What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

Whilst the eyes of the motor sport world this past week have been marking twenty years since the tragic San Marino Grand Prix weekend in which Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed, today marks another anniversary in the motor sport calendar. Of course, in comparison to the above, this anniversary is a ‘dot’ in the grand scheme of things, however it is also worth covering in its own respect. Today marks five years since the A1 Grand Prix series ran its final hurdle. The date was Sunday 3rd May, as the 2008-09 season came to a conclusion with Adam Carroll winning both the sprint and feature races for Ireland.

But, where did it all go wrong for A1 Grand Prix? The series launched in late 2004 to much fanfare, billing itself as the ‘World Cup of Motor Sport’. Instead of it being team versus team, the series was distinctively country versus country. One car per country. Sky Sports’ were one of the major backers from a broadcasting perspective for the series, with an on-site studio for the very first race from Brands Hatch in September 2005. Georgie Thompson presented the show alongside Andy Priaulx. Ben Edwards and John Watson were in the commentary box for the World Feed with Lee McKenzie down in pit-lane. Great Britain’s hopes rested on Robbie Kerr, who was Team GB’s representative for the majority of A1 Grand Prix’s life span. Other familiar names to watch out for included Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, Brazil’s Nelson Piquet Jnr and France’s Nicolas Lapierre. A1 Grand Prix had this likeability factor that no other motor sport series had at that time, a ‘feel good’ factor.

Sky had high hopes for the series, so much so that the first race displaced Sky’s Premier League coverage off Sky Sports 1, a rare occasion. The first weekend got off to a flying start for Sky, the race action was largely good, and viewing figures averaged a quarter of a million viewers across several hours encompassing ‘as live’ coverage of the sprint race and the feature race that followed live. In comparison, their Formula 1 programmes typically average around 700,000 viewers. Even though the numbers were much lower than their football ratings, for a channel with not much live motor sport, it was a great number to build up on.

The problem with any series held in the Winter is that it means that the majority of the races must take place over in Asia, with only the start and end of the year in Europe. As it turned out, the first season calendar was fairly well laid out. The first three races were in Europe, before heading out to Asia. The problem is though, that any series looking to build an audience is going to struggle to get any audience for races live at 06:00 in the morning in Europe (it probably didn’t help either that Sky stayed in London for these races instead of sending Thompson et al. to the races, this being the case until the very end). For A1 Grand Prix, there wasn’t much way around it, and to be honest, I didn’t mind at all. In my view, there was a gap in the market for a Winter motor sport series which A1 Grand Prix filled very well. That made it a ‘draw’ in my eyes, it gained extra exposure as a result of having races during Formula 1’s off season. Whether it capitalised on that though, is a separate point altogether. At the time, it felt like a great alternative to Formula 1 with its sprint and feature race format and four Qualifying segments.

It has to be said that there were a few amateurish moments on display during its tenure, most notably the debacle that was the 180 degree turn in China during the 2006-07 season that many cars struggled to navigate. Sadly this video fails to make it onto its YouTube channel, however, the fact that one exists shows how it was above the kerb where social media activity is concerned. Deep in the depths of Twitter is ‘A1GP Insider‘, an official A1 Grand Prix account who joined in March 2009. If you were in control of that very short lived account, please, do come forward! Whilst we can laugh about the struggles in China, the scheduling issues that plagued the series were not a laughing matter and were tipped over the edge significantly in their final season. Within about a period of a year or two, A1 Grand Prix had turned from a good series starting to make an impression, to a farce.

Their issues, however, ran deeper. It is perhaps no coincidence that their final season was also their first in a new deal with Ferrari, which should have lasted from the 2008-09 season to the 2013-14 season. A ten race calendar turned into a seven race calendar. I won’t claim to have inside knowledge, but clearly the change of car and the Ferrari deal was negotiated badly and effectively killed the series. Whilst A1 Grand Prix should have been heading to Surfers’ Paradise in October 2009, their cars were still stuck in London. It seems clear to me that A1 Grand Prix jumped the gun with its Ferrari deal, especially during the worldwide recession, the series should have waited until they were more financially stable before agreeing to these deals. I do miss A1 Grand Prix. Yes, we can remember the stupid moments, but also, the country versus country formula provided some extremely good racing, the Durban street track a notable favourite.

The next Winter series set to take the limelight is Formula E. Most of their timeslots are friendly to a European audience, but is unusually on a Saturday, so it’ll be interesting to see how that fares. As for A1 Grand Prix, would I like to see it back in some form? I’d love to see it back. One day.

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19 thoughts on “What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

  1. Often there is no clear answer to some of your blog questions but this one is easy to answer.

    The reason A1 failed was because it’s creators massively misjudged motorsport fans, ironically in the same way Sky do today.

    Motorsport fans are individuals, thinkers, they are not mindless sheep.

    Soccer appeals to those desperate to belong to a group, this is why soccer fans say ‘WE had a good game on Saturday’ when they’re nothing to do with the team.

    A1 attempted to tap into this same sad longing to belong to group. Unfortunately after the initial novelty motorsport fans saw it for the cringe-worthy debacle that it was and lost interest.

    it’s amazing that Sky failed to learn from this and even today still offer F1 content and talk to fans as if they’re footie supporters.

