A1 Eastern Creek: Spectacular Circuit, spectacular Accidents…

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Bryan Herta drives for A1 Team USA. © A1GP Media.

Bryan Herta drives for A1 Team USA. © A1GP Media.

Hosting it’s first international motorsport event in years, Eastern Creek would give the drivers a sense of excitement and fear all at once as not many had experienced it’s carefully placed curves. The circuit used for Australian V8 and motorcycle competition included a section where the cars became airbourne!

The frightening flat-out first turn, a blindingly fast 160mph left hand turn would by the end of the weekend be remembered for all the wrong reasons. As someone used to seeing cars treat turns like that like they don’t exist, seeing cars slide and drift around a 160mph turn was a dream for many fans.

A new rule was announced at the event. Team Brazil had tested on the circuit with Nelson Piquet Jr in another type of car, as the organisers saw this as cheating they set a non-testing (in any car) rule.

In any case, with France winning four of the last six, all eyes were on them for the weekend…

Helped by extra tracktime, Piquet Jr flying high. © A1GP Media.

Helped by extra tracktime, Piquet Jr flying high. © A1GP Media.

PRACTICE 1

With Nelson Piquet Jr’s ‘test session’ before the event, his track knowledge fresh in his mind, he dominated the first practice session at Eastern Creek, setting a 1 minute 19.26 second lap. His time was over 1 second quicker than Mexican driver Salvador Duran’s time, who again showed great pace. Other than Mexico’s effort, no great surprises were to be found in the timings from the first open practice on Friday. The other drivers were unable to reply to Brazil’s times until Saturday when conditions would improve, rain slowing the drivers towards the end of the session.

Nelson Piquet Jr said of his lap: “It was a good lap. The car seemed very good and I did a good lap with no traffic. We did a qualifying simulation and just went for it and it was good. Eastern Creek is quite a good circuit, and it’s not that easy.”

Team China wrecked their main car in the first practice session after hitting the wall hard. The team would be able to race using their spare car but would have to pay $80,000 for a new one before the next event.

PRACTICE 2

With wet track conditions again at the start of the session, no spectacular times were seen in the second Friday session.

France however had shown their hand, using 21 laps to set a 1 minute 21.03 second lap in drying conditions. Lapierre said: “It was difficult this morning with the conditions but we are getting better and I think we should have a good day tomorrow. I enjoy this track the first corner is great. The track is bumpy and it is easy to make mistakes here so I think the race will be very interesting.”

PRACTICE 3

Brazil were on-top again on Saturday morning, with clear conditions though many teams closed in on Nelson Piquet Jr. After 15 laps he had set a 1 minute 19.47 second lap infront of Malaysia and Great Britain. Australia, the home nation, grabbed sixth and New Zealand ninth.

Some teams chose not to enter the session, saving tyres for qualifying.

Jos Verstappen catches the air. © A1GP Media.

Jos Verstappen catches the air. © A1GP Media.

QUALIFYING 1

The main story of qualifying would be tyre usage. With most teams saving just two sets the correct selection of tyre at the right time would be extremely important.

As the session began, Lebanon were first out along with Australia and Pakistan. Australia pushed hard, grabbing provisional pole from Lebanon.

Germany, who were on a good lap, were slowed by Russia on their lap, but still managed to set a time within a few tenths of pole. Meanwhile Mexico set a new pole time of 1 minute 19.87 seconds as Japan slotted into position a long way down the grid.

Great Britain managed to grab second on the provisional grid on used tyres with 7 minutes to go but just 1 minute later Netherlands took it away again. Elsewhere on circuit local flyers New Zealand went into provisional pole as Bryan Herta also set a time for Team USA.

Portugal set a provisional fourth place time with four minutes to go, elsewhere on track both Switzerland and France set superb times, France taking provisional pole with 1 minute 18.88 seconds.

Moments later, Brazil came around on used tyres and slotted into provisional fourth infront of Portugal. The last car to set a time in the session was Ireland, they started moments after Brazil finished their lap, but could only secure a provisional sixteenth.

Surprise of the session once again was Adam Khan, who finished with tenth place. Austria failed to set a time in the session.

