11 November 2004
South African motorsport entered a new era this month with the launch of the A1 Grand Prix South African team. President Thabo Mbeki attended the launch and first track test at the Kyalami race track in Johannesburg on 1 November, unveiling the new car in its South African livery.
The world of high-performance motor racing is set to be revolutionised by the establishment of A1 Grand Prix, which will oversee the World Cup of Motorsport. South Africa is heavily involved in the new competition, and will host an event in the inaugural six-race season.
At the A1 Grand Prix launch in London in September, South Africa’s participation in the unique one-make series was announced along with that of China, Lebanon, Pakistan, Portugal and the UK. Since then, Australia, Canada and Malaysia have joined the A1 Grand Prix grid – with more countries soon to be announced.
A1 Grand Prix CEO Sheikh Maktoum presented SA’s seat holder, businessman Tokyo Sexwale, with the car, saying South Africa was “a country that loves all sporting events, and I am certain as a nation it will be one of the most enthusiastic in supporting its A1 Grand Prix team and driver”.
Sexwale, who said in London that the car would carry two numbers – Nelson Mandela’s prison number, 46664, and 2010, the year SA will host the Football World Cup – commented: “A1 Grand Prix is effectively the world cup of motor racing. It will create a new patriotic edge to the sport, and add a new dimension to one of the most popular sports in the world.”
Sexwale said South Africa believed strongly in “the need to spread motor racing away from its traditional European and North American roots and into the developing world.
“Welcome to the world of Motortainment.”
Over 20 000 SA motorsport fans got to see the new car in action at Kyalami. After completing a series of demonstration laps around the 4.2 kilometre circuit, driver Alan van der Merwe said it was “incredible to drive this car in my own country and see the support from the fans.
“I am very impressed with what the car is capable of, especially in terms of power and downforce … For me the chance to drive the car in the series would be amazing.”
A test of driving skills
Formula One has long been the standard setter for ultimate motor racing, but it has been largely European-based. Many would complain that it has also become a battle of finances and technology, not a contest between top drivers competing in equally matched supercars.
A1 Grand Prix aims to change all that. It wants to take world-class racing to previously unvisited territories – and the cars used in the competition will all be equal.
“Each national team will drive a single type of high-performance car … ensuring a level playing field that will place driver skill at the heart of the competition”, the organisers say.
Lola Cars International is building the cars – 30 are already on order – with new 3.4-litre V8 engines developed specifically for the new competition by Zytek Engineering.
With the blessing of motorsport’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), A1 Grand Prix’s World Cup of Motorsport will take place during Europe’s winter – after the completion of the Formula One season – starting in September 2005.
The first season will feature races in Bahrain, Qatar, China, South Africa, Malaysia, and Australia, with the South African leg scheduled for Kyalami in December 2005.
Independent research commissioned by A1 Grand Prix suggests it is a concept that could go far – and bring in big money for investors. Estimates are that there are over a quarter of a billion motorsport fans in the 24 countries targeted for the World Cup of Motorsport.
New teams announced during the South Africa launch were 1980 F1 World Champion Alan Jones and Formula 3 team boss Alan Docking for Australia; Regent Mercantile Bancorp chairman J Jay Laski for Canada; and Formula 1 and USA Champ Car Series driver Alex Yoong for Malaysia.
The identities of two major sporting figures representing Portugal’s seat holders were also revealed during the Johannesburg roadshow: football star Luis Figo and Real Madrid (and former South Africa) coach Carlos Queiros.
Sheikh Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s Royal Family, is the founder of the series, and one of three men putting up the money for the ambitious project. The other two are South Africans Brian Menell and Tony Teixeira.
During his SA trip, Maktoum, along with Menell and Teixeira, paid a visit to Nelson Mandela, who gave the new series his blessing, saying he supported the concept of a South African driver and team being able to compete on equal terms against other nations.
“It was a real honour to meet with one of the world’s true iconic and historic figureheads”, Maktoum said. “His support for our championship and acceptance of our level playing field ideals is an endearing stamp of approval from such a symbolic person, which I humbly acknowledge.”
The Sheikh hopes that A1 Grand Prix will become a rival to the monolithic empire of Formula One, run by Bernie Ecclestone. “Most of the stars currently in F1 were not well known before”, he commented. “I’m looking to create new stars.
“We are going to have probably the first African driver in motorsport in A1 Grand Prix. We are going to have the first Indian driver in a blue-chip event. It’s an opportunity for these nations to shine.”