had won on its debut in Jim Clark’s Lotus 49 at Zandvoort 16 years earlier.
McLaren best summed up where Formula One was at, bringing a TAG-Porsche powered MP4/1E for Niki Lauda and a Cosworth-powered MP4/1C for John Watson. Williams was also on the hunt to replace the breathless Ford Cosworth, reigning World Champion Keke Rosberg and team mate Jacques Laffite frustrated by their 100bhp+ power deficit. A win in Monaco had been Rosberg’s consolation prize, but by year’s end Williams would secure a works supply of the Honda engines. In Zandvoort Honda’s peaky and fragile 1.5 litre V6 Turbo was used in the sole Spirit entry of Stefan Johansson.
Pole position went to Nelson Piquet’s Brabham-BMW BT52B with Ferrari’s Patrick Tambay alongside him and the second Maranello entry of Rene Arnoux back in 10th. The impish Arnoux had already taken wins in Canada and Germany. With Tambay also having scored in San Marino, Ferrari was beginning to recover from the cataclysmic events of the previous year which had seen Gilles Villeneuve killed in Belgium and Didier Pironi suffer career ending injuries in Germany. Elio de Angelis and Nigel Mansell lined up 3rd and 5th for Lotus-Renault, Riccardo Patrese 6th in the second of the Brabhams, Derek Warwick a brilliant 7th for Toleman ahead of Andrea de Cesaris’s Alfa Romeo and a giant-killing performance by Manfred Winklehock, 9th on the grid for ATS.
Walking through the paddock I recall being mesmerised by the size of the field, the variety of machinery and the super star drivers. The creativity of 21st century PR, which sees drivers asked to do such things as being recorded stuffing marshmallows into their mouths, was fortunately still some time off. I am not sure what Piquet, Prost, Lauda or Arnoux would have said to that being requested, but I can hazard a guess. Back then the drivers were our heroes, neither our mates nor figures of fun.
Outside the top 10 grid slots we had Watson and Lauda for McLaren, Cheever in the second Renault and fellow American Danny Sullivan alongside Alboreto at Tyrrell. Laffite and Rosberg were to start 17th and 23rd for Williams, and the list of ‘others’ included the likes of Bruno Giacomelli, Marc Surer, Thierry Boutsen and Jean-Pierre Jarier. I grabbed as many autographs as I could, with Lauda managing to sign a book while on the run from the team truck to race control. I still have it somewhere at home.
The race turned out to be pretty dramatic, for although Piquet scorched off into the lead, Tambay made a complete mess of the start and dropped from 2nd to 22nd, heralding the start of a brilliant comeback drive. It was Renault which took up the chase, initially from Cheever who had quite literally driven down the inside of everyone apart from Piquet into Tarzan hairpin. Team mate Prost would gradually work his way into 3rd and then 2nd, jumping Cheever before setting about reeling in Piquet. Both were on Michelins. This was an important battle which championship-leader Prost was determined to win, but he managed to ruin the race for both himself and his Brazilian rival by performing a most un-Professorial lunge down the inside to Tarzan. The inevitable collision put Piquet out on the spot and a sheepish looking Prost shortly afterwards.
This gifted the lead to Arnoux whose Goodyear-shod Ferrari 126C3, designed by Harvey Postlethwaite, had been making good progress. Not quite as good as that of team mate Tambay, however, who had hauled himself through the field and back into contention for a podium finish. Battling with Patrese, Tambay eventually took second while the Brabham subsequently hit technical trouble. A Ferrari 1-2 brought delight to both Arnoux and Tambay. Amusingly the latter was reprimanded on the podium by FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre for chatting to the promotions girls during the playing of La Marseillaise.
To my delight Northern Ireland’s Watson took 3rd for McLaren, the last time a Formula One car powered by a normally aspirated engine would claim a podium for five years. The remaining points finishes – only the top 6 scored, remember – went to Warwick, Baldi and Alboreto. Warwick had driven the wheels off the Toleman-Hart all afternoon, while Baldi gave Alfa Romeo something to smile about after a fast-started de Cesaris had been thwarted by engine failure. Alboreto continued Tyrrell’s run of surprising the big guns.
Looking back, a number of things strike me. Aside from those 29 drivers, 16 teams and 3 tyre manufacturers there were no fewer than 8* engine suppliers. Variety was the order of the day. So too was design freedom, from the big Renaults to the slim-line Tyrrells, perfectly proportioned Brabhams and the Ferraris with their dining-table sized rear wings. Noise levels were high, but in fact rev limits were lower than today’s hybrid petrol-electric power units. The new TAG Porsche was limited to 11,800rpm, valve springs were still a thing in F1, and the general clatter of mechanical components owed much to the 1960’s and ’70’s technology which was still in use.
Aerodynamics was still in its infancy so mechanical grip was the key focus which meant engineers with clip boards discussing corner weights, tyres, suspension and ride height. Data came from the stop watch and driver feedback, which meant hoping for complete honesty from the guys behind the wheel. Quite funny when you think about it.
The cars moved around enormously, particularly under braking. To stand at Tarzan and watch the greatest drivers in the world catching the cars with armfuls of opposite lock whilst trying to skate past the opposition was a thrill. The only thing cornering on rails was the nearby rollercoaster.
Was Formula One better back then? It can seem that way until you consider that the sport had just lost both Villeneuve and Ricardo Paletti, and that in less than three year’s time it would be De Angelis’s turn. The risks were high. Quantity there may have been, but quality was lacking; of 26 starters only 11 cars were running at the end and only the top three within a minute of each other. Many of the teams were running on pennies, neither all the teams nor drivers turned up for every race, driver-swaps were commonplace. Professionalism was confined to the few teams which benefitted from the support of car manufacturers, tobacco companies, multimillionaire businessmen or, in some cases, all three. Plus ça change…
There are aspects of Formula One 1983 I wish we still had, notably in the tremendous variety of car designs and engine suppliers combined with a large entry. Drivers who were heroes, superstars, unapproachable perhaps, but not out of reach. The professionalism and engineering quality of 2017 is more impressive, so too the level of safety for drivers, marshals and spectators, and the broadcast media coverage of Formula One today is wall to wall, screen to screen, truly global.
Spa today is pretty different to Zandvoort back then, but as Liberty continues its quiet revolution in Formula One hopefully it will take time to learn about how things used to be. It might be useful in helping frame the future.
Meanwhile the one thing that remains the same today are the Dutch fans with their orange flags and fever for Formula One. It would be nice to think that among the crowd in Spa will be newcomers eager to catch their first glimpse of Formula One. Maybe they will even be talking about it in 30 or 40 year’s time.