Thursday, March 05, 2009

Catching up with A1GP

In my memory, the new Kyalami, which played host to a couple of Grands Prix in the early 1990s, was a dull, anaemic race track, with little to recommend it. Watching the last round of the A1GP series there the other weekend, I wonder if perhaps my impression of the place was a little unfair. As with the new Nurburgring, it suffers by comparison with the legendary old circuit it replaced. And unlike the old Nordschliefe, there was nothing so inherently dangerous or impractical about the old Kyalami as to render it unsuitable for modern motor racing. A few run-off areas might have required to be extended, but it was, at 2.54, a sensible length, and in Crowthorne, Barbecue and the Jukskei Sweep, featured some fantastic corners.

Nonetheless, the new circuit is in fact not without its appeal. It retains some of the best features of the old circuit and contains enough fast corners and undulation to make it a challenge. It isn’t a bad place to watch racing cars. It is not, in other words, a featureless wasteland of the kind which have been springing up in the United Arab Emirates in recent years, and which make up the bulk of the other Winter Series for big open single seaters, the GP2 Asia Championship. The most significant problem with Kyalami – one which ironically helped to ensure that the last F1 race to be held there was rather more exciting than it might otherwise have been, is that it lacks much in the way of real passing places.

In the 1993 South African Grand Prix, this resulted in a fantastic 20 lap dogfight as Ayrton Senna, having got the jump on pole-man Alain Prost’s much quicker Williams Renault at the start, tried every trick in the book to keep his old nemesis behind. On a track where passing was a touch easier, I suspect Prost would have been away into the distance by lap 2.

By contrast, the tight confines of the circuit, and in particular the absence of what I have to come to think of as a necessary feature of any great racing circuit, a long straight followed by a slow corner, resulted in a pair of races which were by turns processional and scrappy. Processional, where, in the second race, opting to protect their points, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Filipe Guimaraes and Clivio Piccione held station a couple of seconds apart in the closing stages, knowing that any passing manoeuvre was as likely to end in the gravel trap as not. Scrappy where, on several occasions in both races, drivers ended up banging wheels or running each other off the road in frustration at the sheer difficulty of passing. Malaysia’s Fairuz Fauzy seemed to be a serial offender on this score, running both Adam Carroll and Earl Bamber off the road, before succumbing to the damage done to his car from the collisions. I don’t want to be too harsh on the place though. Kyalami is much more of a real racing circuit than the absurdly tight, tortuous Durban street course which played host to the series’ previous visits to the country.

What, though, of the series itself? Before the A1GP Championship became a reality, I have to admit to having been highly sceptical about the whole venture. I suspected that, like Premier 1 before it, it would turn out to be the motorsports equivalent of vapourware and would collapse in ignominy before the first race. Even after that opening event at Brands Hatch in the autumn of 2005, I was far from convinced that the championship would run the whole season. It seemed to be built on remarkably flimsy foundations – an expensive single seater series without an obvious source of revenue, and unable to attract the kind of ‘big name’ drivers (and no, whatever his fervent internet fanbase might claim, I’m afraid that Jos Verstappen doesn’t count) which might generate interest from the outside the specialist press, and hence attract major sponsors.

With that said, the A1GP series organisers deserve some credit simply for the fact that in early 2009, the championship is not only still running, but has ditched the ersatz Lolas (which it is thought are lightly modified old Lola F3000 machines) and replaced them with very purposeful looking Ferrari-built racers that look more than a little like simplified versions of the F2004 F1 car which was the last really dominant car to emerge from Maranello. As with the Panoz Champ Car, the A1GP Ferrari looks like a proper bit of kit.

That, however, wasn’t enough to save Champ Car from oblivion, and I can’t help but think that A1GP is as likely as not to go the same way. The car may be a big improvement over the 2005 edition, but other than that, the fundamental weaknesses of the series remain. At the moment, the title battle is being fought out between Team Ireland’s Adam Carroll and Switzerland’s Neel Jani. While others have been competitive at individual races, only Carroll and Jani have been consistently on the pace through the whole championship. And when you look at the driver line-ups that the other teams have been running, that is hardly a surprise really.

Carroll and Jani were regular GP2 winners, and as such have a much more credible single-seater CV than the majority of the other drivers in the series. Brazil’s Guimaraes, who surprised with his pace the other weekend, but has looked lost elsewhere, is a 17 year old kid fresh out of karting. Jeroen Bleekemolen is a star in GT racing, but not previously known as much of a single-seater racer. Team GB has alternated between Danny Watts, a man who perhaps never got the breaks he deserved, but who has surely been too long out of a single seater to be the best choice, and former Champ Car racer Dan Clarke who, like Watts, is rather race-rusty, and who often looked out of his depth in Champ Cars. Drivers like John Martin (Australia) Ho-Pin Tung (China), Edoardo Piscopo (Italy) and Fairuz Fauzy (Malaysia) are second-string guys at best. Perhaps the biggest mystery has been the failure of the series’ only other major ‘name’, IRL racer Marco Andretti, to do better than he has in the Team USA machine. I can only guess he has been flattered by driving for one of the best IRL teams on the grid, and is no real match for his father, let alone his grandfather.

In summary, the series is not attracting drivers who could really be said to be amongst the best in the world. Never mind the comparison with F1, the line-up lacks the strength in depth of GP2. Given the sheer number of aspiring professional racing drivers about these days, I’m not quite sure why this is. While it has always been clear that GP2 requires that drivers bring a budget, A1GP teams have tended to be more than a little cagey about whether drivers ‘representing their nation’ are buying their ride. Perhaps because it would rather undermine the credibility of the series if that were known to be the case. Nonetheless, Autosport estimated last week that running an A1GP team for a season costs upwards of £3m and that money has got to be coming from somewhere.

It certainly isn’t coming from external sponsors. Few of the cars carry much in the way of sponsorship – certainly not enough to cover the cost of competing. That’s not surprising really. While the series got some press attention when it first began in 2005, outside of the specialist motorsport press, it is all but completely ignored now. In the UK, at least, TV coverage is restricted to pay-channel Sky Sports, and as I’ve explained above, the drivers are hardly household names. Sponsorship isn’t charity, and whatever Mark Gallagher, of Team Ireland might say, I can’t help but think that A1GP doesn’t offer a very impressive shop window for commercial partners.

While the battle between Carroll and Jani is quite diverting, I doubt it will be enough to save the series. Already, several races have been canned – the latest being the Mexican round, which, it is claimed, has been cancelled owing to a clash with a Radiohead concert. That sounds like clutching at straws to me. Rock concerts happen in the evening, motor races in the afternoon. More likely, there’s been a financial hitch somewhere along the line. Combined with the farce whereby the planned first round at Mugello had to be cancelled and the actual first round at Zandvoort took place with a depleted field because the cars weren't ready on time and it begins to look like this series is operating on a wing and a prayer. Still, the final two rounds, at the rather impressive looking new Algarve circuit in Portugal and Brands Hatch, should be worth tuning in for. And as someone who has always admired Adam Carroll's aggressive, no-holds-barred racing style, I'll be interested to see if he can finally win a major motorsport championship. Just don't necessarily count on him, or Team Ireland, having another chance in 2010...

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Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

Organisers must pay more attention to circuits as this very dangerous sports

5:36 AM  

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