What do the last names Verstappen and Yoong have in common? Yes, both were Minardi drivers in Formula 1. But both also competed in the inaugural season of A1 Grand Prix, and that is where the latest instalment of flashback takes Motorsport Broadcasting to.
A1 Grand Prix launched 15 years ago to much fanfare, with a glitzy season opener at Brands Hatch. Just four years later, financial issues confined the World Cup of Motorsport to history. Although the series itself ended into 2009, it took until 2015 for the company itself to be dissolved.
But, memories of the series remain scattered across the web. Unfortunately, this is not in one centralised place, and given that A1 Grand Prix has long gone, the chances of that happening at all is unlikely. One can dream, however…
In terms of its position and scheduling, A1 Grand Prix was the Formula E of 2000’s, although the latter has outlived the former. Life for Sky Sports in the UK before Formula 1 consisted of A1 Grand Prix and IndyCar, amongst other forms of motor sport.
Initially, Sky gave A1 lots of attention, so much so that the first ever race day from Brands bumped the football Super Sunday off Sky Sports 1!
Once the initial attention drifted, the series settled down, and flashback takes us to the Eastern Creek Raceway in Australia, which played host to the fourth round of the season.
- Date: Sunday 6th November 2005
- Channel: Sky Sports 3
- Time: 02:00 to 05:30
- 02:30 – Sprint Race
- 04:00 – Feature Race
- Presenter: Georgie Thompson (Sky)
- Reporter: Lee McKenzie (A1)
- Reporter: Gareth Jones (A1)
- Commentator: Ben Edwards (A1)
- Commentator: John Watson (A1)
- Analyst: Andy Priaulx (Sky)
- Analyst: Keith Huewen (Sky)
A1’s race day offering consisted of two races: a 30-minute sprint race and a 60-minute feature race. Both had lap counters, although as we discover in Australia, both end up going to time for differing reasons.
Back in the day, most sports that Sky covered live had the luxury of wrap-around studio coverage from their base in Osterley, jumping in and out of the World Feed along the way. For Eastern Creek, the 30-minute build-up to the sprint race consisted of just that.
Sky’s own colour consisted of Georgie Thompson, Andy Priaulx and Keith Huewen. An initial discussion around qualifying, which saw France’s Nicolas Lapierre qualify on pole, at the start of the programme shows how A1 tried to stand out. Qualifying for each event consisted of four segments, with the best two lap times for each country forming the grid.
Thompson reminds viewers that it takes three Boeing 747 jets to get the 50 cars over to Eastern Creek from Europe, a big achievement for a young series.
From that point onwards, we are in and out of the A1 feed, with Lee McKenzie interviewing a young Lapierre, and Ben Edwards giving viewers an excellent virtual guide of the circuit, the graphics looking decent for 2005! The overriding feeling is that Eastern Creek is an old school track and rough round the edges. A1 loved virtual graphics, with the 24-car grid also covered in virtual form later in both build-ups.
Ad-breaks are an unavoidable part of Sky’s pre- and post-race offering, but the races themselves air uninterrupted on the pay TV outlet. Sky miss some World Feed segments as a result, such as pre-race interviews with New Zealand and Australia, however this does not detract from the programme.
There is some repetition in the sprint race build-up (not convinced viewers needed to hear from Lapierre, or see the virtual grid graphics, twice), however there were a good sample of grid interviews, with McKenzie chatting to Canadian driver Sean McIntosh as well as Great Britain’s team principal John Surtees.
Both grids were quiet compared to Formula 1 or Formula E, but also the Eastern Creek Raceway had a vast amount of space, so perhaps is not the best comparator. The main thing here is that the attendance looks really healthy for A1’s first appearance down under.
After the national anthems, it is race time!
The A1 Grand Prix liveries look so distinctive and awesome, certainly the chances of wrongly identifying a car is slim.
The opening laps of the sprint race give us a chance to analyse the graphics package on offer, which reminds me of not only F1’s ‘slant’ package from 2010 onwards, but also the classic 1994 to 2003 graphics set due to the black and yellow colour combination for the numbering. The package follows the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ principles, making it straightforward for viewers to follow.
As an example, all A1 cars have a power boost system, which drivers can use four times in the sprint race and eight times in the feature race, giving a tactical element to the racing. No fancy graphics used, just a simple number, which the television feed highlights when a driver activates it.
The timing wall cycles through five cars at once, however there is no sign of Team Radio, a sign of the era more than anything else. From a camera angle perspective, the director opted to use the heli-cam at the rolling sprint race start, with sporadic on-boards used throughout helping to show the ragged nature of the machinery.
As usual, Edwards and Watson are a joy to listen to, the two covering movements further down the field, even when not aired on the World Feed.
Wonderful topography of this Eastern Creek Raceway where they’re up and down, they’ve got off camber corners to deal with. It’s a little bit like Oulton Park in the UK or Mid Ohio in the United States, there’s a lot of thinking to be done, it’s quite technical in places.
