A1 arrived at Estoril for it’s last European round, this circuit with an illustrious history had seen stars from Formula One make their name, this weekend it would see the A1 Grand Prix stars attempt to win for their nation.
Two nations had so far taken wins in the championship and in Portugal they both still looked like contenders for more wins, but some drivers had more experience at this circuit… Whether it would prove to help or not would soon be discovered.
The teams were allowed some extra testing sessions on the Friday before the event. Testing will take place at every third race.
The test sessions saw the local Portuguese team performing well, the crowd hoping this could continue until Sunday.
From the first moment of practice it became apparent that the race at Estoril would be fun to watch. The A1 cars were slipping, sliding, four wheel drifting and power sliding into, through and out of each turn.
Fastest time in the session would be set by Alexandre Premat of France, running in drying conditions for the DAMS operated team.
His time only slightly faster than Germany’s, the entire field looked to be within striking distance of the 1 minute 33.02 second lap.
France were on top again in the second session, with a 1 minute 52.03 second lap, the French didn’t let the now fully wet weather stop them from dominating the top slot on the timesheets.
Premat said: “The car has not been good in the wet, the team did a really good job and now it is now much better. I am confident for qualifying tomorrow.”
Session three saw a huge change in the anticipated positions for qualifying, with Tomas Enge putting in a superb performance in Saturday’s first session.
The lap, although luckily set on a drying track once again, was quite near the pace and showed that the entire field were gradually closing up on both France and Brazil.
Nelson Piquet Jr. took pole position on Saturday afternoon with two blisteringly quick laps. Having made a mistake on his first run, Piquet Jr pushed hard for Brazil in the next two sessions, giving himself an aggregate time of 3 minutes 1.31 seconds infront of Switzerland.
With most teams having had no dry weather running during the entire weekend, all teams did a fantastic job to setup the cars properly between the four sessions, Switzerland’s Neel Jani had impressed and his team boss, jubilant to be second on the grid said: “It’s great that Switzerland from the start is actually able to be among the best.”
“I was hoping to snatch pole but the final run was not perfect although good enough for second.
I had a lot of traffic on my out laps but it was not so bad on my quick laps.” – Neel Jani.
All cars got away from the grid cleanly for the formation lap on Sunday afternoon, and with many teams not having yet run more than ten laps in the dry, the race would surely be unpredictable.
As the green flag waved, all cars appeared to get a good start and going into the first turn it was France who lead after outbraking Brazil. Netherlands came close to taking the lead, but eventually dropped to fourth around the second turn.
An accident in turn one put out Australia, Pakistan, China, Austria, Mexico onto the grass as Great Britain were also pushed wide, losing five positions.
17 to go now and France began to pull away infront of Brazil and Switzerland, behind them battles started to form through the entire field. In turn one the cleaning up continued and as the field raced by Australia were towed out of harms way.
Battles continued throughout the field, the main one being between Germany, Great Britain and Ireland who were racing very close. As the three close runners crossed the line with 13 to go Great Britain swept across the rear wing of Germany trying to get by. Half way around the lap Ireland got a good run on Great Britain and when Great Britain took his line Ireland hit the rear wheel, taking his wing off and puncturing Great Britain’s left rear wheel. Great Britain would be forced to retire due to getting stuck in the gravel trap.
Ireland came into the pits to change nose at the end of the lap, the stop was extremely slow, putting the car out of contention completely.
Now with 12 to go, the order was France, Brazil, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Portugal, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa. France had now managed to build a small lead over Brazil, but the rest of the field was close behind Nelson Piquet Jr’s machine.
USA and Germany now entered a titanic battle, thrilling the fans by passing each other multiple times in wheel to wheel manouvers while sliding through the turns. Scott Speed, who had not performed as expecting during the season so far, looked extremely competitive around Estoril.
While most positions remained static, the battle between USA and Germany continued to provide plenty of thrills. Elsewhere on circuit, Netherlands and Czech Republic raced hard for fourth. The crowd had a large number of Dutch people wearing their bright orange team’s colours, not that Czech Republic would be slowed by it!
5 laps to go now France lead a comfortable gap infront of Brazil, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Portugal, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Italy, Germany, USA, New Zealand, Russia, Lebanon, Austria, India and Ireland.
With 3 to go Austria and Lebanon had a great battle, although for a minor place they ran wheel to wheel through three turns, Lebanon spinning.
With 2 laps to go, USA finally found a way past Germany, the pass didn’t last long though as by the time they entered the following turn Germany were back infront.
Positions remained static once again for almost the rest of the race, with just a few close battles continuing to the line.
Many teams had their best finish of the season so far in this race, including USA, who finished the race side by side across the line with Germany in a last ditch effort to get by. Unfortunately for USA, they didn’t make it and would have to start the Feature behind their great rival.
Although France’s win had been dominant, the gap had never become out of reach for either Brazil or Switzerland, they had remained close.
“I had to give him space as he braked really late into the corner, I have to say he had a very strong race. We have to go and improve now and make a few changes for the next race.” – Nelson Piquet Jr.
