Whether you know anything about A1GP or not, you must admit that a series putting 25 cars on a grid at Brands Hatch and showing to a sell-out crowd has done something right.
Fans came from the other side of the world to see the inaugural event, walking through the crowd a different accent or language could be heard around every turn. Every one of the 25 competing nations had a fan flying their flag from the trackside.
The last major open-wheel series to visit Brands Hatch and use the Grand Prix circuit was Formula One back in 1986. That year, Nelson Piquet sat on Pole and Nigel Mansell would win his first British Grand Prix.
Nineteen years later, when motorsport needed a new outlet for driving talent in a world held together by driver aids, A1 Grand Prix showed it’s colours to the world.
Before events could get underway at Brands Hatch, every team had to decide which drivers would represent their nation for the weekend.
Although only one driver can drive at a time, teams who allowed two drivers to practice and can make a choice when both qualifying and race day come along, but only if the two drivers practiced within a close percent of each others time.
Friday would bring two practice sessions for the newly formed A1 GP teams, one dry, one very wet.
Having only received their cars the day before from the impound centre, every team went out on track. With all drivers holding the same equipment, this session would be vital if the teams were to get ahead of the competition in their car setup.
Scott Speed (USA), bound for F1 in 2006, would set the fastest time in the session with 1 minute, 16.51 seconds, “I’m quite happy with the way things have come together considering it has all been put together very fast and obviously it is quite encouraging to start a new season so quick.”
When asked about the track and car Scott said “I last raced on this Grand Prix track in 2003 but I might as well have come to a new circuit as I didn’t remember any of it! It’s not so complicated actually but the car is quite a handful especially if you want to drive it at the absolute limit.”
The A1GP paddock of seasoned racers knew what to expect for the second Friday session, but some of the less experienced A1GP drivers were caught out by the conditions.
A downpour had drenched the Kent circuit and because of the chance of rain on Sunday, the teams had to use the session to work on a wet setup.
As always seems the way in motorsport, it was a Brazilian driver who seemed able to walk on water on Friday afternoon, Nelson Piquet Jr setting a fastest time of the session with 1 minute, 25.12 seconds lap in the rain.
In interview after the session, Nelson Piquet Jr. made his intentions for the weekend perfectly clear, “Obviously it is equal for everybody so it is good to be quick early on however I have a good history on this track as I have raced here on the long track in Formula 3 and won.” The young Brazilian charger looked dominant in the conditions.
Saturday dawned with cloudy skies. A light shower less than an hour before the third practice session forced the teams and drivers to prepare themselves for a wet session.
Unfortunately for Team Brazil, by the time the pitlane opened the rain had stopped and the track was dry enough for no consideration of wet tyres. Teams had not yet been allocated a spare car, wet weather laps would be a risk not worth taking anyway.
The Saturday practice session would see a return to the order seen in preseason testing, with Team France setting a fastest time of 1 minute 15.42 seconds.
This session also saw Team Brazil get their dry setup moving in the right direction, setting third fastest time behind New Zealand. With 23 teams having set a time within 7 seconds of the fastest time so far, it was easy to see how close the race could be.
The main differences in speed came from the amount of errors being made on the track. Driving a racing car like this without driver aids, spins and small errors are always a possibility, as proven by Jos Verstappen and Scott Speed, both highly rated drivers who found consistency and clean driving hard to manage around Brands Hatch.
After the third practice session the teams announced who they would use to drive their cars in qualifying. Teams are allowed to change driver for race day if both drivers were within the time allowed by the circuit, at Brands just over 1 second. This weekend only one team were eligible and chose not to do it.
Qualifying is split into four sessions, 15 minutes in length. With just a 10 minute break, the level of pressure on the driver to not only perform, but perform without mistakes is extreme.
Each team may only do three laps in a session, an out-lap, fast lap and pit-in lap. They must set times in two of the four sessions, the fastest two times aggregated to decide the final grid order for the Sprint Race (the order for the main event is decided by the Sprint Race).
With Q1 underway, the cars poured onto the track with very few waiting for the track to be clear.
Australia were out first and they set the target time of 1 minute 16.05 seconds, shortly after Sean McIntosh spun on his fast lap for Canada, bringing out a red flag with 10 minutes of the session to go.
When the green flag flew once again and the pitlane was opened, the cars of Japan and China went out while some of the more experienced drivers waited for them to clear the track.
