Last weekend, the inaugural A1 Grand Prix series came to a close in Shanghai with, perhaps appropriately, a first win for an Asian driver in a major international single seater championship (unless you know better, and admittedly, only if one discounts Formula Nippon) thanks to Malaysia's oft maligned Alex Yoong. In the second race, Tomas Enge became the third former F1 driver to win in A1GP, taking victory for the Czech team - the eighth to win an A1 race.
In this week's Autosport, website editor Tim Redmayne has gone into considerable detail as to the trials and tributlations which, on occasion, have threatened to entirely discredit the new series. The spectator-free events at Dubai and Estoril, the cancelled race at Curitiba, the T-cars which turned up late and immediately had to be broken up for spares, and the unpaid bills which led to the impounding of the cars in South Africa. Less seriously, there were perhaps inevitably occasions when the driving standards were truly atrocious, although often the culprits were not newcomers thrown in over their heads, but old hands who should have known better (mentioning no names, but think 'orange' in particular....).
And yet, and yet..... It actually happened. A brand new international single seater category conjured seemingly from nowhere. When I first heard of the A1GP concept, I mentally filed it away alongside Premier 1 GP under "Walter Mitty goes motor racing" and expected that, given a couple of years, it would quietly go away without a single race actually taking place.
Instead, for the first time since the Tasman Series faded away in the early 1970s, us motorsports fans have something to keep us interested over the northern hemisphere's winter. In terms of strength in depth, A1GP cannot begin to match the Tasman Series at its height. That could boast drivers of the calibre of Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Graham Hill and Piers Courage (the subject of last week's
column). A1GP, by contrast, had. at the front, a sprinkling of tomorrow's men (Piquet Jr, Premat, LaPierre, Jani) and sometime journeymen F1 drivers (Verstappen, Yoong, Firman and Enge). The real stars of the sport were either not tempted to come and play, or were prevented from doing so by their contracts with their regular teams. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that while the Tasman series used F1 chassis (albeit with 2.5ltr rather than 3.0 ltr engines), A1GP cars are rather funny looking ersatz F3000 cars with about 350BHP.
So who did well out of A1GP? Well France, obviously - a country that has had little to cheer about recently, outside of Champ Car and World Rallying circles anyway, as they won the series with the GP2 pairing of Lapierre and Premat. For those who, despite the best efforts of the A1GP organisers to get us to treat circuit racing like the world cup, care more for drivers and teams than nations, Lapierre in particular did much to re-establish his reputation after a disappointing year in GP2. Alex Yoong, as previously mentioned, did much to redeem himself after a torrid season in F1 a few years back (though those of us who remember his brief tenure in Champ Cars know that he really wasn't that bad) and helped Malaysia to an impressive fifth overall in the series - far and away the best result from a non-traditional motorsports country in the series first year. Talking of non-traditional motorsports countries, Ananda Mikola seemed to improve through the year, driving for Team Indonesia, and by the time the season ended, appeared to be a thoroughly decent peddler. By contrast, Pakistan, China, Russia and the Lebanon figured little, except when causing accidents in the case of the latter (though things improved a little when the distantly Lebanese teenager, Graham Rahal got in the car for the final two races).
To my mind though, the closest thing the series had to a real 'find' was Mexican Salvador Duran. His previous experience extended only to the not especially competitive National Class of the British F3 championship, but who came on increasingly strongly through the season, and -achieved a double win at a surprisingly wet Laguna Seca. One only hopes that, following on from his success he finds the budget to do something a little more interesting than the semi-club racing he did last year. Perhaps a Champ Car seat will appear mid season or something......
If one leaves aside the financial and organisational troubles though, could A1GP be judged a success? On one level, I suppose it could. The quality of the racing was generally good, certainly better than in the dying years of F3000, if not on a par with GP2. But on another level, its hard to avoid thinking they could have done better. I can't speak for other parts of the world, but here in the UK, there was a lot of hype prior to the Brands Hatch race, which attracted a good crowd, and then the series seemed to disappear from the mainstream press' radar altogether (Chris Balfe suggests over at Pitpass
that the organisers simply got a bit complacent after the opening round success).
A big part of the problem, here in the UK, was the lack of free-to-air TV coverage. No doubt the decision to sell the rights to Sky was based on financial considerations, but this approach seems more than a little shortsighted. I can't believe that, given they have lost the rights to show just about every sporting event of consequence these days, the BBC wouldn't have been interested in picking up the coverage. In the long run, accepting that the TV rights wouldn't initially make any money would surely make financial sense. While few would bother taking out a satellite subscription just to watch a new motor racing series, plenty of casual fans might have tuned in on a Sunday afternoon, especially in the depths of winter, when Britain is not the greatest place to spend time outdoors. The series appeared to do rather well in a lot of Asian countries, on the other hand, where I'm told it was easier to find on the TV schedules.
With the casual fans would come TV ratings, and TV ratings are what really interest sponsors. The A1 business model is heavily dependent on the teams (or franchises, technically) being able to generate revenues from sponsorship, and this is only ever going to happen if sponsors see a series that people are actually interested in following.
Bringing in more sponsors should have a knock-on effect in improving the quality of the drivers, especially towards the back of the field. Teams that have more money can a) afford to pay professional racing drivers to come and race for them and b) no longer need pay-drivers to keep the bailiffs from the door (and while I've no inside information on the funding of A1GP teams, I cannot believe that Matthias Lauda was not paying for his ride with Team Austria - there is simply no other reason for him to be there).
What of the cars? As I've said, they're basically F3000 cars, and although their swooping lines and fins are not really to my taste, they do the job well enough. With 350BHP or so, they have enough power to keep things interesting, but not so much that the less experienced drivers are entirely at sea (well, not all of them anyway). My only complaint is that the tyres they run are simply too hard. The cars rely far too much as a result on aerodynamic, rather than mechanical grip, and that mitigates against overtaking. Put them on softer rubber, and if they then prove too easy to drive, take a leaf out of the GP2 organisers' book and dick about with the rear wing so they've got less downforce.
Any other gripes? Some serious motorsporting countries were either missing from A1 altogether (all the Scandinavian countries, for example, and Spain, who've only
gone and produced their first F1 champion) while others seemed to run very half-hearted efforts (the aforementioned Team Austria, and Team Japan, who disappeared half way through the season.) If these teams can be brought in, and if they can sort out the TV rights, ensure the bills are paid on time, stop cancelling races at next to no notice, and put the cars on proper tyres, then next year A1GP might really be worth paying attention to.