The History of the AusterlitzRing – Part 1 (1945-1974)
This post is an exercise in creative writing. Everything written in this post is entirely fictional but interwoven with real facts. Not only did this take a lot of research, it took a whole lot of effort in creativity. This is part 1 in a 2-part series. Already read part 1? Go to part 2 by clicking here!
It was supposed to be the Dutch version of the infamous Nordschleife. But decades of lawsuits meant the project was delayed until the times caught up to the plan. This is the history of the Austerlitzring.
The history of the AusterlitzRing is largely the history of one man: Roderick de Wit. Born in 1927, Roderick was essential in realizing and managing the track for nearly half a century.
It was 1948. Roderick de Wit had just witnessed the first Grand Prix held at Zandvoort, won by the Thai prince Bira in his Maserati 4CL. The Grand Prix sparked a frenzy among motorsports fans in the Netherlands.
Roderick de Wit had survived the Second World War as a refugee in the United Kingdom. From there, he assisted the Dutch Government in exile and in doing so made many connections that would become useful later in this story. By the time he returned to the Netherlands in 1945, he had turned from a young adult into a well-connected businessman.
The Dutch economy post-WWII was still in shambles. Many unhealed wounds festered in Dutch society, with its infrastructure ruined and many families having been torn apart. Roderick’s father had been sent to a German work camp and had not survived.
However, in 1948 this outlook changed when the Marshall Plan was enacted. This multi-billion dollar recovery plan helped kickstart the Dutch economy, as well as other (western) European countries’.
With his experience at the Grand Prix of Zandvoort still freshly imprinted in his memory, Roderick hatched a plan. He would use his connections to build a third permanent racing circuit in the Netherlands, after Zandvoort and Assen. He would give his compatriots another reason to be proud of its country.
As a young boy, Roderick had gone on a family trip to the Eifel. While there, he and his dad visited a race at the then recently finished Nürburgring. The track itself, Roderick knew, was built as part of a public works program to boost the regional economy after the Great War. If it worked for Germany, Roderick thought, it should work for the Netherlands.
Due to his connections from his time in the UK, Roderick quickly gained funding for his project, partly from private investors (Royal Dutch Shell) as well as public funding through the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. All he had to do now was pick a location.
Location, location (1950-1957)
This proved to be difficult. Dutch government wanted to put the track on an empty piece of land near The Hague (which would eventually become Zoetermeer). Shell, in turn, wanted to use a plot of land near Rotterdam. Rotterdam, with its famous harbor, was decimated in a 1940 bombing raid. It was also chosen as the base of operations for Shell’s oil-refining operations post-WWII.
Shell saw an opportunity to increase its standing with the local population by granting them a full-fledged racing circuit in their backyard. They didn’t count on local resistance to the plan. The locals, however, complained about potential noise-related issues. Fearing potential backlash if they pushed it through, Shell quickly retired their idea.
- Funnily enough, that plot of land was later used by the Government to build Rotterdam Airport, which opened its doors in 1955 to much protest from the local population.
Deterred from their trouble selecting a good location, the plans were put on the back burner for the duration. Roderick de Wit, still enamored with the project, got to work.
He decided it would be best to look for a location that fulfilled two conditions: it had to be located near the center of the Netherlands, and it would need to be in a lowly populated area.
Opportunities arose in 1955. The Rijksweg A12, one of the oldest highways in the Netherlands connecting The Hague in the west to Arnhem in the east, expanded its road surface from 2 to 4 lanes between Bunnik and Driebergen (in Dutch). Using his connections with Rijkswaterstaat (the Dutch Agency for Infrastructure management), Roderick de Wit was able to acquire a lease to a big plot of land right next to the highway near Austerlitz, famous for its Napoleonic Pyramid and located just east of Utrecht.
- To the south, the area is bordered by the railway connecting Utrecht with Arnhem. To the north west, Kerckebosch limits the area, whole the north west is bordered by Austerlitz, which would go on to give its name to the track.
The land was at the time mainly a forested area, with pines covering large parts of the area. The pines were planted in the twenties and thirties as a way of producing cheap wood. Furthermore, the area was located on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, a rare part of the Netherlands featuring hills laid down by the weight of pack ice in the most recent ice age. These hills, Roderick thought, would form another challenge for drivers absent from the Zandvoort and Assen tracks.
Designing the track (1957-1960)
With the location finally decided, Roderick went on to contact Hans Hugenholtz. Hugenholtz was president of the Dutch Auto Race Club (NARC) and director of the Zandvoort circuit. Always a keen eye for talent, de Wit asked Hugenholtz to survey the area and draw up a possible layout for the track.
- At the time, Hugenholtz mainly enjoyed national recognition, but went on to design the Suzuka circuit in 1962, Zolder in 1963, parts of the Hockenheim track in 1965 and Jarama in 1967.
Hugenholtz’s first design sketch was finished in 1958 and took advantage of the existing features of the land, a mindset he later used to great success when designing Suzuka.
Unfortunately, not much is known about this layout. It is rumored to have featured many oval-like elements. The FIA was moving away from flat-out oval racing after receiving complaints from European drivers racing at Monza in 1957 and 1958, where the twin-ring layout was used to much criticism. De Wit, who had sources within the FIA, reckoned the chances of organizing his long dreamt-of Grand Prix would be hurt by the fast layout and decided to have Hugenholtz return to his drawing boards.
