A global smash

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Now in its third year, the A1GP series has a lucrative Ferrari supply deal as well as grand expansion plans
By Rob Widdows

The helicopter came in low over the Indian Ocean, skimming the beaches known as the Golden Mile, before ducking down into a tree-lined avenue. As it hovered over an intersection, two white limousines slid into position and the traffic came to a disgruntled halt. The dark blue helicopter settled onto the highway outside the Hilton hotel and shut down. Out stepped a black man in a white suit, a glamorous lady on his arm.

This is downtown Durban. I thought we’d left the high-rollers behind. The World Cup of Motor Sport is in town, and the sharks are in the ocean, not the paddock. Just for the duration, I ask you to put Formula 1 out of your mind, pretend it’s not happening. All comparisons with F1 cease right here. We are in South Africa for the A1GP race around the streets, the track itself a reminder of sunny days at Long Beach.

There is World Cup fever. “South Africa takes on the World! KwaZulu Natal is ready for you!” exclaim the newspaper headlines. In less than two years time the footballers arrive to play out FIFA’s version in newly-built stadiums right across this hot and dusty land. Now, though, it’s the turn of Tony Texeira, whose A1GP circus, with teams representing 22 countries, has pitched its tents alongside the ocean.

All the talk is of Ferrari – not Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, but the bigger picture. The famous Italian car manufacturer has decided to throw its weight behind A1GP, supplying cars and engines for 2009 and beyond. Texeira, a South African entrepreneur from the mining industry, has persuaded Ferrari to replace the ageing Lola-Zyteks, used by A1GP for the past three years, with a new chassis built in England and powered by a 4.3-litre V8 from the back of the F430 road car. The drawings were doing the rounds in Durban and the car should be testing at Mugello in May.

Under the direction of former Champ Car engineer John Travis, and with input from Rory Byrne, the chassis is currently under construction in Bognor Regis. It will bear a striking resemblance to the F2004, the last Ferrari F1 car designed by Byrne. The V8 engine will be refined, lightened and made ready for racing. The world of A1GP is very excited about all this, and rightly so.

Ferrari’s operations director Mario Almondo is in the paddock, as is Byrne, both men paying close attention to the modus operandi of this colourful single-seater series. They confirm that there is to be a “technological collaboration with A1GP, an agreement which covers the supply of engines and consultancy relating to the design of the chassis for the cars that will compete until 2014. This will also extend to a second series, A2GP, for which testing will start in 2009.” This is the party line. But, as always, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

“I went to Ferrari with an offer to help them,” grins the irrepressible Texeira, a man not shy of the big deal. “I did not go to ask any favours but rather with ideas that could help them, and of course A1GP. This is a great opportunity both for us and them, commercially and in marketing terms. It gives Ferrari a way to reach new markets for their road cars, especially in the Far East and across Asia. We go racing in these places and we are adding new locations in the years to come. I have big plans. We are launching A2GP and I have plans for A3GP, all with Ferrari, within the next few years. We have signed a six-year agreement. There is no better partner and they will be integral to the growth of both A1GP and A2GP. We are now officially powered by Ferrari and there will be national championships as well as international, with help from the governments of emerging nations. There is plenty of money around if you know how to find it.

“There will be a ladder of talent, with young drivers – teenagers – coming through from A3 to A1 representing their nations. I think big, I always have done, and I take big risks. But I do believe, in our third year, that A1 is now really beginning to work. The demand for hosting races outstrips supply. We have 16 countries wanting races, and we expect any new nation to bring TV coverage in their region.”

The man has charm that won’t leave many birds in the trees, and he has a vision. Only time will tell if it can be done.

