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Special feature

The seaside circuit that a double DTM champion made his own

With four wins to his name at Zandvoort, Gary Paffett has a rightful claim to be described as a master of the Dutch dunes. The Briton, now McLaren's Formula E team manager, reflects on his affinity for the revived Formula 1 venue

Gary Paffett, AMG-Mercedes C-Klasse

In his third season of racing in DTM, back in 2005 when the series was a powerhouse touring car championship rather than 'just another' GT category, Gary Paffett chalked up five wins en route to his first title.

The winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award in 1999, foreshadowing a lengthy association with the McLaren team, Paffett began his racing career in Germany with two campaigns in German Formula 3, winning the 2002 title while racing for Keke Rosberg's squad ahead of a move into Formula 3000 in 2003. But his career in the F1 feeder category lasted for just the Imola opener, prior to the Brand team he drove for withdrawing after a single round.

Without a drive on the table, Rosberg came to Paffett's rescue. The Briton was snapped up by Rosberg's Mercedes-aligned DTM outfit part-way through the season and Paffett duly hit the ground running. After scoring points in his first year, he moved to lead Mercedes squad HWA for 2004, where he finished as runner-up behind Audi's Mattias Ekstrom.

Paffett continued with the four-car Affalterbach team for a second full season in 2005, which bestowed him with his first championship win in the category. And of those five wins, Paffett's performance at Zandvoort was the most dominant.

He crushed the rest of the field from fourth on the grid and beat Ekstrom by a comfortable 12-second margin to reclaim top spot in the drivers' championship. With three more wins at the tight and technical Dutch venue, it's no surprise that Paffett picks it as his happiest hunting ground.

"Zandvoort was always the one, for whatever reason," Paffett reflects. "I don't know why, but I just turned up and I was quick there every time. Some of my more dominant performances in DTM were at Zandvoort, either in races just walking away with a win, or in qualifying being on pole by a significant margin.

Paffett, pictured after his third DTM win at the track in 2010, had a strong affiliation with Zandvoort

Paffett, pictured after his third DTM win at the track in 2010, had a strong affiliation with Zandvoort

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"And it just happened. It just worked for me there. So I would say out of all the circuits we raced at, that was probably the one that I just naturally got on with and went well at."

Mercedes had brought a strong car to Zandvoort that year, but the Opel Vectra was also singing from a similar hymn sheet in qualifying; poleman Bernd Schneider and Paffett were separated by the GM brand's pairing of Marcel Fassler and Heinz-Harald Frentzen on the grid. Ekstrom nipped ahead of Fassler and Paffett off the line but, by lap two, the last-named had cleared Fassler at Turn 10 to reclaim fourth.

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Amid the opening phase of pitstops, Schneider rejoined behind the yet-to-stop Dindo Capello (Audi), bringing Paffett much closer to the early leader. Capello had presumably hoped to benefit the later-stopping Ekstrom by holding them up, but the Swede rejoined well behind the battling trifecta.

"I haven't been there since they changed it for F1 so I don't know what it's like now, but although it's changed a bit, I think a lot of the old character is still there" Gary Paffett

Schneider then locked up at the start of lap 15 to go into the back of Capello, opening the door for Paffett to move past and push on having been held up by the pair. This became the lead when Frentzen finally made his first stop, and the Bromley-born driver never looked back from there.

Paffett won again in 2009 six seconds up the road from Oliver Jarvis, and repeated the feat in the following year as Mercedes enjoyed a dominant 1-2 finish, with Paul di Resta taking second after poleman Timo Scheider's Audi stalled. This came at a time when Audi had been particularly dominant in the Netherlands, having won the previous three races at Zandvoort prior to Paffett breaking the deadlock in 2009. That year Audi instead came under fire for a team orders row as the 2008-spec machines of Jarvis and Alex Premat slowed significantly once Ekstrom (in the 2009 A4) came into the picture. Prior to that, Paffett had been able to pounce on a mistake from polesitter Jarvis on the 14th lap.

"I wasn't looking to attack Oliver all that much," Paffett remarked at the time. "It would have been fine for him to win and us to take second - that wasn't a problem. But I pushed him hard, just to see if he would make a mistake. When he did, it was lucky that I was close enough to take advantage after the '07 Audis (of Christian Bakkerud and Tomas Kostka, driving for Kolles) had held me up. It was just about bringing it home from there.

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"We shocked everyone with how good we were here. Once we got the lead it was fairly routine, just doing consistent times and not working the tyres too hard."

Paffett profited from a mistake by Jarvis to steal victory in 2009

Paffett profited from a mistake by Jarvis to steal victory in 2009

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

In a pleasing parallel to his first title winning season, Paffett won at the seaside circuit again nine years later in 2018, claiming the first of two races from pole. As with his 2010 victory, he beat di Resta to the punch after a safety car stuffed the strategy of Rene Rast (Audi), who came into the pits on the penultimate lap to leave the way clear for Paffett. Rast took revenge in race two, as Paffett was unable to convert another pole into a fifth Zandvoort win, but second bolstered his ultimately successful championship aspirations in what proved to be a DTM swansong as Mercedes withdrew at the end of the campaign.

Since then, Zandvoort has been remodelled extensively as the Dutch Grand Prix returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 2021. Even though the banked corners have changed some of the circuit's challenge, Paffett reckons some of the old magic still lies within the confines of the 2.646-mile course.

"I haven't been there since they changed it for F1 so I don't know what it's like now," he says, "but although it's changed a bit, I think a lot of the old character is still there."

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In modern times, the circuit has been the venue of two Max Verstappen benefit concerts; the Orange Army has embraced its home race in its droves to support the most successful Dutch F1 driver in history. Even allowing for his 2014 F3 Masters success at the track in addition to a pair of Dutch GP wins, Verstappen has got two more wins to find to beat Paffett's record, such was the ex-Mercedes man's exemplary Zandvoort record.

Paffett's fourth Zandvoort win came in 2018 in his final DTM season

Paffett's fourth Zandvoort win came in 2018 in his final DTM season

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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