A1 Grand Prix vs Formula One

Last weekend for the second time in a fortnight A1GP was pitched directly against F1, giving fans a chance to draw further conclusions of the merits of the respective series. As it happened, F1 delivered a rarely spectacular race, but even so the Lausitz races were entertaining.

A1GP began with a bang at Brands – or several if you happened to be driving the Lebanon car. Huge attendance, massively promoted television schedule and a widespread public awareness campaign. The racing itself was as good as could realistically have been expected from a series that was growing up in public on the largest possible scale. Lausitz was perhaps the first acid test of whether A1 will sink or swim.

The first problem was the circuit. The Lausitzring has been nicknamed the Lousyring in racing circles with good reason. The infield configuration gives Mickey Mouse a bad name, amking the A1 cars seem little more than glorified club racers. ARP Formula 3 at Rockingham is a fair comparison in terms of spectacle.

A comparison enhanced by the fact that many club racers would shame some of those on the A1 grid. If A1 is to truly live up to its billing as the World Cup of Motorsport it has to ensure that all 24 of the drivers on the grid deserve to be there on merit. The driving towards the lower end of the grid was frankly dire, evidenced by the fact that a calendar was needed in qualifying to measure the gap between first and last on the grid. I’ve no doubt that as the series gains exposure this will be ironed out as big money backers aim to place cutting edge talent in cars throughout the field.

A more worrying problem was the machinery. Whereas Brands Hatch was well known to nearly every team competing in the series, the Lausitzring is more of an unknown quantity as many struggled to find a workable set-up. This suggests that the Lola is a far trickier proposition than was at first supposed and the difficulties experienced by both Tomas Enge and Tomas Scheckter on their debut outings illustrated this.

Hopefully as teams learn their way around the car this will become less of a problem, but last weekend set-up decided who would be in contention before qualifying had even started. Not ideal for a series that prides itself on identical equipment.

The races themselves were passable, but the circuit and vast differences of ability and set-up conspired to provide confusion rather than dramatic battles for the lead. That, and Nicholas Lapierre proving his Macau win was no fluke.

In reality they were never going to match what had already passed hours earlier in Suzuka. Although no-one would call the 2005 Japanese GP a typical race, it provided a fantastic example of why millions of fans tune into F1 19 times a year and run two-bit worship websites (You can stop that right now or I’ll turn all your spellinsg of ‘Lausitzring’ back to what they were when you sent me this copy – ed.)

Perhaps more importantly it finally illustrated that in Alonso and Raikkonen F1 is blessed with a pair of drivers who race for the joy of racing rather than collecting points. One can only hope that 2006 will see the pair going head to head on a fortnightly basis. Contrasted with the less-than stellar talent of Ananda Mikola and you can see why A1 may struggle to find a fan base of dedicated enthusiasts (except for stalkers of former F3 drivers).

Furthermore Suzuka is one of the few circuits where the awesome capabilities of modern F1 cars are demonstrated to the maximum. Alonso’s move at 130R was the ultimate example of man and machine pushed to the limit. The natural contours of the Japanese countryside coupled with the beauty of the world’s finest racing machines in full flight was the ultimate advert for F1 if not motor racing as a whole.

Bizarrely the Suzuka race comes at a time where F1 seems hell bent on tearing itself apart from the inside. Given some of the amazing racing and incident of 2005 Bernie and Max would be well advised to sit back and take stock of the season before pushing through further rule changes. Yes, Suzuka was somewhat contrived by what is still an artificial qualifying process (I must add here that I am a growing fan of the A1GP system), but Imola wasn’t and nor were many of the other great races of 2005.

Though no-one would honestly say that A1GP will eplace F1 at the premier race series, the competition is healthy. For too long F1 has been allowed to wallow in Ferrari-dominated complacency. Hopefully 2006 will show that Suzuka was no one-off, while for the true anoraks, A1 is going to fill the winter shaped hole that was otherwise filled with such unhealthy activities as socialising.

  • Fans of two-bit worship websites might like to investigate A1Fanatic.co.uk, which Ben also contrbutes to, for more coverage.

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