With 5 minutes to go, everyone without a time was out on track trying to get one. Team New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland all pulling out stunning laps as the session wound down.
With just 2 minutes to go, Nelson Piquet Jr. pulled out of the pitlane driving for Team Brazil, sector times lit up as he made his lap count with the fastest lap, his time 1 minute 15.82 seconds.
With every team setting a time in the first session, teams would require just one time in the next 3 sessions to qualify.
Everyone expected the times to come down, so all teams decided to do a lap in this session rather than relying on times they hoped for in the third or fourth.
The first team to go onto provisional pole due to getting a second time on the board was Team Mexico, this team being one of the surprises of the weekend, lapping quickly and consistently.
Team Australia grabbed back the pole with eleven minutes to go in the session when they set their time for the second session, but with only 4 minutes to go Brazil left the pits and with 3 minutes remaining, Great Britain left the pits for their lap.
Nelson Piquet Jr. was pushing very hard on his lap, he put himself into provisional pole position with his time. Great Britain would set fastest time of the session with 1 minute 15.87 seconds, putting them in an aggregate fourth. The order now Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Italy, Ireland, France and Pakistan, with a fantastic performance in eighth.
Every team had now qualified for the event, having set two times, everyone expected the third and fourth sessions to be where the drivers would push themselves further up the grid. With a lead perhaps already unattainable, Brazil needed to set a time near the front to ensure a pole position before the fourth session started.
Australia were first out in the session, Will Power pushing hard and sliding his car throughout the lap. His laptime would put Australia on the top of the grid as he improved and was able to drop his slowest time so far, from the second session.
Eleven minutes to go and Mexico fell off the road on the slow down lap, scattering gravel all over Paddock bend, meanwhile Pakistan set another competitive time, dropping their slowest time from Q1.
Waiting for the track to clean before risking a fast lap, Team New Zealand began theirs with just eight minutes to go. Matt Halliday set a great laptime, at this point setting the fastest of the weekend.
With 3 minutes to go France set their best lap of the weekend also, clawing themselves into fourth overall.
Starting his lap with just under 3 minutes left, Nelson Piquet Jr, currently lying third, went out and blew the competition away, putting down a 1 minute 14.96 second lap, the first man into the 14’s and obviously fastest time of the weekend so far.
Portugal and Lebanon failed to set a time in the, most likely hoping they would see less traffic in the fourth session.
Heading into session four, Brazil held a large lead from their two fast times, they would be the only team not to set a time in a session that reminded many of the frantic and exciting action F1 qualifying used to produce in it’s last 15 minutes, when it was a 1 hour open session, when speed won the pole and not fuel strategy.
As the pitlane opened, seven cars were queued waiting to leave and before they had left, more were there. With the traffic it was surprising anyone managed to get a good lap, but as things turned out only Lebanon and Italy didn’t set a time in Q4 that would be used for their aggregate time.
As Brazil pulled from the garage with minutes to go, the car stalled. As things turned out, Nelson Piquet Jr. had done enough to hold the pole anyway.
The crowd seemed very pleased to see a Brazilian driver on pole, they had seen a talented driver on an incredible lap, A1GP qualifying had worked well.
“I didn’t come out for the last session so I was a bit nervous in case somebody beat my time but fortunately no one managed to do it. The Team did a good job, there was lots of traffic and they got me out at the right time. The qualifying format for us drivers is excellent and gives us good experience. You have to be calm and careful. Those who stay calm and confident get the best lap.” – Nelson Piquet Jr.
Before events got underway for the Sprint Race, there was a short Opening Ceremony with a girl from each country carrying the national flag, baloons, fireworks, dancing, gymnasts and for some reason that was hard to understand, Taxi Cabs, presumably as a cultural image of Great Britain.
The crowd was recognisably huge, not a seat was free in a grandstands, not a piece of fence was free at any good vantage point, the fans had come to see the birth of a new series that was giving them good looking cars, good sounding cars and best of all, it was all happening at a real racing track like Brands.
All the British national newspapers had featured A1GP in the back pages on the Sunday morning, in some cases dropping F1 and a possible youngest ever F1 champion.
The Sprint Race was set to run for 18 laps, it would also include a rolling start, seldom seen in open wheel racing in the UK.
As the Shiekh said into his microphone on a sun drenched podium “Gentlemen, for the pride of your nations, start your engines” and the V8 powerplants burst into life, so did the fans, with air horns and cheering adding to the noise level everyone had come to hear this weekend.
