The World Cup keeps turning

Cancelled races, recession, swine flu… all have affected A1GP, the unique World Cup of Motor Sport. But none of this, it seems, will halt its progress
by Rob Widdows

The Irish commentator was beside himself with excitement, almost choking on a surge of national pride. The Irish racing driver, arms aloft, was shouting with joy as he crossed the line. He’d worked hard for this. A frenzy of Irish flags flew in the wind. An Irishman had won the Grand Prix of Ireland at Brands Hatch.

Sorry, we all got a bit carried away there. What in fact happened was that Adam Carroll had utterly dominated the final round of the 2008/09 A1GP championship, winning both races from pole position and silencing those who doubted he could rise to the big occasion. Adam Carroll was in clover.

“Perfect,” he grins, “a perfect weekend. This is the best team on the face of the earth.”

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. And so it was that an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico handed the season finale to Brands Hatch. That is sometimes how the world works and motor racing is full of surprises, as the travelling circus that is the World Cup of Motor Sport has discovered.

When the teams from all nations rolled into the Kent countryside at the end of last month they were somewhat taken aback to be facing the final round of the championship. But increasing concerns over a flu pandemic spreading from Mexico meant that A1GP would close its season where it all began in the autumn of 2005, when Nelson Piquet Jr won both the inaugural races. How times change.

You take what life throws at you, bat the balls you are bowled, so the drivers knuckled down one last time to settle the scores. This particularly affected the teams from Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal, who came to the final races separated by just six points and all with a chance of taking the World Cup home that weekend. This would be the first time in the series’ brief history that the A1GP champion would be crowned at the last race of a season. The fluffy white clouds in the blue sky over Brands had their silver lining.

Intriguingly, none of the title contenders could get the job done in the opening Sprint race. Without going into all the complications of the A1GP scoring system (there isn’t space here), it would be necessary for all three to fight it out in the Feature race that followed the Sprint event. Down to the wire then, with A1GP set to deliver on its promises.

“We have created a lot of excitement in Ireland,” says Mark Gallagher of Team Ireland, “and we would not have found the support to do this in GP2. Our backers like the fact that we are representing their nation around the world. This is a series where talent can flourish and it’s very competitive. If Adam wins this, we can market him to Formula 1 and the IRL, and in both cases they are well aware of what we’ve achieved. A1GP is good for us, the cars are a bit like the F1 cars of old, and drivers can go upwards and onwards from here. Importantly, our results have been good for motor sport back in Ireland where there is now a renewed interest after some lean years.”

A1GP seems always to be going down to the wire, either on the cusp of something glorious or on the edge of some kind of crisis. Last year the series ditched its Zytek-engined Lolas and started again with a clean sheet, this time in partnership with Ferrari. Yes, Ferrari, the most famous name in motor racing and hitherto not known for doing deals outside Grand Prix racing. The wholesale changes have not been without their problems.

The ‘new era’ is not universally popular with the engineers and mechanics, these guys always a good sounding board on the state of play. The cars are difficult to work on, they say, not easy to repair in a hurry and therefore not ideally suited to a one-make series. Many in the pitlane doubt the durability of the new cars, predicting the chassis may struggle to last for three seasons. To balance that, of course, it must be argued that a racing car is not built for longevity. Budgets are tight, however, and ease of maintenance and durability may prove to be crucial to the series.

“It’s not been perfect,” says Tony Teixeira, chairman of A1GP. “We had to cancel the first race at Mugello, all the cars were not built in time for Zandvoort and RAB Capital stopped their sponsorship. It’s been a tough year but we picked up the pieces, brushed ourselves down and made it through. I must be honest, it’s been very hard going and nearly all our backers have been unable to fulfil their commitments. The minute you mention motor racing to a financial institution, they show you the door, so we’ve had to get clever with our finances and work 10 times harder for our money than we did a year ago. Like the Honda team in F1, we decided back in January that we’d forget about this season and work flat out to prepare for our fifth season. All that matters to me is that we give our fans what they pay for, give our TV stations what they pay for, and then we knuckle down to make sure next season is the best ever.

“We’ve extended our partnership with Ferrari through to 2017 and we have the finance to see us through another season. The world has changed, our lives have changed, but I gave Ferrari a commitment that I would uphold their brand and this I have done. In the future we will do a better job, more effectively leveraging our relationship with Ferrari, and they will lend us the experience and expertise they have gained over 60 years. Times are tough for them too, as car manufacturers, so it’s up to us to maximise their exposure globally and this we will do in our fifth season. We have 22 Ferraris on the grid – F1 has two. So, that’s what you’re going to see next year, our events getting bigger and better.”

Teixeira was very happy with the headlines when Grand Prix driver Vitantonio Liuzzi decided that being a test driver at Force India in a season when testing is banned wasn’t doing much for his mileage in a racing car. Both he and Vijay Mallya agreed that he should race elsewhere while remaining on standby as reserve driver for the Indian F1 team. So he came to Team Italy in time for the A1GP round in Portugal, where he was spectacularly quick in qualifying, if a little off the pace in the race. Coming to Brands Hatch, the talented and likeable Liuzzi was the centre of attention and determined to display his pedigree. Mind you, Teixeira would much prefer these moves to be the other way round, A1GP feeding drivers into Grand Prix racing and being considered, along with GP2, to be a credible preparation for the big time. Liuzzi was just happy to be racing.

“I wanted to get back to racing, to feel the adrenaline and excitement of a race weekend again,” he says. “Racing is what I want to be doing and we started well enough in Portugal. But I’d only been on the A1GP simulator in Modena and had very little time in the car. It’s a good series and I’m just grateful to Force India for letting me have this chance to race. It’s nice to be in England and this is a very challenging track. The cars are good to drive. Maybe they need some more power – then they would be really nice. But I am looking forward to next year and I’m confident I will have a seat in Formula 1.” Things did not go well for the Italian at Brands, however. Plagued by locking brakes and a lack of balance, Liuzzi failed to make any impression and scored just two points from two races.

Judging by the crowd reaction at Brands, the new-look A1GP has been well received. The noise from the Ferrari V8 engines is strangely muted but that, apparently, is to be addressed before the start of next season. It is, after all, a road car engine. Against all odds, and despite the ravages of the worst recession in almost a century, the World Cup of Motor Sport has survived.

“Look at what’s been happening in Formula 1,” Teixeira smiles. “The cost cutting has come too late and the budget caps they talk about do not include drivers’ salaries and marketing costs. It’s still 15 times more expensive than A1GP – our teams have been doing a season for five million dollars – and next year I reckon we can do 12 races for eight million. OK, they have two-car teams and they do 17 races, but F1 is said to be 2.6 billion dollars in debt to the banks whereas we don’t owe a cent to the banks, not a cent. They’ve still got to cut their deck. We are on the way up, they are on the way down, and somewhere we will meet. That time will come in the next five years or so. But we will keep away from anything that is F1, we don’t belong at their circuits – they’re too big and cold. We want a party atmosphere, the world coming together for the World Cup, like one big family.

“We’re not here to compete with F1, we’re not here to take their fans away. I have a good relationship with Bernie [Ecclestone], I think we like each other. I don’t do anything without asking his opinion or his advice. Does he like me? Yes, I think we’re friends. Does he love me? I think he likes to keep his enemies very close.”

The big question now, in the euphoria of the Irish victory, is whether or not Adam Carroll is finally on his way to Grand Prix racing. That would be a defining moment, not only for the Irishman, but also for the credibility of the A1GP series.