Home Featured Curacao Grand Prix 1985: Revisiting the Caribbean F3000 adventure

Curacao Grand Prix 1985: Revisiting the Caribbean F3000 adventure

by Ida Wood

Photo: Enrico V Vezzaro

36 years ago today, the stars of Formula 1’s primary feeder series headed off to the Caribbean not for a holiday, but to do battle on the streets of a country that had never seen motorsport on its shores before

Saudi Arabia proved racing on its streets was possible by joining the Formula E calendar in 2018, and is now set to host a Formula 1 grand prix for the first time this December. That one has happened after the other is not a coincidence.

Countries bidding to host major sporting contests often hold some kind of ‘warm-up’ to prove they’re up to the task, and when the Lesser Antillean island of Curacao invited the International Formula 3000 grid along in October 1985 it did so with F1 in its sights. If it could make a success of hosting its understudy, then attracting the world championship should be possible.

At that point it was a territory within the Netherlands Antilles, only gaining autonomy within the Netherlands in 2007, and had financial prosperity through the discovery of oil fields nearby mined by the likes of Dutch Royal Shell and then PDVSA.

There was an air of mystery about the grand prix even until the week of the race itself, with a long-haul flight taking F3000’s European crews over to the island and only getting there in the very early morning. Bleary-eyed drivers and mechanics stepped off the plane to a wall of humidity, sand and a massive, billowing oil refinery.

The track wound its way around the streets of downtown Willemstad, the beach-side capital city on the southern coast where for tourists and the Venezuelan oil workers a common street saying was: “So cheap, give me two!”

Once the track was completed on the Thursday morning of race week, it was time for the first track walk. Expectations arose of chaotic scenes due to the narrow straights and corners where there was not immediate marshal access, but with the local marshals trained by Sports Car Club of America, who were helping to run the event, it was agreed that disruption could be regulated with black flags being waved to summon everyone to the pits as soon as a car came to a stop anywhere on track.

Across the weekend that only occurred a few times, with two one-hour practice sessions (with no recorded times) on Friday preceding Saturday’s action that centered around qualifying. Being by the Caribbean Sea, with just 70 meters separating the track from the water at some points, it meant the asphalt was coated in a fine layer of sand half of the time and when exposed was instead being weather-worn by the salty sea air and sun. It made for a super low grip surface similar to what Sochi is infamous for, but with the chemical binding agent simply evaporating in the tropical heat rather than ‘pooling’ on the surface as bitumen does in cooler climates to create slippery surfaces.

As a result of this battle against grip, and as F3000 was a totally open formula at the time, teams realised that to avoid wheelspinning they would need to play with the gear ratios. This shook up the competitive order as the heavier cars had more traction, particularly in undulating sections where downforce was essential to keeping planted to the track.

Factory Ralt driver Mike Thackwell, the 1985 title runner-up, was quickest to adapt and took pole by over a second. He was using half of the gears available, and while his talents were obvious his Ralt RT20 also had a competitive advantage as tuning had got its bottom-end power lower than its rivals and therefore making it more driveable once the right foot was on the throttle pedal.

The lack of squirming as the New Zealander threaded his car about was helped by using Bridgestone’s qualifying tyres, which were quicker to warm up the core of than the lighter equivalent tyres supplied by Avon. While the two brands brought a different compound for race use, the need for grip was so much that drivers chose to race on the stickier qualifying tyres.

Lola’s factory team ran on Avons, but the T950 chassis’ weight meant Alessandro Santin and Gabriele Tarquini were also pretty rapid. The star of qualifying behind Thackwell though was Genoa Racing’s Ivan Capelli, second fastest in a March.

Thackwell set the pace in warm-up too, but the electrics in his Ralt fried when sat in the October heat and left him stranded on the grid during the wam-up lap of the grand prix. Capelli therefore inherited the front starting spot for the 58-lap race.