As the cars lined up two by two, the pace car pulled off and the cars got under way, the cars headed into Paddock Hill bend four cars side by side, with Piquet Jr holding the lead.
France pushed infront of New Zealand into the first turn and by the third, Jos Verstappen had spun from contact with South Africa and retired with damage.
Into lap two, Great Britain pushed Australia hard, getting very close, meanwhile around the rest of the field places were swopped. At the end of the lap South Africa pulled into the pits as USA set fastest laptimes, attempting to push himself into contention after his poor qualifying performance.
Three laps in the books and the order was Brazil, France, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Mexico and Pakistan, who were surprising everyone with a fast pace. Currently the top seven split by just five seconds.
Twelve laps to go and the field began to spread out, Piquet Jr dominating for Brazil so far. Pakistan and Mexico had been battling hard since the race started and as the laps wound down this continued. The fans were enjoying the battle as it was possible to see cars sliding across the track when pushed hard by the drivers.
Ten laps to go, the order was Brazil, France, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Mexico, Pakistan, Portugal, Switzerland and Ireland in the top ten, split by just 13 seconds.
In eleventh were USA, followed by Japan, Malaysia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic and Austria just 31 seconds behind the leader. Meanwhile Team France had just set what would become the fastest lap of the race, with the fastest lap of either race scoring a single point, the French driver was busy closing on Brazil for a win.
With the fans lined up to five people deep at the bottom of Paddock Hill bend, the drivers at the front began to settle into their pace. Scott Speed had worked his way up to 11th place so far, but was caught behind Ireland and unable to pass.
Five laps to go and Italy flew past Canada into Paddock in a daring move, Canada closed the door almost completely, but with just enough room, Italy made it through, sliding out of the turn.
With four laps left to run, Mexico still weaved side to side attempting to find a way past Pakistan, their terrific battle was a definate highlight.
As Nelson Piquet Jr began his final lap he came up on Russia, lapping him just under halfway around the lap, as France came up to do the same, New Zealand closed up massively, but was unable to make the pass, wanting to be sure the car survived intact for the Feature Race.
As Brazil crossed the line infront of France, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain, nobody in the crowd seemed to mind that Brazil had won, every fan knew Piquet was very likely to be the best driver out there, he deserved the win.
“I am really really happy, it feels like my first race win. I am especially happy after all the effort the team put in in such a short time to bring it all together. Obviously I am happy to be the first driver to win the first race of a new championship.” – Nelson Piquet Jr.
“He’s better than I am.” – Nelson Piquet Sr.
As the feature race approached, the crowd expected to see some great action in the pits during the Feature Race. All teams had to stop in the pits for their mandatory pitstop and change four tyres with just four men to do it. Additionally another variation from the Sprint Race was that this would be a standing start.
As the field began to pull away for the formation lap, Team New Zealand did not move, he found himself waving in the air and starting from the pitlane.
With 550bhp and no traction control, the lights went out and the tyres lit up, with Nelson Piquet Jr. holding his lead into Paddock Hill bend.
France had a terrible start, not leaving the grid, and Australia flew into second place as Indonesia shot straight into the gravel trap.
Team Lebanon spun infront of four cars and at the end of lap two, the order was Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Great Britain. 37 laps to go and the Czech Republic car had a massive slide through the gravel trap, keeping the car facing the right way.
It was now obvious that all the drivers were throwing caution to the wind and pushing really hard for a win, they didn’t have another race to worry about.
Team Italy had worked it’s way to 5th and Netherlands to 7th, meanwhile some teams had already made their pitstop, including New Zealand, who had started from the pitlane.
With thirty-four to go, Team Great Britain had taken 3rd place from Mexico, the fans cheering. Meanwhile China had problems in the pitlane, the jacks being dropped before the tyres were finished being attached.
As the cars continued to scream past the pits, Team Brazil caught up with New Zealand, attempting to lap him, meanwhile Great Britain had closed on Australia in 2nd, able to follow just two tenths behind, but unable to pass on the tight twists of Brands Hatch. The top three had not yet made their stops.
The crowd loved to see the home nation battling with Team Australia, shouting their support, hoping Robbie Kerr could win for them.
With thirty laps to go, Brazil still had not lapped New Zealand who were flying just infront of the leader. The order was Brazil, Australia, Great Britain, Pakistan and Italy, none of which had stopped. On the same lap Scott Speed pulled into the pits and his bodywork was removed and a new nose fitted, apparently an ill-handling car was to blame for the poor performance so far for the weekend.