QUALIFYING 2

With dark clouds approaching in the distance, cars queued on the pit exit awaiting the green flag on the session. Australia were again out early with China and Lebanon. Lebanon took pole but Italy instantly took it away with a 1 minute 19 second lap, making him fastest on aggregate.

With just under 8 minutes to go, Great Britain took provisional pole from Italy and USA pushed up into sixth on old tyres. Mexico took provisional pole moments later but with 3 minutes to go France took it away with a 1 minute 18 second lap. Switzerland went into second place and Pakistan to tenth on aggregate moments later.

With just three cars left to set a time now, Netherlands threw the car around the Australian circuit, getting all four wheels off the circuit over the airbourne section. Jos Verstappen’s effort put him into fourth.

Under 1 minute to go, Ireland began their lap, but with a slow lap in Q1 his 1 minute 19 second lap only put him tenth overall, but with a good lap in Q3 or Q4 that could change.

France looked dominant so far, having put in two laps in the 1 minute 18 second bracket. The driving in both sessions had so far been spectacular, with drivers experienced in F1, Indycar and Champ Cars both powersliding the car in the same turns. Save of the session went to the sixteen year old Indian driver who got completely sideways but managed to get in line before his next turn.

QUALIFYING 3

As session three began, Lebanon were again out infront of most cars, closely followed by India and Italy.

Few drivers improved position due to their use of old tyres until Mexico came around with 8 minutes to go, Salvador Duran moving into fifth position. Malaysian driver Alex Yoong, one of the few who had raced on the circuit previously, put himself into fourth just a few moments later.

Team USA failed to improve their position on their Q3 run as elsewhere Robbie Kerr put Great Britain nearer the front with what would be the second fastest time of the session, a 1 minute 19.02 second lap.

With just four minutes to go, Team France went out but were unable to set a quick time. Portugal were on circuit at the same time and after setting a 1 minute 18.58 second lap moved up to second place provisionally.

As expected at the end of Q2, a big improvement came with seconds left in the session. Ireland setting another quick time and moving up to fifth place overall.

QUALIFYING 4

The weather thankfully having decided not to interrupt during the previous sessions and not looking like it would in Q4, the fourth session should have been a leisure filled affair. It did have a frantic start however with Lebanon, China and Australia queued up awaiting the green flag.

With New Zealand and Australia cringingly close so far in qualification, Australia’s time would be extremely important. The home nations rivalry was expressed beautifully when watching how hard Will Davidson pushed on his Q4 qualifying lap. He managed to push himself into a ninth place provisionally. Just four minutes to go and New Zealand crossed the line, grabbing fourteenth place overall. Where would they end up? The locals were very interested.

The top twelve times in the fourth session were all within 1 second of Switzerland who set fastest time. Many teams pushed very hard but few improved their position even if they did improve their aggregate time. The main battle had been settled, with Australia beating New Zealand, New Zealand having qualified on aggregate right behind their rivals.

France and Pakistan did not set a time in the fourth session, France choosing not to bother with their unbeatable times.

“I am happy with this second place because we were struggling in free practice. We improved quite a bit with some new tyres on the car, we still have to improve, but we will keep working to catch A1 Team France.” – Alvaro Parente.

SPRINT RACE

The cars lined up side by side for the start extremely closely. With a flat out turn one a good start would be very important. For the sprint race, pole position was on the inside dirty line and many believed this would be a penalty to Switzerland.

From the start, all the cars battled side by side, racing three and four wide. Into the first turn France swept infront of Switzerland and in turn two New Zealand, South Africa and Czech Republic ran off circuit, Czech Republic retiring from the event and bringing out the safety car. Switzerland’s start had been abysmal, having been forced to back off he dropped to fifth.

At the end of the first lap the full running order was France, Portugal, Brazil, Ireland, Great Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Malaysia, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Germany, Australia, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, Lebanon, Austria, China, New Zealand, USA, India and South Africa.

With Czech Republic’s car removed from the outside of turn one extremely slowly by the trackside workers, lots of time meant for racing was wasted trundling around behind the Safety Car. The race restarted with 17 laps to go.