Qualifying results

Pos Driver Car Time Gap
1 Mike Thackwell Ralt 1m41.895s
2 Ivan Capelli March 1m43.023s +1.128s
3 John Nielsen Ralt 1m43.213s +1.318s
4 Christian Danner March 1m43.696s +1.801s
5 Claudio Langes March 1m43.760s +1.865s
6 Guido Dacco March 1m45.890s +3.995s
7 Alain Ferte March 1m46.174s +4.279s
8 Johnny Dumfries March 1m46.590s +4.695s
9 Emanuele Pirro March 1m46.751s +4.856s
10 Alessandro Santin Lola 1m47.532s +5.637s
11 John Jones March 1m47.990s +6.095s
12 Lamberto Leoni March 1m48.087s +6.192s
13 Stefano Livio March 1m48.097s +6.202s
14 Michel Ferte March 1m48.647s +6.752s
15 Gabriele Tarquini Lola 1m49.465s +7.570s
16 Aldo Bertuzzi March 1m49.984s +8.089s
17 Fulvio Ballabio March 1m50.152s +8.257s
18 Eric Lang March 1m51.761s +9.866s
19 Slim Borgudd Arrows 1m53.656s +11.761s
20 Fritz Glatz March 2m04.993s +23.098s

The young Italian led the opening laps too, with Thackwell’s team-mate John Nielsen applying the pressure. Eddie Jordan Racing’s Claudio Langes slotted into third in what was just his third F3000 race, with the recently crowned champion Christian Danner immediately a distant fourth for BS Automotive as he gambled on using Bridgestone’s harder race tyre.

Being unable to build the core tyre temperature meant he suffered from rear-end instability over the first few laps, and then once he was up to speed (which was still a massive challenge around the Curacao track) he had already lost too much ground to fight for the win. It’s remarkable that 35 years on, F2 drivers were saying the exact same thing on Pirelli tyres.

Danner was still at least in fourth, while the Avon runners had no luck whatsoever in getting their tyres turned on and they were gapped from the get-go. It wasn’t until a quarter of the way through the race did Tarquini start showing his true pace.

Nielsen’s pursuit of Capelli was paused by an error he made a few laps in, but then a mistake by the leader – literally sliding the rear of the car onto the pit straight – brought Nielsen back onto his gearbox and he soon slipstreamed past. Capelli stayed in his wheeltracks until he pushed too hard and spun, somehow avoiding the barriers, and from then on had to settle for second due to flatspotted front tyres while Nielsen raced away to eventually win by 21s after 101 minutes of racing.

At one point his lead had been closer to half a minute, but lapped traffic meant he had to be extra careful through the second half of the race. There were 10 cars that officially met the chequered flag, while former ABBA drummer Slim Borgudd broke his ex-F1 Arrows A6 early on and had to pit for suspension fixes which put him many laps down.

Langes, Danner and Onyx Racing’s Alain Ferte completed the top five that finished on the lead lap, with Danner being the one with more, rather than less, rear-end grip by the end of the race as his harder tyres lasted longer. He chased down Langes but couldn’t pass him, although was comfortably clear of Ferte whose handling was limited by his Avon tyres.

Future IndyCar driver Fulvio Ballabio finished ninth in the race in a car sponsored by fellow Caribbean nation Haiti, and, despite a physical altercation with San Remo Racing team-mate Aldo Bertuzzi, had great memories of the day.

“It was the hot streets!” Ballabio recalls of the shaken up order. “Because you had people running very good knowing exactly this input in the tyre is very, very different atmosphere to [generate the heat] inside, unlike any other track.

“But the track in Curacao was very exciting. It’s noisy, and it’s very fast in the hilly zone. But for me, it was perfect, the organisation, I liked very much the race on this track”

Ballabio compares the layout to Monaco, Long Beach and Circuito Guadalope that used to run around Alxaniz in Spain.

“I had Avon tyres. The best for this track was obviously Bridgestone. Because I think the people from Bridgestone know exactly what is the problem [for grip]. For example, I remember the race before Coracao, I raced for Lola at Donington Park.

“At Donington, the car is not very competitive. When [Martin Birrane] or who were the people of Lola at this time, go to Curacao, the Lola, especially on Avon, is very, very fast for Tarquini and Sandini. It completely changes the car. It’s not the same to Ralt, or the March from Eddie Jordan. Langes was very good, also very good for Capelli. The tyre was one very big roulette.”

Suspension set-up was key to finding mechanical grip too, and Ballabio remembers the compromise of that too favouring the Bridgestone runners as there was a “little danegerous” chicane that required harder spring settings.

“It was a very strange opportunity to race there but I liked it. I have a very good souvenir in that I finished ninth. We had many problems because the team had three cars. One for Guido Dacco, one for Bertuzzi. My car is the third and no spares, but fine!”

