It has been almost fifteen years since Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Moktoum Al Maktoum announced his plans for a new worldwide racing class. The idea, the A1 Grand Prix 'World Cup of Motorsport' which was announced at a press conference in Dubai. Today, in our second part of this feature, we take a closer look at the second and third seasons.
The seasons 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 can be labelled as seasons that saw dominance. Team Germany won with Niko Hulkenberg in 2006-2007 while Team Switzerland won with Neel Jani in 2007-2008.
For the start of the new season at Zandvoort, Team Netherlands had to do without Jos Verstappen. The Dutch fan's favourite reportedly had a disagreement with the management of Team Netherlands. Verstappen had his own say, which was later confirmed, that he was waiting too long for his salary of 1 million dollars a year. He and his manager Huub Rothengatter did not want to go through a similar situation again. Verstappen responded on his website saying: "We did not want a repeat of last season, driving around the world, travelling and waiting for your salary, I really had to wait for months for my money, while I did everything for the A1GP. I was at the Masters in Zandvoort, gave demonstrations in Assen and Rotterdam, while there was never paid on time."
In a press release issued by A1GP Team Netherlands, it said: "Yes, the A1GP Team Netherlands is lagging behind with payments, and yes, everything has been paid, nearly 1 million dollars." But Verstappen received no guarantee from the team or organization and decided to withdraw. Jeroen Bleekemolen was appointed as his replacement, having raced in DTM and the Porsche Supercup.
South Africa and Germany took the spoils from the first weekend, before Bleekemolen won the sprint race during the third weekend of the 2006-2007 championship in China. But arguably, it occurred on a track that should never have been approved.
The A1GP had designed a circuit where a hairpin bend at the end of one of the straights could not be taken as it was too tight of a turn. This caused a predicament, and the organization decided to shorten the circuit. There was a new hairpin bend but this curve was also far from ideal. Drivers turned in so far from the corner that they almost ran into the concrete wall that had to separate the pit lane and the circuit. But as it was the only short-term solution, it was there to stay.
However, further issues appeared during qualifying. Due to the high downforce the cars could generate, no fewer than three manhole covers were torn out of the asphalt during the session. Various billboards flew onto the track due to the air resistance. The grid for the first race was formed by taking the times from free practice. Due to concerns regarding the first corner, it was decided that both should commence behind the safety car. Both races were a tragedy to watch, as they were prominently headed by the safety car.
On March 23rd, 2007, the Chinese publication Shanghai Daily reported that they would no longer hold an A1GP race in Beijing. In the message, it was announced that the organization had an incurred a debt of almost twenty million yuan, which converts to 2.6 million dollars.
Team Germany with Nico Hulkenberg and Christian Vietoris (who drove only in Mexico), won nine races during the season. Their lead on Team New Zealand was 35 points at the end of the year. Defending champion France ended up in fourth place. The French were on the podium eight times but did not win a single event. Alex Yoong won two victories for Team Malaysia at Brno. Yoong also won the main race in Mexico. All in all, it was a mediocre season where the dominance of the German team showed that their driver, Nico Hulkenberg, was the decisive factor. Hulkenberg was simply the strongest driver in the field. Sheikh Maktoum left his role as Chairman & Director of A1GP on 29 September 2006. His shares were sold to RAB Capital and Tony Texeira took over the series. The 2006-2007 season also saw the departure of Team Austria, Team Japan, Team Portugal and Team Russia. With Team Singapore and Team Greece, A1GP had two newcomers, but both teams were confined to the rear of the pack.
The 2007-2008 season was even messier. No less than 46 drivers drove for 22 different teams. The A1GP began to be taken less and less seriously. It was therefore not surprising that the driver with the most qualities, Neel Jani, became champion for Team Switzerland. In another mediocre season, the teams that were structurally at the top of the previous years turned out to bring home the glory again. Team Switzerland, Team France and Team England gathered 90% of all victories. Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice did not manage to score a single top ten spot. The same fate befell the young James Hinchcliffe. While teammate at Canada Robert Wickens could produce excellent results, Hinchcliffe fell completely through the ice. Jeroen Bleekemolen drove a steady season for Team Netherlands and finished the championship seventh. The season 2007-2008 would be the last season with the Lola-Zytek as a car. From the 2008-2009 season, A1GP would adopt a new concept. It signed with Ferrari as its power supplier to produce the new "Powered by Ferrari" A1GP car.
In our next section, we will take a deeper look into the new "Powered by Ferrari" A1 GP car and the 2008-2009 season.
Bahrain International Circuit - Winter testing