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 concluded 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 were optimistic 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 most 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 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 did not 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 was not much way around it, and to be honest, I did not 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 because 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 must 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 will not 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 will be interesting to see how that fares. As for A1 Grand Prix, would I like to see it back in some form? I would love to see it back. One day.