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The fourth season of A1GP, which starts at Zandvoort on the weekend of October 4-5, is also a first for the 'World Cup of Motorsport' as competing nations take to the track in the series' new 'Powered by Ferrari' cars.
Although the move is part of a concerted attempt by organisers to expand the reach of A1GP, they clearly believe this can be achieved without diluting the core concepts - close, exciting racing between nations - upon which the series was established.
Here, A1GP's Chief Executive Officer Pete da Silva outlines his plans for the series, both this season and in the longer term...
Why Ferrari? Or is that a stupid question?
"I was going to answer that: 'Why not?' If I go back, our strategy after three years was to commercialise A1GP. By that I mean taking A1GP to the market. Lola and Zytek (chassis and engine suppliers for the first three seasons) have been excellent partners - I'll not take anything away from them. But if you're not a petrolhead you will not recognise either or at least one of them. I didn't want to go to the boardroom and they say 'Zytek who?' - I don't want to explain that. I wanted instant recognition in terms of brand and even though A1GP is three years old, we still need to gain that traction. I wanted a partner that would give that. And Ferrari was the clear leader in terms of brand, so it was one of our choices and we were stoked in terms of closing that deal."
Did they take much persuading? I believe they've never done this kind of thing before...
"No. You know, people say 'Wow, that's a big win for A1'; I think it's a big win for Ferrari as well. I think they've seen what we're doing in emerging markets. Formula One has seen that with GP2 Asia, which they've started in the off-season when we race. I think Ferrari and others have been watching the growth of A1GP, especially in markets where they want to be. Where's the big money? It's in Asia now, and this is where their next sales are going to come from. Ferrari are not in the business to do favours; they saw the win-win."
What were the problems with the chassis that caused the opening rounds (that were to be held at Mugello in Italy on the weekend of September 20-21) to be cancelled?
"We decided very late in season three to develop the new car. We had 11 months - it was always going to be tight. We are running about three weeks behind schedule. The problem that we had, we made one strategic, or emotional, decision: because of the Ferrari partnership, we agreed to change our calendar and bring it three weeks earlier to start in Italy. Italy...Ferrari...when we shook hands and signed the contract that made a lot of sense.
"But once we were running three weeks behind we said: 'No'. We've always started our season in October and we've always started it in Zandvoort. This was the first time we'd started in September and in another country - Italy. So I had to make the decision and say 'Which one do we take?' I took the emotional one and said: 'We get rid of Italy'.
"Ferrari supported that idea because...we may have made it but what we're doing today (testing at Donington Park) is fundamental, it's important to us. It's the basics, it's safety, it's getting the drivers of the different countries associated with the new equipment and getting time in the car because, when it comes to Zandvoort, it's aggressive racing. And we don't want drivers aggressively competing who haven't had appropriate time in the car."
Is the 'Think Greener Racing' initiative still in place?
"Yes and we'll do it together with Ferrari. That will go from strength to strength. I'm expecting to announce one or two other partners in terms of the same area come Zandvoort."
The new cars are more powerful, they have more grip and they have better braking. Will this produce better racing?
"The normal answer to that would be 'No' because the more grip you've got, the better braking you've got and the better acceleration you've got, the more difficult it is (to overtake). But we've actually engineered our car. (Former F1 designer) Rory Byrne from Ferrari spent a lot of time with us. They consulted on the original design and our scope of work to Rory was: 'It's got to be close racing'. We always pride ourselves in A1 in terms of the 'bumper bashing' or the wheel-to-wheel racing. We wanted the same, but we also wanted to attract the next generation of young drivers who have always dreamed of getting into a Ferrari car - and we've given them the opportunity.
"We only have some nations testing out today, but if you walk down there you'll see that Team GBR are here, that Team Canada are here - all the young drivers are here. They're so excited and they just want to see the car. We want to attract the next generation of driver and we have to do it by being competitive. Every three years we're going to up the level of A1GP and this is the first time we're going to that next step. And I think that's good. But I'll bring out the hacksaw very quickly if we have to if the racing is not competitive!"
Where does A1GP now stand relative to other series?
"We are 32 races young - that's where I'll start. We're three years old, we've done 32 races, so we are the baby of anything else. If you compare us to Formula One - and everyone compares us to that - which makes us very proud, but we don't like that comparison. Formula One is 60 years old and we're not. We don't have 60 years to prove ourselves, but I'd like to have four or five - I think that's justice.
"Who else do we compare ourselves to? GP2? We can't because it's not an international series; it's a regional European one with one or two offshoots. Champ Car doesn't exist anymore, it's only IndyCar and IndyCar races in the United States with one or two offshoots around the world. I suppose you come back and say you have to compare yourself to Formula One. But we're not in the technology race; we're not in terms of spending a lot of money. We've reverse engineered Formula One to make sure that costs are contained and there's a level playing field. We are nation versus nation, so we're very different."
You have a six-year licensing agreement with Ferrari. Where do you think A1GP will be in six years time?
"We're about 12-18 months ahead of our business plan in terms of expectations. I expect that to accelerate with the partnership of Ferrari. Again, we're going to focus on the show and not the technology supremacy that Formula One has. Our show's going to be excitement, and when we go to certain selected destinations we're going to test the water.
"This year, on one or two of them, we will have all support races from Ferrari. The FXX Challenge, for instance, and the GT Challenge. And, once in a while, the owners club - what they call the 'F1 Cliente' - are coming too. And we're going to have their partners coming on board - that's going to be a real party scene.
"We're going to develop the show aspect of motorsport as opposed to the technology side. So it's going to be something that you're going to want to attend, you're going to want to associate with, there are going to be brands out there you'll want to associate with...and there are going to be people out there that want to associate with it."