India failed to get moving for the start of the formation lap, marshalls pushed the car to the pitlane while the rest of the field rounded the track.
The lights went out and again all cars seemed to get a great start except for those that didn’t move at all. Both Netherlands and Brazil stalled on the grid, other drivers showing great skill in avoiding them.
Another exciting opening lap saw France take the lead while behind drivers raced wheel to wheel once again. At the end of the lap the Safety Car was deployed, but most fans and press failed to understand why.
Brazil, Netherlands and Russia, who had missed the start, were released from the pitlane but unfortunately Brazil came out behind the leader.
When the safety car came in one lap later and the pitlane opened, many cars chose to dive in for their mandatory pitstop. France and the other leaders stayed out on circuit. Home nation Portugal, who had almost taken the lead at the start, began to push for the lead right from the restart, but when the faster leader pulled away Czech Republic closed in.
Attempting to fight his way back from the back of the pack, Great Britain driver Robbie Kerr battled hard with Indonesia. At this point both cars had made their stops, Great Britain were looking for some clean racing track to try to make some time on the leaders before their stops.
31 laps to go, Brazil pitted. Out on track the drivers were visibly pushing much harder than they had in the Sprint Race, running extremely close to the cars around them. Before the end of the lap, Great Britain finally found a way past Indonesia.
At the back of the field, Netherlands had worked their way through many of the cars who had made their stops. Netherlands would obviously not be able to make a pitstop early in hope of getting back on the lead lap later on if there was another Safety Car.
With 27 laps to go, most teams had made their stops. France held a six second lead from Portugal, Czech Republic, Ireland, Australia, Austria, Netherlands, Lebanon, Italy and Canada. So at this stage just the leading six cars had not stopped.
On circuit Canada and Mexico made contact, Mexico spun and retired from the event.
Crossing the line now with 25 laps to go, South Africa, Great Britain and Indonesia battled for position. Indonesia pulled out to overtake into turn one, but baking too late he spun infront of both his rivals, Great Britain passing South Africa in the process.
Meanwhile Portugal pitted from second place, a wheel nut problem meant he lost a lot of time, but while he was in the pits the safety car came out, minimisng the problem.
As soon as the safety car was announced many more cars poured into the pitlane including Netherlands, Czech Republic and France, all having good stops except Czech Republic they pulled out of the pits only to find marshalls pushing a car across the lane infront of them. Yet another scary marshalling incident.
All cars now having pitted the race had a true running order once again, France lead from Switzerland and USA! But it was with 21 to go that South Africa pulled off the circuit with a wheel problem, surely they had been on for another good finish, their retirement dissapointed those waving the national flag from the crowd.
The Safety Car lights went out and the race restarted with just 20 laps to go. France would restart with the lapped Brazil behind, but behind France and onthe lead lap were Switzerland, USA, Ireland and Germany.
Surprise of the race so far was the performance from Jos Verstappen, having stalled on the grid the Netherlands now found themselves in with a shot of a podium.
France held the lead into turn one, but Brazil did manage to pass to get on the lead lap. Netherlands nearly ran into the back of another car into the first turn, running wide and losing positions. Half way around the lap, Verstappen finished the job by running over the wheel of Germany, launching himself into the air and out of the race. In one swoop Netherlands had undone everything they had worked for so far. The Safety Car was brought out again.
The amount of Safety Car periods in the race began to get annoying at this point for the fans watching, but this is not the fault of the series, it’s the fault of the drivers.
17 laps to go and running under the safety car, France lead from Switzerland, USA, Ireland, Czech Republic, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Austria and Italy.
Verstappen’s TV interview was quite amusing on the Germany incident, “I think I touched Germany” being a bit of an understatement.
The race restarted again, but it wasn’t long before a car ended up in a dangerous position. Canada spun while battling with Great Britain.
Two laps later and Portugal began what would become the comeback drive of the weekend. Battling closely with Italy he would eventually make the pass after being blocked badly by them for a few laps. Like with the previous rounds of A1, it can only be good if the local driver does well and Portugal would not end up dissapointing.
13 laps remaining and Great Britain slowed down the main straight and was passed by Italy, Portugal and New Zealand into turn one, an electrical problem causing a huge loss in power.
One lap later Portugal made his way past Italy for good, outbraking into turn one. Great Britain had reset their systems meanwhile and were now passing cars again trying to get back to where they were before the problem.
27 laps down, 9 to go, France lead from Switzerland, Ireland, Czech Republic, USA, Australia and Portugal, still on their charge, in seventh place.
Crossing the line next time by, Portugal passed Czech Republic as they served a penalty, but also got closer to Australia. Portugal looked a lot faster than the newly Fosters sponsored machine infront.
The battle continued for laps, with Portugal swarming all over the back of Australia. Italy also closed in on the battle, but never looked like getting past. It was with 5 to go that Portugal finally made the move stick, outbraking Australia into turn one.
The lead positions remained the same until the end of the race. The event came very close to hitting the one hour limit due to the safety car periods.
“The re-starts varied, some were good and some were bad, it was hard to keep Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet behind me.” – Alexandre Premat.