Why you should watch… Superleague Formula

Why you should watch...Posted on | Author Andy and LJH

The first race of the 2010 Superleague Formula season at Silverstone
The first race of the 2010 Superleague Formula season at Silverstone

Racing cars in football drag? It’s a strange idea but Andy and LJH reckon it works. Here’s why.

The first thing to do is forget the football. No, really. As far as motorsport fans are concerned, the club liveries need be nothing more than a novel way of telling the cars apart. When you watch Formula One, are you sparing a single thought for airlines, mobile phones or electric shavers? Well then.

Really, don’t get hung up about it. It’s just a sticker on the side of the car.

Watch Superleague Formula and you’ll be rewarded with a cracking good racing series that competes at top European venues in cars that will leave you weak at the knees.

It also offers opportunities for some really talented young racers, who might otherwise not even have a drive this year, to show off what they can do in seriously powerful machinery and against a scattering of grizzled ex-F1 veterans.

The races are streamed live and free on the series website so you’ll never have to fiddle about for hours trying to find a way to watch it. With proper commentary. And, if you want to go in person, admission is remarkably cheap.

What’s not to like here?

Well, if we haven’t convinced you yet, we hope you’ll read on for the low-down on the most attractive aspects of this under-appreciated single-seater series.

The cars

The AC Milan car
The AC Milan car

The cars are one of Superleague’s best features. They look like heavy artillery compared to the high-powered sniper rifles of Formula One, but the drivers love them, saying they are stable, powerful and remarkably trustworthy. That means they are happy to take any opportunity to race wheel-to-wheel, or even (gasp) frequently overtake.

They don’t go quite as fast as Formula One cars but that’s because Superleague is a spec series and doesn’t have teams of engineers constantly tweaking and improving. Fact is, they go pretty fast.

When Robin Webb, Superleague Formula’s Director of Competition, talks about his car a certain light comes into his eyes. He says of it: “We like to consider ourselves the naughty boys of motorsport. By that what I mean is we?ve bought V12 engines in.

“They?re not very green and they?re not diesels and they?re not running on batteries. But they give the most glorious sound and, at the end of the day, if you are a motor racing fan, you love the sound of a V12 engine.

“We insisted on going to two metres? width, which is the old Formula One width. The second thing is we insisted on slicks, we didn?t see the benefit of grooved tyres at all. And we?ve got a 750 horsepower engine, V12, 4.2 litres, and it just seems to work very, very well.”

Day-to-day running of the teams is obviously not carried out by the football clubs – it is delegated to a professional racing outfit in the same way that, for instance, Richard Branson and Virgin teamed up with Manor Racing. Scratch the surface and you’ll find names like Alan Docking Racing, Hitech, Durango and Epsilon Euskadi – teams with credibility built up over years, many of which have operated GP2 or A1GP teams.

An amusing side note is that the Superleague V12, which is manufactured by Menard Competition Technologies, is one of a suite of three engines being used by Richard Noble to power the Bloodhound Super Sonic Car in its bid to reach 1,000mph and break the world land speed record in 2011.

So, no lack of power, then.

The drivers

Yelmer Buurman
Yelmer Buurman

Now for an unpalatable fact. When you watch Formula One, it’s sadly untrue that you’re watching the 24 most talented drivers in the world, the two dozen people that most deserve to be in those cars and who have got there on pure, coruscating talent alone.

It’s what fans want, but it’s not what they get. Like most other things, it’s all about money.

On the Formula One grid are 24 extremely talented drivers who have nevertheless also been in the fortunate position of finding funding for the opportunities that got them where they are today – such as the considerable cost of seasons driving in Formula Renault 3.5 or GP2.

If you’re actually serious about seeing what talent without funding looks like, then Superleague is one of the places you ought to check out.

We’d counsel forgetting about the F1 has-beens and also-rans like Giorgio Pantano (last year) and Narain Karthikeyan (this year). The other drivers love having them there, for the benchmark they provide, but they’re clearly not the ones that will get you excited.

For that, watch out for Craig Dolby, a 21-year-old from Leicestershire currently in his third Superleague season. Before the drive came along he was toiling in obscure Formula Renault series but last year he challenged for the championship with his signature stunt of creating overtaking opportunities where no-one else whatsoever can see them. This year he’s a championship front-runner with a fierce will to succeed.

