15 October 2004
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 won’t be missing out. In fact, the country is heavily involved in the exciting new competition, and will host an event in the inaugural six-race season.
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, in many ways, 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.
A test of driving skills
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.
Organisers are billing it as a test of driving skills, because all drivers will be equipped with similar cars.
Lola Cars International, which has a long history in motor racing, has been commissioned to build the cars, and 30 are already on order. New 3.4-litre V8 engines have also been developed specifically for the new competition by Zytek Engineering, which has been the sole supplier to the FIA’s F3000 Championship since 1996.
Serious testing on the cars got under way in July, with former Formula One driver Ralph Firman acting as test driver. John Wickham, who oversaw Bentley’s historic victory in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2003, was put in charge of the Test programme. He carries the title of Operations Manager for A1 Grand Prix.
A tyre deal was also inked in September. After testing, it was decided that Cooper Tire and Rubber Company had what the new competition wanted, and they were signed up.
24 countries targeted
It is early days yet for A1 Grand Prix, with just the six countries having signed on so far for the inaugural season, but the aim is to extend the series to eventually include 24 countries.
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.
A1 Grand Prix offers some unique opportunities. According to Lola Cars: “For the first time in motor sport history, driving seats will be available on a franchise basis. This will allow new entrants, as well as those already established in motor sport, to bid for ownership of a team, and discussions are already at an advanced stage with 24 countries.
National teams on a level playing field
“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 first six national seat holders were named on 30 September by A1 Grand Prix’s CEO, Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum al Maktoum, with the United Kingdom, South Africa, Pakistan, Lebanon, Portugal and China all securing their seats.
Underscoring the legitimacy of the new series was the fact that John Surtees MBE, the only man to have won world championships on two wheels and four wheels, was on hand to take delivery of the United Kingdom’s car.
Sexwale heads SA team
Heading up South Africa’s team is businessman Tokyo Sexwale, who was in London for the announcement of the six seat holders. He says the South African car will carry former President Nelson Mandela’s prison number, 46664, as well as 2010, a reference to the 2010 Soccer World Cup that South Africa will be hosting.
The official South African seat holders’ launch takes place in Johannesburg on 1 November.
Sheikh Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s Royal Family, is the founder of the series, and is one of three men putting up the money for the ambitious project. The other two are South Africans Brian Menell and Tony Teixeira.
South African backers
Menell is the chairman of South African natural resources company Energem Resources Incorporated (formerly Diamondworks Ltd). The firm’s vice-chairman is Sheikh Maktoum, while Teixeira is the CEO. Menell is also director of AngloVaal Mining.
Former Formula 3000 driver, and Formula One test driver, Stephen Watson, will serve as general manager of A1 Grand Prix. Richard Dorfman, who handled negotiations for television rights to the last rugby and soccer World Cups, has been appointed director of media affairs and TV rights.
Independent research commissioned by A1 Grand Prix suggests it is a concept that could go far and bring in big money for the 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 – figures that will be very inviting for sponsors and those wishing to buy franchises.
A rival to Formula One
The Sheikh, who is the Crown Prince of Dubai’s nephew, 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.”