|Adam Carroll of Team Ireland races towards the title in A1GP's |
last race - Brands Hatch in May 2009. Photo: Thegrid.co.uk
Firstly, my apologies. At the start of this calendar year, I had stated my intention to make Rishi's Retrospective, a new-for-2014 feature, a monthly feature (as far as possible). Yet, after a promising start, the last of my Retrospectives was at the end of June! However, stirred from silence, the Retrospective is back to focus on a now-defunct racing series which, somewhat perversely at times, was quite close to my heart for a while - A1 Grand Prix. This self-styled "World Cup of Motorsport" ran for four seasons between September 2005 and May 2009 after launching a decade ago in 2004, and pitted drivers against each other in a nation-v-nation format generally uncommon in motorsport. The ending of the series came in autumn 2009 after funds ran out and the series was humiliatingly forced to cancel its appearance at the high-profile, taxpayer-funded Super GP weekend (featuring V8 Supercars and, historically, Indycar/Champ Car World Series) at Surfers' Paradise, Australia (where the fifth season was due to start). Fans of the series can all remember, with gallows humour of the kind Man City football fans mastered so well before their recent successes, that farce was never far from the surface in A1GP: the cancelled races, the botched street tracks (hello Beijing, Season 2), the teams that vanished without trace (e.g. Teams Russia, Austria, Japan, Greece and Korea), the pitlane teething problems, and the flawed decision to change the chassis for the start of Season 4 in order to gain the support of Ferrari.
Yet the almost old-school camaraderie of the mechanics and engineers (across different teams) was legendary even on the outside, contributing to an old-school philosophy of racing hard on the track and going for a pint (metaphorically if not literally) once the racing was over. The fairly cheap ticket prices were also enticing, my Dad commenting that he was happy not to feel as if he was being ripped off when he went to the British event in Brands Hatch (in 2007 - season 2 - and 2009 - season 4; I only went the second time). Moreover, notion that A1GP's legacy was purely one of "How Not To Run a Racing Series" is equally misleading. The series did leave some positive legacies too, in my view, and I will attempt to do a whistle-stop tour of these points here.
1) IT WAS POPULAR IN ASIA
Bernie Ecclestone had already expanded Formula 1 (the pinnacle of single-seater racing worldwide) into Asia by the time A1GP came around, with races in Malaysia (since 1999), Bahrain (2004), China (2004) and Turkey (2005, in the Asian side of Istanbul). However, A1GP was able to really reach new fans in the area with its nation-v-nation concept. Countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon and India did not have a lot of historic racing heritage; thus, to see drivers from these countries racing on a global stage and trying to win points for their nation was enough to hook fans who may not have watched much F1. Even countries like Malaysia and China, who were slightly further up the road, benefited from seeing their drivers race competitively against more established Europeans and South Americans. On top of that, the middle of the season was Asia-centred, and the race calendar encompassed Dubai, Malaysia, China and Indonesia (not to mention both Australia and New Zealand) over its five seasons. During my time as a member of the fans' online forum on A1GP.com, I remember encountering (in the virtual, internet sense) Pakistan fans passionately hoping that their "Green Gazelle" got more points; Lebanon fans unhappy, and later irate, that their favourite Khalil Beschir was being perpetually passed over in favour of other drivers for the Team Lebanon driving duties; and an Indonesian fan who seemed beyond partisanship and embraced in the series in all its glory. In my view, A1GP's popularity in Asia encouraged the setting up of GP2 Asia as a support series to F1 in Asian races with an Asian-centred focus. It may even have precipitated Bernie's further expansion of F1 into Asia in the years since though, if I am being honest, I don't believe A1GP's legacy was that big in this context.
2) THE FIRST CAR HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME
The car that Lola produced, allied to a Zytek engine and Cooper tyres, may not have been the most aesthetic (though it wasn't too bad). But it certainly did a very good job, being the most part reliable and encouraging great racing. The rawness of the engine sound, particularly the 'brackle brackle' crackling sound under braking, was a real winner with older motorsport fans who remembered when even F1 cars used to have that authenticity in their sound. But the most impressive thing for me has been that the B05/52 Lola chassis (and the Zytek engine with it) continue to be used in competitive racing series today. When the series moved to a new chassis (the 'Powered by Ferrari' car) in Season 4 (2008/09), the old car was taken over by Auto GP, which has used the car-engine combination since 2010. In 2013 a heavily revised chassis was introduced (with changes to sidepods and aerodynamics), but this car can still trace its roots back to the Lola-Zyteks that lined up for the first time at Brands Hatch in September 2005. Moreover, the original cars are still in use with a new Formula Acceleration 1 series, a concept which bundles a range of car series, bike series and music together to create a 'racing festival' atmosphere. Such chassis longevity is rare in motor racing these days, and a real testament to the amazing job the Lola and Zytek teams did a decade ago (perhaps even more amazing than I realised back then).