Crossing the line with a substantial lead, France looked the class of the field. Meanwhile Italy and Mexico crossed the line and entered turn one side by side, both losing speed. Behind them, Germany closed up and decided to try to fit himself in a gap that didn’t exist, removing Mexico and himself from the event. Italy’s driver obviously had seen it all before, lifting off he simply watched the accident, avoided the debris and drove past.

The incident again brought out the safety car, except now the incredibly slow tractor that cleared a single car crash, slowly – had two to clear up now – slowly.

The race restarted with 13 laps to go. The fans so far had seen just seconds of racing on the start and restart, so as the race restarted again many simply hoped for a little maturity out on the circuit.

France and Portugal got away well infront of Brazil around the first turn. Around the lap Netherlands and Switzerland had a superb battle for position as towards the back New Zealand and South Africa attempted to repair their earlier errors. South Africa made contact with Lebanon however and retired at the end of the lap with suspension failure.

At the front France consistently pulled away and with 11 laps to go now looked ominously fast once again. Towards the back of the pack, New Zealand were doing the local crowd proud and passed Austria, moving into fifteenth.

On the next lap, New Zealand closed on Russia and Japan, putting huge pressure on Japan. The Russian car looked very unstable and Japan was obviously quicker.

With 9 laps to go Lebanon retired with a handling problem. Out infront France were still in a class of their own, the crowd were not worried though because Australia provided plenty of entertainment. The yellow car of the local team closed in on Italy, but having used all his power boosts the fans knew it may only be a mistake that would provide that chance they needed.

Nearer the front, Brazil had closed in on Portugal and looked a lot quicker around most turns. Portugal appeared to have a handling problem, sliding and drifting through the turns. Both drivers had used their boost allowance.

With 8 laps to go, France lead by a country mile infront of Portugal, Brazil, Ireland, Great Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Malaysia, Canada, Italy, Australia, Pakistan, Russia, Japan and New Zealand.

Now approaching 5 to go, the main battle on circuit was between Portugal and Brazil still. Portugal looked to have a real problem, locking up into every major turn and sliding out of them again. Brazil meanwhile looked to have an extremely stable car.

Elsewhere on circuit, China locked up and ran off circuit, letting USA through. Infront of them, New Zealand outbraked Japan into turn two, ending their battle at last.

Positions remained mostly static until the last lap. Although Brazil had been crawling and clawing at the back of Portugal he was unable to pass before the end.

On the final lap, Austria and Japan made contact and both spun into the gravel in turn two. Lauda in the Austrian car simply drove into the back of Japan, forcing USA to split the spinning cars and avoid them on the grass.

The race ended one lap early as the cars had spent enough time behind the Safety Car for the race to hit the thirty minute limit.

Possibly the worst A1 race so far and hopefully of the entire season, the slow recovery speed of the track workers along with a lack of maturity from a lot of drivers has hopefully shown only the worst we can expect from A1. Sure, crashes can be exciting to some people, but isn’t good racing better?

“The car was better than I thought it would be; as we were suffering from a lot of oversteer during practice. I had a good start, but it is a very difficult track and hard to overtake. I wasn’t in sixth gear for very long – only for a short time on the pit straight. I couldn’t get past Alvaro but think that if I had, I would have been a lot closer to Nicolas as there was quite a lot of speed left in the car.” – Nelson Piquet Jr.

FEATURE RACE

With the forty lap feature race approaching quickly, the teams who retired from the Sprint had plenty of work to do in order to give themselves a shot at making the grid.

One of the most experienced men on the grid, Bryan Herta, worked hard on his car setup in the minutes before the pitlane closed, taking multiple laps to work at it. Team USA had so far under performed in the series, having already made an impact Bryan looked to make his mark in the Feature.

All the cars got away on the formation lap cleanly, most of the cars making practice starts as they did so. After forming on the grid though the lights went out and Japan failed to get moving, after being pushed to the pits his team sent him out and into the race.