A year later, in 1959, Hugenholtz published his second design to De Wit (see enclosed picture below). This design featured a clockwise layout, with a start-finish running near parallel to the A12 highway. A long, 150-degree right-hand turn would take the drivers, after a small left-handed kink, uphill and then downhill around a water reservoir for a fast right-hander. A long and twisty straight would end in a carousel-like 180-degree banked hairpin, a feature Roderick especially requested to pay homage to the track he had visited with his father.
The hairpin would be followed by two fast left-handers and a fast right-hander, culminating in an extremely slow 160-degree hairpin. This hairpin would be followed by a long and tightening left-hander and a fast right kink bringing the track back to start/finish.
- This layout would have been just under 6 kilometers long.
- The layout features 12 corners, many of which would have been considered high speed at the time (5). Equally, 5 would have been medium speed corners, with 2 low speed corners.
Legal trouble and redesign (1960-1970)
Before building began, however, the committee overseeing the construction of the track ran into trouble. Legal trouble. In order to break ground, the necessary permits had to be requested.
The early 60s saw a noticeable shift from the “can-do” attitude which was prevalent in the 50s. With new buildings and other projects rising from the ground left and right, a certain push towards ecological conservation became the norm.
So too did the proposed circuit generate a backlash from environmentalists. To realize the envisioned layout, thousands of trees had to be cut down. The permit to cut down the necessary amount of trees was fought tooth and nail by local opposition.
While the municipality finally granted the permit in 1961 to the dismay of the environmentalist faction, an appeal was filed with the Dutch court of appeals the same year. The appeal stated that the local authorities did not follow the proper procedure. The appeal brought the construction to a screeching halt, even before any tree was cut down.
In a landmark ruling, the Dutch court overturned the permit in 1962. The ruling meant the first big victory for the still budding environmentalist faction. A second attempt to get the permit was subsequently denied.
Roderick had to get back to the drawing board. He planned to keep the original design largely intact, while also minimizing the impact the design would have on the environment. In 1964, the third version was presented to the press, as can be seen below.
The design featured drastic changes to the first sector, with the start/finish-straight featuring a high-speed right/left combination before reaching the first braking zone for turn 1 (now turn 3), which was made tighter. The kink after turn one was now a full-fledged turn, with the run to formerly turn 3 being shortened.
The former turn three was now a double right-hander before the intended track comes back unto the unchanged section towards the Karoesel. The section after Karoesel was tightened as well, to minimize its impact.
All in all, this shortened the track with about 500 meters, taking it down to an estimated 5.430 meters. But, more importantly, it saved loads of trees from getting cut down, optimizing the chances of receiving the necessary permits to finally start building the project.
Perhaps the changes between version 2 and version 3 are best exemplified by the schematic below, which overlays the third version of the track on top of the second.
By 1965, the municipal authority finally granted the permit for a second time. A secondary appeal by the environmentalists proved too optimistic even for the court, which gave its approval.
So, in 1966, Roderick finally had the permits he sought to start building his dream project.
Grand Opening (1970) and first races
With all the necessary permits in his pocket, Roderick was finally able to start construction. As the construction was underway, Roderick approached the FIA. He wanted to get the Dutch Grand Prix to ‘his’ track. However, the FIA proved reluctant to change the venue from Zandvoort to the Austerlitz ring.
Therefore, Roderick did not get the grand opening he envisioned when the ribbon was finally cut by Prince Bernhard in 1970. To throw Roderick a bone, the FIA decided to allow him to organize a Formula 2 race as its first major event.
The Formula 2 race proved a success, and it was held again in 1971 and 1972, only to be skipped on the 1973 calendar. A major setback for Roderick.
However, an unfortunate event at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort meant a window of opportunity for 1974. Following the death of Roger Williamson the FIA sought to replace Zandvoort, holding it responsible for the untimely response of the fire marshalls. As punishment, the FIA stripped Zandvoort of its rights to organize the 1974 Dutch Grand Prix.
The AusterlitzRing had proven it could organize a proper race. Roderick was equally smart and fortunate enough to be able to convince the FIA’s president Von Metternich. The Dutch Grand Prix of 1974 was to be held on the AusterlitzRing
The first Dutch Grand Prix (1974)
What was to be its shining moment, only proved to be a disaster for the AusterlitzRing.
The track was designed for cars of the ’60s, but the ’70s marked the introduction of aerodynamically dependent cars. Cornering speeds went through the roof as manufacturers created innovation after innovation to improve their car’s performance.
The section between turn 3 and Karoesel (turn 10) was taken at full speed. However, other elements of what makes an F1 car fast nowadays weren’t as developed at the time. Elements such as tires and brakes.
The cars would arrive at turn 9, the kink before Karoesel at roughly 300 km/h. They would have to break going into turn 9, a slight left-hander, only to steer in fully towards the right. This not only meant a lot of lock-ups under braking but also a lot of crashes.
The race was ultimately won by the eventual champion of the season, Emmerson Fittipaldi. But, of the 24 cars who started the race, only 8 made it to the finish. Of the 16 non-finishers, 10 had met its end in the Karoesel. Luckily, only a few drivers encountered minor injuries, with local hero Gijs van Lennep being worst off: he broke his wrist.
Not only was the track too dangerous for the cars of the time, but the facilities also proved to be inadequate. Drivers complained about a lack of accommodations, while fans had to wait hours to park their car or walk upwards of 5km.
This unsuccessful showing meant that for 1975 the Dutch Grand Prix would move back to Zandvoort. Roderick, devastated, stepped away as director for what later turned out to be a decade.
The end of the AusterlitzRing?
Is this the end for the AusterlitzRing? No. Not by a long shot. You can read part 2 of the history of the AusterlitzRing by clicking the link below!
Or go to the summary post by clicking the link below;
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