A week ago, I attended the Dutch Grand Prix at the CM.com racetrack at Zandvoort in my wheelchair. It was a wonderful experience unlike any other for me as a race fan and as a person. To convey the full extent of what it meant to me, I first have to tell you a little more about myself.
Ten years ago, I thought Formula One or any motorsport was dangerous, noisy and annoying. I was 23 and a girly girl; I enjoyed the Tour de France because it meant the start of summertime. Sometimes I would watch a football match or ice skating world cup mainly because the Dutch show some talent in those sports on occasion. I was an opportunist sports fan, supporting our national teams when they were doing well and forgetting all about them when they weren’t.
Am I even a race fan?
When Max Verstappen joined Red Bull, I watched his races with much the same sentiment. Like most Dutch people, I knew Jos Verstappen’s past in F1 and Max’s young age was enough to draw me into watching it even though I knew nothing about the sport. My mum was much more passionate than I was, but Dutch pride kicked in promptly when Max’s spirited driving started challenging the field. That, and the banter between him and then-teammate Daniel Ricciardo was enough to hook me.
So how did I go from an opportunist fan to a race fan? I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment, but when Max began having trouble with his engine, I used to stop watching the race. Then one day, I kept watching after if he was out of the race. And again, and again. I’d look at the championship standings, started reading into lap and sector times, looking up race track history. It all happened gradually. I’d miss a race and watch it back. Then I started watching qualifying on Saturdays and eventually all the free practices as well. Nowadays, I even alter my schedule, so I don’t have to miss anything. I consider myself a big Max Verstappen, Red Bull and ultimately Formula One fan now.
I’m never doing multi-day events again.
In 2020, the Dutch Grand Prix was set to come to the CM.com circuit in Zandvoort. I was excited but, at the time, didn’t even think about going. It just felt like an impossibility. My previous experiences with large events like this one hadn’t been great. I went to a music festival in 2008 where I slept in a tent on a camping spot that was a 45-minute walk to the festival grounds. Facilities were subpar, and only the main stage had a wheelchair-accessible platform. At the end of each festival day, I’d have to go back to a cold and wet tent. I ended up with a mild case of hypothermia, exhausted and covered in mud by the end of it. It didn’t seem worth the pricey tickets. I swore then and there that I would never do a multi-day event like that again. So, even Formula One seemed out of the question.
Then covid19 happened, and like everything else, the race was postponed.
When the rescheduled date grew nearer, though, I got the itch. I wanted to go. If I couldn’t go the entire weekend, maybe I could pull off just attending the day of the race. Of course, by that time, the accessible tickets had sold out.
Discouraged but cheeky as ever, I reached out to the Dutch GP team to ask if there was any chance of additional tickets becoming available at a later time. In my experience, tickets are sometimes held back in case someone needs an accessible seat last minute. That put me on a waiting list. I thought it would be the last I’d hear about it. I was content to accept that I would have to watch our home Grand Prix on television. After all, the view is much better, right? Right.
Congratulations, you’re going to the Dutch Grand Prix!
Fast forward a month—HandicapNL, a Dutch charity organisation that looks out for people with disabilities, sent me an email. Their email included an offer to purchase ‘Extra Care tickets’ for the entire weekend at Zandvoort. An initiative by NRPU and HandicapNL that included access to the track and a stay at a ‘Pop-up Care Hotel’ that would have all the facilities I would need as a disabled person.
I had to think about it first. Three days of racing. Was I up for that? I initially only wanted to go on race day because I knew the entire thing would exhaust me, and I’d have to recover for about a week. And at this point, I had no idea what was in store other than spending quite a lot of money on the tickets for me and my mother, who would be coming with me. After convincing myself it was ok to spend the money because I had not been on holiday since 2016, I submitted the form for the screening that would determine if the facilities and care provided could meet my needs.