Heading into the first turn four cars wide, the drivers showed massive skill in simply avoiding each other. With France slipping down to third behind Portugal and Brazil, Ireland came flying down the outside into turn two but without enough room to brake ran off into the sand.

Before the end of the lap France had gotten back past Brazil and all through the pack close side by side battles were fought as all the starters still continued after a relatively clean start. Brazil wasn’t going to let France get away though and closed quickly back onto the speedy Frenchman.

Crossing the line at the end of lap one Portugal held a comfortable lead infront of a hard battling France, Brazil, Great Britain, Switzerland and Malaysia. Into the first turn Robbie Kerr closed in on Nelson Piquet Jr in the Brazilian car and very bravely went for a pass around the flat-out first turn.

With neither driver lifting off in the tight and extremely fast turn Great Britain driver Robbie Kerr dived once more to the inside into turn two, braking extremely late. Great Britain ran wide on the apex giving Piquet Jr a gap but when he tried to drive at it, Kerr moved over to take it away again.

As the drivers rounded the second lap battles continued throughout the field. Pakistan had managed to climb to tenth place and Australia to seventh as further near the front France and Great Britain closed in on the lead car. At the end of the lap Ireland pitted from eleventh place, followed in later by India, Germany, Canada and Austria. All teams had great stops and got out quickly.

With 37 laps to go the local fans were given something to shout about when Australia closed in on Malaysia in sixth place. Australia seemed a lot faster than Malaysia but also had Netherlands to worry about, Netherlands being right behind him.

At the end of the lap USA pitted, they had a great stop. Meanwhile out on circuit France was right on the back of Portugal. Great Britain had dropped back a little and had an equal gap back to Brazil.

With 36 laps to go, Portugal still held the lead infront of France, Great Britain, Brazil, Switzerland, Malaysia, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Lebanon, Mexico, China, Czech Republic, Italy, USA, Ireland, Japan and Canada. France seemed visually faster than Portugal now but the performance of the race so far came from New Zealand who had come through most of the field to grab ninth.

A1 Team France dominates! © A1GP Media.

A1 Team France dominates! © A1GP Media.

One lap later Stephen Simpson lost control under power in turn seven and hit the wall, retiring from the race. Back in the pitlane Italy pulled into the garage to retire also. But, the big news on this lap was that Portugal had been found to have jumped the start and would have to serve a drive through penalty.

Two laps later with 33 to go, Brazil pitted. Out on track Germany ran off the circuit alone as elsewhere Czech Republic and Mexico ran into each other and dropped out of the race. Lebanon went off in sympathy. Brazil’s pitstop was a slow one, Nelson Piquet Jr losing at least five seconds.

At the end of the lap, with the two cars stopped in turn two, Portugal served their penalty but France stayed out, deciding to push for some fast laps. Netherlands and Switzerland pitted also, shortly before the Safety Car was deployed.

The deployment of the safety car meant that France had to pit at the end of the lap for best track position. Great Britain, Malaysia and all other major teams joined them in the pitlane, playing the Safety Car to their advantage. France got out of the pits infront of Great Britain, but the big surprise was Lebanon who stayed out to lead an A1 event for the first time.

The race would be restarted with Lebanon leading the event so they could grab some headlines. Lebanon’s position meant that those behind France could hold real hope of being able to catch France if Lebanon made things difficult. Although Lebanon hadn’t pitted, they knew that there would be a good chance of another Safety Car period.

When the race restarted Lebanon led around turn one but was passed by France into turn two quite easily. Great Britain had huge trouble getting past though as the entire field queued up waiting to pass.

Towards the end of the lap Great Britain made the pass, but as France had had a clear run of almost a lap it became obvious that the race was over if there wasn’t another Safety Car to bunch them up again.

Going on then with 27 to go Switzerland got past Lebanon on the main straight, but Lebanon held his ground as Malaysia and Netherlands made things difficult, both trying to pass through turn one. The three wide racing was a tense bit of action where most who were watching expected it to all end it tears but thanks to Yoong’s maturity it did not.

Half way around the lap Lebanon locked a wheel and ran wide for a few turns letting both Malaysia and Australia past seperately. Portugal managed to get by on the main straight thanks to the gap Australia left and into turn two Ireland was boxed in by Brazil who capitalized on Ireland’s reluctance to pass the now struggling Lebanon.