In the paddock Byrne is enjoying himself, back in his homeland for a spot of sunny motor racing. “I’m not designing the new car,” he says. “John Travis is in charge of that. I am there as a consultant and, yes, the car will be very similar to the F2004, the last F1 car I did for Ferrari. I’m semi-retired now, six months in Maranello and six months at home with the family in Phuket. But I stay in touch, helping the F1 team when I can, feeding in ideas, that’s my job. One priority [in A1GP] is the engine installation – it’s a challenge putting a road car engine into a racing car – and I am helping with the crash testing because the car has to comply with the 2005 F1 crash test criteria, and I was very involved with that at the time. So as a consultant, I certainly have some input with the car, and I have a very close working relationship with John Travis and with A1GP. From what I’ve seen this weekend, I like the look of the formula – it’s colourful, it’s different, and the concept of competing nations is interesting.”

The other big talking point was the role of A1GP in the wider context of international motor racing. The series, which runs through the European winter period when the Grand Prix teams are not racing, visits some interesting – and emerging – nations. As Bernie Ecclestone discovered some years ago, there are governments who are keen to host this kind of sporting event, aware of the exposure that television can bring to tourism and to the international profile of the nation itself. Mr Texeira has big plans to expand the series, finding willing partners in areas of new wealth and newly liberated societies, particularly in Asia. Even now, a battle is brewing between Kyalami and Durban for the 2009 race in South Africa. The Zulu Kingdom is understandably keen to keep Kyalami at bay.

“This is such a fantastic thing for the city of Durban,” says Minister of Sport Amichand Rajbansi, whose family came to South Africa from India. “Here today we have the World Cup of motor racing, and in two years time the World Cup of football is coming to our brand-new stadium. Look at our golden beaches, the Indian Ocean, the wonderful Art Deco buildings of our city and our game parks. There’s 100,000 people here, but it’s not about the crowds, it’s about television, selling Durban to the world. We have world-class sporting facilities here and we are using these big events as leverage for tourism, and for regional economic benefits.”

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sbu Ndebele had earlier described his country as a province with “altitude, aptitude and attitude”, adding: “Let us grab this opportunity and live up to our reputation as the home of sport in South Africa. As we power ahead, apartheid and its devastation recede into the distance. A chequered flag of black and white waits, bringing peace, unity and prosperity to all the peoples of this mighty province.” Strong stuff at the start of a motor race.

All this is sweet music to the ever-attentive Texeira, who presides over the Durban weekend from the air-conditioned comfort of his Pangaea VIP hospitality facility. Pangaea means ‘one world’, coming from the ancient Greek for entire earth, reflecting the global ambitions of the man in charge. (It’s also the name of a New York nightclub, but hey…). “There’s a long way to go, but we’re getting there, especially with the Ferrari deal,” he says. “It’s a huge turning point. I’m not trying to take over from F1, I talk all the time with Bernie Ecclestone. I tell him about my plans. We are a winter series, not a threat to F1. We want to be complementary to them. And now the big sponsors are coming to us because we have the credibility of a name like Ferrari – and because they like what we do.

“Once I make a commitment I make decisions very quickly, and I’m in lots of businesses, not just motor racing. So I see things in a wider context. That’s how I did the deal with Ferrari – I told them about my plans for A2GP, the prospect of me buying thousands of engines from them every year, of doubling their turnover, giving them a sales platform right across Asia. I didn’t go asking for things, I went with a plan to help them. More countries will join the series, with national championships. Take China, with whom I’m very involved in talks: they will have teams from different provinces, and that can work in a country like South Africa, too.

“When we get to A3GP, we will be discovering young drivers. The cherry on the cake for Ferrari is that they will supply engines to all these levels and if a country does not sign up for A2, then they won’t be eligible to come to A1. So this is a long-term plan, countries building new circuits and funding young drivers. The money is out there – it’s easier to find $120,000 for A3GP than it is to find $400 million for McLaren. A season in A1GP costs around $5m, and the sponsors are beginning to see the value. This weekend in Durban we are achieving what we set out to do four years ago – when everyone said it would not work. If you analyse the potential, you will discover there are 174 countries that don’t have open-wheel motor sport. If I can leave a legacy, I want it to be that I made motor sport as cheap as kicking a football, and if I can achieve that I will be happy. We have the business model to make that happen. Maybe F1 should be coming with me; I’ve discussed this openly with Bernie.”