Overtaking is obviously not easy, there are a few opportunities that we’ve seen though. – A1 commentator Ben Edwards talking about the circuit
Separate incidents involving Czech Republic’s Tomas Enge and Germany’s Adrian Sutil prompt two Safety Cars during the race, but it is a dull affair outside of that, with France winning the time limited race over Portugal and Brazil, continuing their dominance of the series so far.
Break between Races
Reaction to the sprint race is thin on the ground from Sky, with some brief analysis from Huewen and Priaulx in the studio, followed by the press conference, before moving on to a variety of segments.
Having an hour between the races gave broadcasters enough breathing room in one sense, but not in another. Sky have around 40 minutes to play with (excluding commercials) between the end of the sprint race and the start of the feature race, which is not much. However, for a new series it makes sense, I can see the logic in not wanting to drag proceedings on for too long.
Cutting to the studio immediately after the sprint race meant that Sky lost some of the track atmosphere, but avoided them having to brutally crash in and out of the World Feed, reminiscent of ITV’s Formula E studio coverage.
Sky added their own flavour in the form of a segment with Thompson and France’s Alexandre Premat, the two sitting underneath the Eifel Tower to reflect on Premat’s domination in the Portuguese round. The segment was more of a quick-fire Q&A, with no flashy music, doing the job nicely in introducing fans to the characters.
Multiple segments from the World Feed followed, which Sky played out ‘as live.’ The first covered the battle between Australia and New Zealand, with Gareth Jones narrating (a story A1 hyped up throughout the broadcast), and a second looking at what the drivers have been doing in the run up to the weekend.
Next up, McKenzie is in pit lane chatting to Japan’s Hayanari Shimoda after the sprint race, before another A1 piece, this time with the drivers out surfing on Bondi Beach. If anything, this part of the programme is VT heavy, however Sky are reliant on whatever content A1 are sending to them from Australia. Of course, the Sky Pad did not exist back then…
After an ad-break, we head into the feature race build-up, following a similar structure to the sprint race, with McKenzie and Jones chatting to the likes of Ireland’s Michael Devaney and New Zealand’s Jonny Reid on the grid.
The only difference this time round is that it is A1 Grand Prix’s founder Sheikh Maktoum who gives the starting command, which was always a nice touch. “Gentlemen, for the pride of your nations, start your engines!”
The TV direction and commentary at the start was subpar, not helped by an unusual choice of camera angle, which failed to spot Portugal’s Alvaro Parente jumping the start. France lost the lead to them as a result, whilst Ireland took a trip through the gravel trap.
The pre-race tactics that the commentary team discussed quickly come to fruition, as Britain’s Robbie Kerr used power boost to get past Brazil on lap two.
The feature race features a mandatory pit stop, with A1 opting to display the whole pit lane time on the screen, not just the stationary time.
South Africa was the first country to crash out on lap five. Portugal’s lead was short-lived because of the jump start, although their jump start is not obvious from the replays, so I do have some sympathy with Edwards and Watson here. Like in race one, the Safety Car found itself in the lead most of the time.
The first caution period comes because of a collision at turn two (the main trouble spot) between Mexico and Russia, during which most of the field opt to pit. The exception is 25-year-old Basil Shaaban who now finds himself leading for Lebanon!
Shaaban tumbles down the field once the Safety Car pits, but Watson quite rightly calls his performance “outstanding,” as the Lebanese driver held his own. The on-board angles are again awesome, and a real plus point for the television offering, showing how difficult the cars are to control.
Czech Republic and Austria are the next pair to collide into one another, resulting in the second Safety Car period. France leaves the rest of the field trailing on the restart, as Ireland re-overtakes New Zealand.
Some of the direction and camera work is sub-standard, but in the context of this being A1’s fourth race weekend, it is solid in my view for what is a very hectic race.
A huge accident for Japan’s Shimoda at turn one brings out the final Safety Car of the race. The violent nature of the accident separated the car into two, however Shimoda escaped relatively unscathed. A1 officials pause before showing the replay, but when they do show it, it is clear just how big the accident is, the Lola chassis doing its job.
As in race one, the race switches to time format. Nothing can stop France from continuing their clean sweep of the weekend! Kerr holds on for second place for Great Britain, defending from Switzerland and Netherlands behind.
A little like Formula E has tried to do, A1 Grand Prix helped fill the void doing the traditional motor racing off-season, arguably better than Formula E has ever accomplished in that respect.
Yes, the electric series has outlived A1, but the latter was a genuine winter championship. The first season of the World Cup of Motorsport ran from September to April, with six race weekends between November and February, more than Formula E has ever had in the equivalent period.
The highlight of A1 for me? Seeing Jos Verstappen for Netherlands win the Durban feature race during season one by overtaking Switzerland’s Neel Jani on the very last lap. There is not much better than this moment, with Ben Edwards on commentary declaring “The Netherlands have taken the lead,” is there?
A1 may not have lasted long, but for those that followed it race in and out, it certainly is much missed.