As the field screamed by the pits with 26 laps to go France held a five second lead infront of Great Britain and Switzerland. Bad news came for Brazil on this lap, after Nelson Piquet’s fantastic efforts behind the wheel his team had let him down, breaking pitlane regulations on the number equipment left out.

A lap later Lebanon made their pitstop. The running order with 24 to go was France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, USA, Austria, Czech Republic, Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Lebanon.

Brazil served their penalty at the end of the lap, dropping behind Japan.

As Piquet trundled through the pits, Czech Republic assaulted Austria in yet another turn two incident out on the circuit. The incident again brought out the safety car, which was what Great Britain would have been hoping for to enable an attack on France. They had held a nine second lead.

The race restarted again with France getting a major advantage. Great Britain got a poor restart but the only change of position was with Ireland, who took New Zealand for ninth. At the end of the lap Italy rejoined the event, giving themselves a free testing session.

One lap after the restart China slid off in turn two, forced wide as Brazil passed him and locking his brakes to avoid running into India. China retired from the event, another victim of turn two.

A1 Team Brazil leads A1 Team Japan. © A1GP Media.

A1 Team Brazil leads A1 Team Japan. © A1GP Media.

Next time by Lebanon and Japan had a great battle, both not wanting to be the last classified runner. Japan won the battle for the short term, but one lap later after over correcting a big slide in the flat-out turn one Japan destroyed his car in a terrifying accident.

Shimoda\'s destroyed car. © A1GP Media.

Shimoda's destroyed car. © A1GP Media.

An immediate Safety Car was called and medical teams were on the scene very quickly with the Japanese driver. Shimoda had lost the back of the car in turn one and ran wide, as the run-off banked downwards from the track level air had got under the car and after flipping over Shimoda had hit the concrete wall at 165mph with the top of the nose and the roll hoop. The car was completely destroyed.

[svgallery name=”article_a1gp_0506_eastern_crash”]

It took a very long time to remove Shimoda from the car, but doctors on the scene were quick to notify that things looked good. As the crews worked on the dazed Shimoda, Canada retired with suspension damage.

The race restarted with just under two minutes left. France again got a great restart and through the last two laps there really wasn’t an awful lot of overtaking. Local team New Zealand fought off Brazil on the last lap though and there was some excitement in a series of passes between them and the USA. France won the race of course infront of Great Britain and Switzerland and although it was a good race, it felt it had not provided the show it should have.

Now one third of the way through the first season of the A1 Grand Prix Championship, can anyone beat France? With rounds still to come around the world, at tracks unknown to many, we may see drivers like Neel Jani and Bryan Herta, if he continues to run the series, triumph at places like Laguna Seca.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While the weekend showed in terms of racing a spectacle that makes many series look stale, it also showed what I hope will not be repeated. Not only was it spoilt by an alarming amount of failed overtaking manouvers, it was a circuit that really did not seem to suit this type of car and the series as a whole.

It is not the fault of the series that so many Safety Car periods were seen, it is the fault of the drivers. The drivers can drive clean, they have proven it on the manic Sprint Race rolling starts more than anything, so it may be a case of impatience, or perhaps a case of wanting to do all they can for their nation. Who knows?

I do not think there is anything wrong with turn one like many people believe. A flat out turn is only dangerous when something goes wrong. It is therefore important to ensure that when they do, everything is in place, such as tyre walls.

Had a tyre wall existed, would Shimoda not have flipped or rolled into the crowd? There need to be a lot of people thinking about a lot of things after that incident.

Why should any run off area be lower than the racing surface? Why not use gravity to help slow the cars? Bank run off areas up at a very small angle from the side of the racing surface, sit the spectators on the top of the bank where they can see things better.

Common sense?

Our images of the accident come from Chris Ormerod and Tony Rossini, Tony just supplying image seven (the larger image).

“In the end I’m just really happy to finish. There were so many safety cars that I’m very happy to finish where I did!” – Neel Jani.

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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.