Max Wissel, a 20-year-old from Alzenau in Germany with an uncanny resemblance to David Tennant, is another demon racer with passion, enthusiasm and speed who, also like Dolby, has a friendly and approachable manner that endears him to fans. The pair are off-track mates and teamed up in the Race for Heroes karting event at Milton Keynes earlier this year.

And Davide Rigon, a 23-year-old from Thiene in Italy, has been competing in the series since its inception having been badly hampered elsewhere by lack of budget whch repeatedly stops him making an impact in GP2. He won the 2008 championship and is back for 2010.

The venues

Superleague raced at Silverstone last month
Superleague raced at Silverstone last month

F1-spec venues visited by Superleague in 2010 will include Magny-Cours and the Nurburgring. The series is also visiting the popular European destinations of Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. Portugal gets a look-in with the Algarve venue of Portimao while Spain is particularly well-represented with three dates at venues including Jarama.

In Britain Superleague used to be the preserve of Donington Park – while it was still operational – and the experience of standing in the vicinity of the Wheatcroft Straight listening to roar of approaching V12s was one not to be missed. Nor was Dolby’s defence against championship-winner Adrian Valles as the Spaniard went side-by-side around the Melbourne Hairpin in an attempt to overtake.

Sadly none of that is possible in 2010 but the series has compensated by calling at Silverstone and Brands Hatch instead.

This raises the point that getting out and watching grown-up open-wheel racing is a pursuit that can be quite difficult, especially since A1GP went bust. Formula One comes once a year and it costs a bloody fortune to attend. Junior formulas like Formula Renault, F3 or Formula Two are great to watch but they are something slightly different and anyway they often act as support series to bigger beasts.

With this in mind, Superleague Formula suddenly looks pretty good value, especially if you’re British, Spanish or living in the Low Countries and especially in regard to its ticket prices.

But, be warned. If exclusivity, paddock passes and large men in dark suits checking if your name’s on the list are your thing, forget about this race series. Go to an event and, in our experience, you’ll find an open paddock and even the chance to chat to the drivers, as long as you pick your time with a bit of forethought.

The prizes

The Porto car in action
The Porto car in action

This year Superleague Formula is exploiting a deal with Angolan oil firm Sonangol to pay out pots of cash to the teams and drivers that do well. The series’ prize fund has been increased to €5 million, with the championship-winning team in line for a cool €1 million.

When we said you can forget about football that was almost entirely true. However the structure of a race weekend is designed to resemble a football match so the visiting supporters aren’t completely disorientated. Thus qualifying is organised around two group stages and a knockout. There are two races of about 45 minutes each, one with a reversed grid to simulate changing ends.

After the races there is a superfinal (colloquially known as the ‘dash for the cash’) or face-off race between the weekend’s six best performers. There are cash prizes for the best-placed season finishers and, each weekend, the superfinal winner gets an additional €100,000 with smaller prizes for the rest of the top six.

In summary, Superleague is awash with cash this year and thus in a position to have a huge impact on European motorsport. As discussed above, a driver’s career is going nowhere if he or she doesn’t have the cash to fund the right opportunities, while teams compromise by taking on less-talented but better-funded drivers.

Now, there is a question-mark over who exactly is getting all this prize-money – whether it goes to the team or the driver presumably depends on the contracts agreed in each individual case. But this aspect of Superleague holds out the possibility of talented young drivers being able to do well enough to fund the next stage of their career – whether in Formula Two, F3 Euro Series, Formula Renault 3.5 or even GP2.

If nothing else we’ve said has convinced you that Superleague is worth watching, try this. The series is talking about a Formula One test for its champion this year.

We’re still a little bit sceptical since the idea has been floated but no concrete details have emerged. The cynics in us wonder if it’s a publicity stunt to make gullible people write breathless stories about something that will never happen. But that’s probably far too cynical.

So, if this actually happens (and with that much money about it seems very feasible), a Superleague driver is going to pop up on the radars of both F1 teams and their fans. And, if you want to appreciate what’s going on during winter testing, and have a good idea of the form of this newcomer, it won’t half help if you’ve got some idea of how their season went.

In other words, Superleague might just force you to pay attention by becoming too important to ignore. Luckily it shouldn’t be too much of a chore.

Superficially it may have ‘gimmick’ written all over it, but at its heart Superleague is a genuine racing series, run by people who really know the meaning of going racing.

Following Superleague Formula

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Why you should watch…

This is a guest article by Andy and LJH from Brits on Pole.