|Team Switzerland's Neel Jani driving the Lola Zytek A1GP|
car to the title in Season 3. Photo: Kartsportbern.ch
3) THE DRIVERS: NICO HULKENBERG
A1GP brought together drivers with a range of different experiences in motor racing and, moreover, a wide range of underlying talent. To a degree, this was not a surprise given that some countries had far more of a motor racing history than others. We should not be too surprised that, for example, India did not have a huge amount of drivers capable of scoring points beyond two-time A1GP race winner Narain Karthikeyan (compatriot Karun Chandhok only did two races at the start of Season 1). With each team permitted to use more than one driver per season, plenty graced the series over its 4 seasons. Ideally, they would all get the coverage they deserve.
However, in the context of legacy, the role of A1GP in many drivers' careers is hard to pin down. The likes of Jonny Reid (New Zealand), Robbie Kerr (Great Britain), Adam Carroll - who won the series' final title with Ireland in 2008/09 - and Jonathan Summerton (USA) all did well - but have struggled to sustain a motor sport career since. Others have fared better: Neel Jani matured through the A1GP process (winning the title in season 3 with Switzerland) and is now an accomplished sports car racer; Jeroen Bleekomolen did a really solid job for the passionately supported Team Netherlands and has won two Porsche Supercup titles amongst other things. Alex Yoong (Malaysia) re-built his reputation after a somewhat chastening period in F1 with Minardi (2002 plus some races in '01). Scott Speed (USA), Nelson Piquet Jr (Brazil), Adrian Sutil (Germany) and Sergio Perez (Mexico) all made it to F1, but it would be stretching the argument to breaking point to claim that this was A1GP's legacy (they all raced only a handful of races in the series, and none - with the possible exception of Piquet Jr - delivered great results).
Thus the strongest legacy of the A1GP driver pool was undoubtedly the man who took Germany to the Season 2 title at a canter: Nico Hulkenberg. "The Hulk" was just 19 when he made his debut at the start of that season, and coming off the back of a non-descript debut year in German F3. Although managed by Willi Weber at the time (A1GP Germany seatholder and former manager of the Schumacher brothers), there was no guarantee Nico's career would progress much. Yet he showed his class by winning his debut feature race in Zandvoort, storming through the field to finish 4th in Brno (the next round), and then utterly dominating the opposition in the streaming wet at Sepang (2 seconds faster than anyone else) in what was beyond doubt the greatest drive in the series' short history. Coming into 2007, he then won six races on the bounce in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (a street track in Durban) to annex the title for his team. Many good drivers graced A1GP over the years; many that were very good, even. However, there was only one driver who we, as fans, knew was destined for Formula 1 when he was in the series - Nico Hulkenberg. When answering a question submitted from fans in F1 Racing last year, Nico said of his A1GP days: "I have very fond memories of this time. I was 19 years old and suddenly I was travelling the world, winning races in this global racing series." Although Nico cemented his F1 credentials (despite never needing to pay for a drive in these financially restrictive times) with subsequent successes in F3 Euroseries (2008) and GP2 (2009), he is the only driver on the 2014 grid where his success in A1GP played a crucial part in him getting to F1. I'm sure that the series would have liked more from their ranks to graduate to The Big Time (though strictly speaking A1 was never a junior formula), and admittedly Nico's F1 career has not blossomed at the breakneck speed that at one time looked inevitable. However, the achievements of Hulkenberg (so far and maybe in the future) are still not a bad legacy to leave in the pinnacle of motorsport, especially when you combine it with what other drivers have subsequently done elsewhere.
RACE RETROSPECTIVE: JONNY REID's INDONESIAN DOUBLE
|Jonny Reid of Team New Zealand celebrates his Indonesian |
feature race win alongside Germany's Nico Hulkenberg (l) and
France's Nico Lapierre (r). Photo: A1GP (via automobilsport.com)