    • A1 had potential but Sky as we all know are more likely to kick it out of the park in favour for the footie. This is a problem with Sky and other pay-TV providers even though BT have decent coverage with MotoGP is the fact that pay-TV is a “battering ram” for popular working class sports such as football which gain the highest percentage of the audience share.

      F1 just isn’t working on Sky and whilst the BBC are looking dejected and wanting out, there’s very little choosing between the two with their tabloid-esque coverage that I’ve resorted to alternatives to F1 because it’s not the be-all or end-all of televised motorsport. That’s why I might be tuning into the World Superbikes over the F1 this weekend because the racing is better and there’s less politics dictating the on-track action.

      • So true Umar, spot on. Yet neither broadcaster can see that they are slowly killing interest in the sport and with it potentially the sport itself.

        It’s all very well to say that the UK viewing public make up a small percentage of international viewers but many countries, especially those where F1 interest is growing, do so because the want to emulate the British.

        About the only thing Sky have done right in the last 2 years is revamp their horribly lackluster, depressing opening titles, which are much improved.

        Bar that they offer the same degree of self indulgent, dumbed down, red top coverage they always have.

      • I am very lucky living in Botswana our sports channels (Mostly from South Africa) do not insist on shoving football down our throats, (cant stand the game) they do however show all the F1, all three practices the quali and the race. They also used to show all the A1 races so although I always went to South Africa to watch that one live, I also got to see all the other races. Would you believe they also show all 24 hours of the Le Mans race, mind you I will be going there to watch that live next month.

  2. I loved A1 Grand Prix. I liked the car shape – unusually for a one make series for me – and the World Cup concept was well done I thought. I too would like to see it return sometime.

  3. I would also like to see its return, I went to all the South African races and loved every minute.

  4. A1 GP still owe me a mountain of cash, when they tried to launch A10 GP, I said if you do I, and many other people will take you to court, they never did.

  5. A1GP’s biggest problem for me was it’s lack of name drivers. The likes of Robbie Kerr, Alex Premat. Neel Jani and Nicolas Lapierre were never going to attract any interest beyond the hardcore motorsport fan – who, as polblagger rightly points out, are not inclined to mindlessly support a car simply because it is painted in the colours of their own country.

    Had the series managed to sign up a brace of F1 drivers familiar to the casual fan, perhaps it would have attracted the attention of the kind of viewer towards which Sky pitched the series. But, of course, for a whole host of reasons, it was never ever going to succeed in that regard.

  6. From what I can recall the biggest names they had were jos verstappen and Alex yoong who were both ex F1 drivers and narain kart he whatever her called lol but yeah unknown to any non f1 fan which is a shame really

  7. Been meaning to post on this for a while but not had the time.

    For me A1GP was ahead of its time, with simple race cars delivering good racing and providing affordable tickets for fans as well. Which I discovered when I went to the last ever A1GP race weekend at Brands Hatch.

    I’d make the point that we saw a much better selection of driving talent over the years than in other categories; Marco Andretti, Ryan Briscoe, Sébastien Buemi, Adam Carroll, Karun Chandhok, Robert Doornbos, Loïc Duval, James Hinchcliffe, J. R. Hildebrand, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Neel Jani and Narain Karthikeyan.

    BUT there are more; Nicolas Lapierre, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Franck Montagny, Sergio Pérez, Nelson Piquet, Jr., Will Power, Alexandre Prémat, Nicolas Prost, Graham Rahal, Timo Scheider, Scott Speed, Adrian Sutil, Jos Verstappen and Robert Wickens!

    Oh and don’t forget that this is the series that made Nico Hülkenberg!

    In fact 36% of the field in yesterdays Indycar race also raced in A1GP!

  8. Ut was really sad to have heard the end of the amazing grand prix that almost got in a rise and shine. In the late 2008 that I got ao excited to see it for the very first time and watchd my team country( lebanon )run in he competition, and gave me a great inspiration since iv been watching the formula 1GP that made me write a letter to le royal team Lebanon. Sad and infa t heart breaking after many years of out of sight that decided to find out and see what has happnd with A1 Gp. Congratulations for the amazing start and a great experience never to forget.

  9. How I miss this A1GP … For me, I like A1 far more than F1…I wonder when they going to make it back…To see our country to be race, the car being painted in national color..I proud to see my national A1 team (Malaysia) to be in the race..and ofcourse the driver is Alex Yoong and Fairuz Fauzi..I really hope they going to make it back..A1 Grand Prix is the best.. *For the pride of your country, start your engine*

    -Greeting from Malaysia-

  10. Not sure what you mean be Relaunching the cars. If it means an A1 come back then I’m with you all the way.

    • The chassis and engine are all the same and so this makes for the perfect platform for talented professionals to showcase their talent behind the steering wheel. I say relaunch because we are not looking at pitching nation against nation but are rather aiming to utilize these cars to produce a series that has the driver racing for a chance to further his/her career. The prize will most likely be a driver with one of the World Series by Renault (3.5l) teams.

      Basically a summer series in South Africa (During Europe’s Winter) for young promising talent to compete on a level playing field. The drivers will benefit from the seat time and racing experience in a high powered car and the best of them will catapult their career to the next level immediately.

      Let me know your thoughts, I can talk about this all day and I am always interested to hear people’s views and opinions, especially from a blog such as this where I know they are coming from passionate fans of the sport.

  11. Your lack of knowledge, obsession with blaming Sky for things and general making stuff up never ceases to impress.

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