Ten days later, I received another email: “Congratulations, you’re going to the Dutch Grand Prix!” That was when the real excitement began. What a fantastic opportunity to be at the first Formula One race in Zandvoort in 36 years! I was still nervous – there was a possibility that the race would be cancelled because of a pending lawsuit about environmental consequences – but also really pumped.
Oh no, a tent again! 😉
The Dutch Grand Prix came along faster than anticipated. A judge gave the go-ahead two days before the start, and I dismissed my inhibitions. Man, was I ready! My mum drove us down to Zandvoort on Thursday. We parked the car at our appointed parking lot close to Camping Bloemendaal, where the pop-up hotel was situated. We immediately met other disabled people and waited to be picked up to be brought back to the hotel. After some initial hick-ups and a somewhat bumpy ride, we arrived.
The ‘hotel’ wasn’t your typical hotel, but rather a gigantic tent with wooden floors and partitioned spaces for each of us and our carers. Ours had a high-low bed, making the transfer from my wheelchair to the bed effortless. The back of the tent had accessible showers and toilets. Not Dixies but steady, spacious rooms. The HandicapNL volunteers and caregivers welcomed us.
Everyone, from the volunteers to the other fans staying at the pop-up hotel and their carers, was super friendly, and we all felt equal. Entertainment enhanced our stay at the hotel, from DJs to singing duos to a marching band whose members were more like rockstars than a marching band. I can’t say I slept much because of this, but it’s all part of the fun.
The place instantly felt like a home away from home rather than an uncomfortable place to stay. It felt like that increasingly over the weekend.
From the back of the line to the front row at Zandvoort.
While the ‘Super Friday’ isn’t the most exciting day of any F1 weekend, it was pretty incredible for me because this is where we were first introduced to our seats for the weekend. I’m used to being at the back of stadiums or festival grounds, relying on the big screens for most of the show and missing out on the front row energy. I always thought that that was just how it is, for safety reasons, primarily. Imagine my surprise when I found myself rolling onto the front of the main grandstand, right alongside the main straight and stopping at start/finish! Yes! Front row, baby.
Our proximity to the race track meant I had to get used to my earplugs. What a wall of sound! Formula One engines weren’t bad (though still impossible to sit through without plugs), but F3 and the Porsche Supercup were deafening. At the start of the Friday, I found myself constantly jumping anytime a driver would rev their engine, but I was ready for it by Sunday.
A good result on Qualifying Saturday was possibly even more crucial than the actual race. It was a nail-biter for sure. I loved seeing it first hand, even though I did miss lap times and intervals, which weren’t visible on the big screens. But to see Max take pole position, well, that was all that mattered. It was a cold day, so I bought some Red Bull Racing merch (had to sell a kidney, but hey, gotta show my dedication to the team).
Sunday was the day of all days. Would Max be able to pull away from the two Mercedes enough to win? The race was about to begin. My knees were bobbing up and down with anticipation and nerves when the lights went out. Away he went: a great start and safe through the first corner. It wasn’t the most exciting race after that, but the energy in the crowd was high for the entire race. The team made the right calls. The last ten laps were the tensest ones, but Max quickly took it home once Bottas got the fastest lap and forced Hamilton to go in for new tires. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling when Max was in the final lap. The whole circuit was buzzing. I watched the screen in front of me but knew Max was coming into the Arie Luyendijk corner before he even showed up on the monitor. The thunderous roar of the fans as he approached gave it away. I got full-body chills when Max crossed the finish line and drove around the track one more time, only to park his car behind that coveted number one sign in front of me. Max seemed happy and relieved, but the crowd was ecstatic. I lost my voice.
A part of something special.
What a weekend. It’s impossible to put into words how much it has meant to me. Not just as a race fan but as a person. But if I had to try, I can say the entire weekend made me forget I had a disability at all. For once, it wasn’t a problem. It didn’t feel like an inconvenience to anyone or as an exception. I had the best seats in the house, and I had everything I needed. Most of all, I felt included and like I was a part of something special. If all festivals, concerts and sports events could be like this, I would be a thrilled person on wheels.