Jeroen Bleekemolen gave his home fans the podium finish they had been robbed of twelve months previously by finishing third in the sprint race during the 2007/08 A1GP curtain-raiser at Zandvoort last weekend.

With throngs of supporters dressed in orange and armed with flags and smoke bombs to support the local heroes, the atmosphere around the Circuit Park Zandvoort was electric throughout the weekend. Bleekemolen began the sprint from fifth on the grid, and a superb start saw him gain a place immediately at the expense of Switzerland's Neel Jani. Two laps later and the former DTM and FIA GT ace stole third position off Salvador Duran in the Mexican entry, and he would retain the spot all the way to the close, a scant half a second adrift of France's Loic Duval.

Bleekemolen began the longer feature outing from a disappointing eleventh spot following a troubled qualifying session, and an electronic issue discovered shortly before the start gave the team a minor fright but they worked hard to overcome the problem in time. The 25-year-old rewarded their efforts with another lightning getaway, only this time he was unfortunately forced wide and onto the gravel through the first corner, dropping him all the way back to 16th place.

A good first pit-stop and a strong middle run brought the squad back into play, but a lack of any more new rubber for the final stint saw Bleekemolen struggle to maintain his pace, and he was powerless to prevent Ireland's Ralph Firman from breezing past into seventh, leaving the bright orange machine down in eight as the chequered flag fell.

"Just like last year I was able to see the spectators during the race and again this was amazing," the Dutchman enthused afterwards. "Every time I went past there were people cheering. In the Audi S there were two grandstands with a lot of small Dutch flags and that was an awesome sight.

"We really needed the podium in the sprint race after qualifying. It was exactly as I set out to do, and of course it was super to do it here. The feature race we really lost on the Saturday. I took a gamble at the start, but was pushed to the outside and dropped back quite a bit.

"My second stint after the pit-stop went very well and I was able to overtake six cars, but when I went out after the second stop it was more difficult. On the new tyres Ireland was about two seconds faster, so I had no chance against them."

With team Netherlands lying sixth in the nations standings after the opening encounter, team principal Jan Lammers was also satisfied with the weekend, judging it a good foundation for a concerted season-long challenge.

"A podium in the first race is fantastic," the ex-grand prix star underlined. "We still owed the public a podium from last year, and I am glad we were able to give this to them right away. It is a good feeling to finish our home race with a podium and a sixth place in the World Cup after the bad qualifying we had.

"We learned a lot and should be able to perform well this season. At the start of the feature race Jeroen took a gamble and was almost into eighth. If you get away with this you have the chance to compete inside the top six; he constantly had to fight against bad luck at the start, but it was something he had to try.

"The last set of tyres was difficult - they were used ones while the other teams went out on new tyres - but in the end the result is a good starting point for the rest of the season."

 

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