With the prancing horse saddled up in support, A1GP is ready to enter its fourth season with its sights set firmly on long-term success
By Rob Widdows
The launch of a new racing car comes in many manifestations. Some are revealed with loud music, bright lights, smoke and mirrors. Others appear from under a cloth, like a rabbit from a hat. A few are rolled out, fired up and driven round an empty race track.
A1GP chose the latter. After all, the new powered-by-Ferrari chassis had already completed several thousand kilometres of testing and the prancing horse had, as it were, already bolted. As with all things A1GP, it was done with style. The Italian connections made the owned-by-Ferrari Mugello circuit a natural location for the launch.
And so it was that we gathered in the sunshine of Tuscany to see the car upon which A1GP is pinning its hopes. And it was by no means a disappointment. The Scuderia sent one of its top men down from Maranello, engineers in red shirts tended the engine and Piercarlo Ghinzani revealed Team Italy’s car for the new season which starts at Mugello in September. Not long to go then, and a few mechanical matters still to be tidied up.
“We have some small vibration problems with the 90-degree V8 engine that we have specially developed for this car,” says Mario Almondo, Operations Director Gestione Sportiva at Maranello, “but that is normal for a new project and we will be testing at Magny-Cours and Silverstone before the season starts. We are very pleased with the power from the engine and we have made a big investment in its development. This is an important step for Ferrari – it is the first time we have allowed our engines to be used in a series like this. The idea is to expose the Ferrari brand, which has been built up over 60 years, in countries where we are still not so well known and where there are new markets for our road cars. We will be in places where we are not exposed in Formula 1.”
The car has been designed by John Travis, with input from former Ferrari F1 designer Rory Byrne, and was built in Bognor Regis where the highly-rated URT Composites took charge of the chassis. The gearbox comes from X-Trac, the running gear from Pankl and the whole package runs on Michelin rubber, the French company having replaced Cooper-Avon as the series supplier. This is a striking racing car, reminiscent of Byrne’s 2005 Grand Prix Ferrari and deliberately so, the man himself having been lent to the project as a consultant by Ferrari.
Tony Texeira, the larger-than-life man behind the colourful A1GP concept, looks satisfied as he paces among the movers and shakers from Maranello. “We have really grown up now, and there is no bigger name in motor racing than Ferrari,” he says. “They have trusted us with a precious brand and we intend to deliver. I’m aware of the doubters and the cynics but now we are powered by Ferrari, we have an exclusive six-year licensing agreement and this will add significant value to A1GP. There is simply no better partner to progress the series and we have many exciting opportunities to look forward to. Ferrari has protected its brand and now they are allowing us to use it so we must reward that trust. There was nothing wrong with the old cars but we needed a big, famous manufacturer to help us expand. We’re taking A1GP to Kyalami, hopefully to Brazil and I have some big plans for other races which I can’t tell you about today. We have new teams from Korea and Spain, and there’s even talk of [MotoGP star] Valentino Rossi having a race in the Team Italy car. We’ve grown up alright, and there are still some surprises in store.”
Texeira is a showman, yes, but he also tends to deliver on his promises.
In the paddock at Mugello there was plenty of excited chatter and the customary swapping of gossip and rumour. It was suggested that Michael Schumacher might try his hand. Now that really is the silliest story of the year so far. The Russians are said to be keen on fielding a team, as they did in the first season of A1GP. Maybe they will. Both Giancarlo Minardi and Enzo Coloni were taking a look at the car, while team principals Emerson Fittipaldi (Team Brazil), Ghinzani (Team Italy) and Mike Earle (Team India) watched with interest as Andrea Bertolini put it through its paces, the hills echoing to 9000 revs of V8 Ferrari.
“It’s a great car, no question,” says Fittipaldi. “It’s a muscle car, powerful but driveable, no electronic controls, more than 600 horsepower – the kind of racing car I’d like to drive. It’s like the dream Formula 1 car for the future – all mechanical controls and not so expensive. To see 20 of these on the grid here at Mugello will be a fantastic spectacle. I hope we can have a race at Interlagos some time next year – I am confident the deal will be done. These are the kind of tracks we want to race on, where there is excitement for the drivers and spectators.
“I’m thinking about putting a 17-year-old Brazilian in the car for the first race – he’s very quick in karts – and we’ll see how he goes. The young Fittipaldis are still too young, but A1GP is great experience for youngsters looking at a way to the top. And I want to put Brazil back where it belongs – at the top of the sport.”
Earle, who will again run Narain Karthikeyan in the Team India car, is impressed with the new car. “It looks like a great package,” he says, “nicely made, quick enough to be a challenge, a lot like the F1 cars of a few years back. I think we’ve done enough to silence the doubters. They said the marriage with Ferrari would never work – but it’s already looking like a great partnership. The schedule is tight and getting all the cars sorted for Mugello will be demanding, but we’ll get there.”
Texeira calls this new phase of the ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ step two. Step one took three years and was not without its tremors. No doubt this next step, more of a quantum leap with the Scuderia on board, will have its challenges. But Texeira likes to jump a few high bars – he says it keeps him on his toes.
“I always have to put in the extra mile and we’ve come a long way. Nobody believed in us but now we have the best, we can’t do better than Ferrari. But we have to think about what’s happening in the world. We need to reduce our [carbon] footprint, work towards greener fuels, lessen our load on the environment. If we don’t all do that, people will switch off from motor racing. We have to be up with what’s happening – the recession, the oil prices, environmental pressures – and make sure we are in step with all that. Then we’ll be around in 10, 20 years time. You think about that.”
I’m thinking about it. And I’ll be watching as A1GP, now hitched to the cavallino rampante, moves from a canter to a gallop.