Italy and Malaysia came into the pits together, they had been battling out on track for eight laps, Italy got out infront as Malaysia were slow changing tyres.
Twenty-six laps to go, Team Pakistan were badly blocked by Austria who were a lap down and did not yield. Jos Verstappen for the Netherlands was doing a great job, he had pulled himself to 5th and when Pakistan and Netherlands stopped in the pits, Netherlands took the 4th place.
With twenty-five to go, the crowd gasped as Italy and Lebanon made contact into Paddock Hill bend, sending Lebanon barrell rolling into the gravel. The driver was unhurt, but trapped. As the safety car came out, Brazil, Australia and Great Britain made their pitstops, they left with Great Britain leading, Australia second and Brazil now back to third after problems with their tyre changing.
It took a few laps under the pace car for the wreck to be cleaned away, eventually Team Lebanon driver Khalil Beschir waved to the crowd. But with twenty-one to go, just having caught up to the pace car, Robbie Kerr retired with the first mehcanical failure the A1GP car had suffered throughout the weekend. The upset Great Britain driver could only wave to the crowd on the long walk back. Scott Speed and Team USA had given up on the race by now, deciding to use the event as a test session.
The order for the top ten under the safety car with twenty laps to go was Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Netherlands, Canada and Czech Republic.
Will Power in the Team Australia car was ready when the pace car pulled off, he managed to get a huge lead over Piquet Jr as behind Pakistan, Germany and Russia battled out on track, Russia losing out with a crash, again bringing out the safety car.
Half way through the event now, the order including retirements was now Australia, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Malaysia, South Africa, Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, China, Russia, Pakistan, Great Britain, Lebanon, Italy, USA, Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland, France, Indonesia and India.
It was obvious now that through speed and strategy it was possible to push through the field in an A1 race, with New Zealand fighting back from the pitlane start and Netherlands fighting back from a 25th place start, it really was a joy to watch.
As the field continued to pace, the fans began to realise that if Brazil was to win the second race, they were going to have to battle hard and pass Australia on the track.
As the lights went out with 14 to go, the air horns were blowing and Australia burst into the first turn with a solid lead over Brazil.
At the end of the lap, Czech Republic spun, backing into the pitlane entry and retiring from the race. Between the other backmarkers were Mexico and Zew Zealand, battling for third place.
Twelve laps to go, Australia and Brazil were weaving the track as Piquet came inches from the gearbox of the yellow Australian car into each and every turn.
The next lap, Australia seemed to start to feel the pressure, running wide and obviously concentrating on the mirrors, but with ten to go, Brazil made it’s move on the outside into Surtees bend, an absolutely impossible move that he made work.
With the lead now in his hands, Piquet pulled away and would hold onto that lead for the rest of the race, the focus battle was now between Mexico and New Zealand who wanted to settle the last podium place while attempting to pass backmarkers.
Every lap of the eight remaining, New Zealand would get side by side as Mexico made errors and the crowd loved it. Then with Seven to go Alex Yoong in the Malaysian car closed up and challenged New Zealand too. But as things turned out, everyone held their positions. Nelson Piquet had set the fastest lap of the weekend on lap thirty, taking the extra point away from France, confirming a dominant win.
The fans enjoyed the race, when walking around afterwards the comments were all good. Being able to see someone like Nelson Piquet Jr. win the way he did at a track like Brands Hatch in a car that approaches 200mph and has, as one fan said to me “Proper slick racing tyres” was fantastic.
There was no bigger cheer from the grandstands than when Great Britain came out infront at the pitstops, there was no more evident cheer in the pitlane than when New Zealand beat Australia and Australia beat New Zealand. A1’s national rivalries are something every fan will be looking forward to.
When this first race is looked back on, it should be done with an open mind. This is the first ever race of a series with enormous potential, with enormous names involved inside and outside the cockpit.
The events themselves were great to watch, with a pass made for the win between two drivers in equal equipment, a big accident and a rolling start that made many crowd members say “wow”.
There is no question that Nelson Piquet Jr was the best driver of the weekend, he had the same amount of track time, the same tools and equipment, he won because he had the most driving skill and was the best at telling the team what changes to make to the car.
“I managed to do it, I don’t know how.” – Nelson Piquet Jr.
“An awesome result for Mexico.” – Salvador Duran.
Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.
He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.