Big words from a big man. Time will tell but Texeira is not a man to tread lightly upon the planet. This could be a space worth watching. Mr Ecclestone is not a young man, and even he won’t be around for ever…

Back in the heat and dust of Zulu land, the racing drivers have been taking a look at one of Food4Africa’s charitable projects, the Mount Moriah Ministries Care and Support Centre in the rolling hills north of Durban. Here they raced Scalextric with the children, played football and showed them the wonders of racing car steering wheels, crash helmets and fireproof overalls. This is increasingly the public face of A1GP – forging links, however tenuous, with the host nation. For many, it was a humbling experience, lifting their visors on the world outside.

“It made us realise just how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing, and how we take so much for granted in our everyday lives,” says Oliver Jarvis of Team Great Britain.” Jarvis, considered by many to be much underrated, finished a strong second in the sprint race before being rudely taken out of Sunday’s feature race while running just behind the leaders. But more of that later. “I’m very competitive here, I like street racing, and A1GP is good for my career,” he says. “It gives me racing miles in the winter.”

Talking of careers, there are some green shoots on the grid, developing talents in need of race mileage. One of these is Canadian teenager Robert Wickens, and Red Bull clearly thinks so too as the lad is already under its wings, a member of the company’s young drivers’ squad. Already a winner in Formula Atlantic, Wickens has all the right ingredients – quick, neat, intelligent and hungry for success. “He drives the car in a way that he’s obviously thought about in order not to scrub off the power,” says former A1GP team manager and World Champion John Surtees. “He understands the balance between how much road you use and how much lock you apply – which can make a lot of difference in speed, especially on the wider modern circuits.”

Surtees is not the only one to be impressed, with many in the pitlane taking note of Wickens’ dominant victory in the sprint race. “He is special, no doubt, in and out of the car,” says Team Canada’s chief mechanic Martin Dixon. “He knows what he wants from the car, the feedback is good, and he’s very fast. Definitely one to watch in the future.”

Typically, after the plaudits, Wickens threw it away in the feature race. Challenging Neel Jani for the lead, he lost patience, squeezed past a backmarker into the Long Beach-type hairpin at the end of the main straight and snagged his right rear on the inside wall. This left him facing the wrong way and, in attempting to turn the car round, he drove into Jarvis. Until that point, however, the young Canadian had been most impressive. “I put a lot of steering into the car,” said Robert ruefully, “and I just clipped the wall. I apologise to Great Britain, it was really uncalled for. But it was a strong weekend, the team worked their butts off, and we should at least have got second in the main race.”

As with so many street races, it was the older, more experienced men who came out on top. Jani won for Switzerland, extending its lead at the top of the championship. Loïc Duval, another man to watch, came in second for France, while young Filipe Albuquerque completed the top three after a great drive in his first ever A1GP outing. The Portuguese Formula Renault champion raised eyebrows among the talent spotters. It was a bad weekend for those who should know better. Bruno Junqueira trashed his car in the sprint race, which did not please Brazil team principal Emerson Fittipaldi, and which forced the team to field the spare car with a nosecone borrowed from Team China. “He’s very, very fast,” said Emerson, “but he’s also a *******”. Another World Champion, in charge at Team Australia, was more concerned about his driver John Martin’s physical fitness. “He’s had the dreaded lurgy, been on a drip all night,” said Alan Jones. “But the heat shouldn’t bother him too much – he’s from a little place called Blackwater, where they put their coats on in this weather.”

For information, the air temperature was 33 degrees and a burning 46 on the track.

The aforementioned local lurgy accounted for some lateral thinking at Team Great Britain where so many people were ill that reserve driver Robbie Kerr mucked in as a mechanic for the mandatory tyre stops in the feature race. Some old-fashioned camaraderie is alive and well in A1GP.

But will it ever have the gravitas that Texeira so passionately seeks? Do people truly understand the concept of the World Cup? Maybe none of this matters. Should more drivers follow A1 graduates Nelson Piquet and Nico Hulkenberg into Grand Prix racing, then this entertaining and cheerful series will have truly stamped its footprint on the world map of motor racing.