And after a long 12-round season, and then the non-championship Curacao GP, the paddock then got to unwind that Sunday evening with the biggest afterparty imaginable.

“Ahh, yes!” Ballabio recalls. “People brought me directly into the swimming pool. A very strange time. Very relaxed. Because no championship [to decide], and also the team managers [could relax too]. I remember Eddie Jordan without hair. It was very strange. They were playing music too, it was crazy.”

Spectators had turned up in the 10,000s for the race, and so the afterparty by the beach was suitably populated. While “playing music” may not sound crazy at first, the internationally charting and Gloria Estefan-fronted Miami Sound Machine performed live and there was a truly eclectic mix of people dancing including international dignitaries.

Two of the Lola crew said to Formula Scout the party was more memorable than the race, and even provided some pictures of themselves and the drivers enjoying the fun.

Jean Robert van Hutten was the track manager for the grand prix, and it was a five-year journey for him to turn the event into reality. It started with surveying roads that would be appropiate for racing, then designing the track, getting permission to use those roads, finding dates they would be allowed to use them, and of course finding funding to do any of it at all.

“The nice thing [about the circuit] was it had elevation of almost 45 metres. The race was run partly in downtown, the challenge was get everything ready on time,” van Hutten, pictured below [R] with track communications director Jerry De Vries [L] at the moment race control opened the Curacao circuit for the first ever time, reveals.

“We had over 450 people working on the track. Also the grandstands were built on the main roads, we had a big circus tent for all the race cars behind the pits. We were a staff of 25 working for five years to get ready for that race.

“We went to Detroit and Dallas’s F1 races to work and learn everything, and study the rules of the FIA. Like when we ordered the guardrails we knew exactly how many bolt and nuts we had to order and how many rails. We even had marine rescue divers on stand by.”

The preparation was truly global for what was expected to be an event that would establish itself on the world stage.

“We were preparing on all departments for the race in three years. We went with groups of 50 to the F1 races [in the USA] to learn three years before the Curacao race. And yes, we were aiming for F1 [to visit after F3000].”

After the successful first running, the plan was to appear on the F3000 calendar again – possibly as a points-scoring round – for 1986 and then become part of the F1 world championship. However, Curacao’s geographical politics meant the second edition didn’t go ahead, and the F1 hopes were dead in the water soon after before the circuit upgrades were even considered.

“The thing was we are a part of Holland and all the permits had to go through KNAC (the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ Automobile Club). The first race we ran it through SCCA, and we had to bring in extra officials from the USA.

“But the second race we were too late for 1986 race [to bring in extra trained marshals and stewards] as it had to go through Holland.

“The nicest thing was that [F1’s executive and International F3000 commercial rights owner] Bernie Ecclestone believed in the promoter. He was in Curacao after the Brazilian Grand Prix for a meeting and to see Curacao.

“We even were dealing with the cruise ship companies to stay for a week as floating hotels. We had more plans.”

While 36 years have been and gone since the only ever running of the Curacao GP, the country now has a drag strip and there were plans to build a permanent circuit on a private property.

A year after the grand prix, neighbouring island Aruba exited the Netherlands Antilles and as its own constituent country within the Netherlands started on its own plans for a similar race. Known to have been involved was Ralph Sanchez, who as a promoter was behind the Grand Prix of Miami for IndyCar and sportscars.

Final results (58 laps)

Pos Driver Team Tyres Time
1 Nielsen Ralt B 1h41m29.572s
2 Capelli Genoa Racing B +21.400s
3 Langes Jordan B +gap unknown
4 Danner BS Automotive B +gap unknown
5 A Ferte Onyx Racing A +gap unknown
6 Pirro Onyx Racing A +1 lap
7 Santin Lola A +2 laps
8 Jones Onyx Racing A +2 laps
9 Ballabio San Remo Racing B +7 laps
10 Bertuzzi San Remo Racing B +7 laps
NC Borgudd Roger Cowman Racing A +23 laps
Ret Tarquini Lola A
Ret M Ferte Oreca A
Ret Leoni Corbari Italia A
Ret Dacco San Remo Racing B
Ret Lang A
Ret Livio Corbari Italia A
Ret Dumfries BS Automotive B
Ret Glatz Oreca A
DNS Thackwell Ralt B
Fastest lap: Nielsen, 1m44.725s   Key: Avon (A), Bridgestone (B)