What to make of A1GP?
I can't help feeling that this is quite a substantial obstacle to A1GP establishing itself in the popular imagination, at least in the UK. If it were on Grandstand on a Sunday afternoon, then I expect that people would follow it - after all there's not a great deal of motorsport on during the winter and there's a pretty competitive British driver to follow.
The other obstacle is that the drivers themselves are not exactly household names. The bulk of the drivers at the front of the A1GP field come from the sharp end of last year's GP2 grid, which means that while they are pretty quick guys, they are not yet big enough names to bring in the crowds on their own. Alexandre Premat, Nelson Piquet Jr, Neel Jani and Nicolas LaPierre have all claimed either race wins or pole positions in GP2, and between them, they have won all bar one of the year's races. Also there or thereabouts, and probably better known to the casual viewer are a sprinkling of ex-Grand Prix drivers, none of whom could really be said to have made the grade. Jos Verstappen, the only one to have actually won an A1GP race was probably the most successful of the bunch, although he would appear to be as accident prone and erratic as he was during his F1 career. Ralph Firman, Alex Yoong and Tomas Enge are usually towards the front of the midfield, and illustrate well that good, competent professional racing drivers can still end up looking out of their depth in F1.
The line-up gets more uneven, and, ahem, eccentric, towards the back of the field. This is perhaps no great surprise when one considers some of the countries involved. Thus far, Lebanon, China and Russia have yet to produce a professional racing driver worth the name. India's only real top-liner, Karthikayen, has better things to do, while Pakistan have chosen a novel solution to the problem of its own lack of racing talent, and are running Adam Kahn, who is only nominally Pakistani (And when he fell ill in Durban, he was replaced by Enrico Toccacello, who is no more Asian, never mind Pakistani, than I am.
If the organisers had hoped to attract really big names to the series, then they must be feeling rather disappointed. In some cases, its worse than that - is there really no American better qualified than Phil Giebler? And is Max Busnelli the best that Italy can do? Part of the problem is that its hard to see anyone furthering their career via success in A1. Matt Halliday and Steven Simpson might just enhance their reputation via their solid performances, but nobody who has already raced in F3000 or GP2 is going to race to the top of any F1 team bosses' list because he happens to have won a few A1GP races. Doubly so as the French team have been so dominant that its been very hard for anyone whose name is not LaPierre or Premat to get noticed at all.
Perhaps the formula isn't quite right. Certainly I can't understand why a brand new 500BHP Lola single seater should be so damned slow - closer to the pace of an F3 car than an F3000, never mind a GP2 car. Perhaps they are being run on rubber which is simply too hard, or perhaps it is a result of a body shape dictated more by aesthetics than aerodynamics. Either way, it does the series no favours that the cars are so different from other major single seater formulae that it might not even serve very usefully as a learning category for aspiring young drivers.
The question on my mind now is: Will there still be an A1GP series this time next year? This might seem overly pessimistic but its hard to see where the money is coming from even at the moment. There's plenty of it in Dubai, and much of that is concentrated in the hands of the Royal Family, who are backing the series. But can they really afford to single-handedly bankroll their own big single seater series? And will they want to once they realise its unlikely ever to make them any money? And if they can't then where on earth is the money going to come from? In the interests of research I spent a fair amount of time on Keith Sutton's website, www.suttonimages.com looking at pictures of A1GP machines, and came to the conclusion that the vast majority of them are unsponsored. The gate receipts from the sparsely attended rounds at Estoril and Lausitzring are hardly going to pay for the show, never mind the virtual ghost-race at Dubai, and it is unlikely that Sky et al are paying top dollar for the rights to screen a series which the general public will never have heard of (Although as of last weekend, I dare say the value of the Dutch coverage will have skyrocketed, now Jos Verstappen has finally won a motor race of some significance).
One can't help feeling that the original plan had involved rather more star names than have actually come forward, that the organisers had hoped at the very least to snare a few mid-grid F1 runners and a few faces from Champ Car and IRL, to help attract press attention and give the series some credibility. The utter domination of the DAMS/France team won't exactly have helped matters either, as people aren't exactly on the edges of their seats waiting to see who will win the series this year.
There is something of the feel of an expensive failure about A1. That's a shame, not least because the idea of running a major racing series through the fallow period of the European mid-winter was really quite appealing. Some of the racing has, apparently, been excellent, and it was great to see proper single seaters on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit again. It was cheering too, to see that at the Brands Hatch race at least, the presence of a half-way competitive sort-of Pakistani driver had attracted a new audience to the sport - I've never seen so many Asian faces before at a motor race, and it would be good to think that some might have been bitten by the bug, and be back for more in future (That and anything which might upset Norman Tebbit has got to be a good thing). Unfortunately, I rather suspect that none of it will prove to be enough to keep the series afloat in the long term.