MARCH 30, 2004
The new A1 Grand Prix series
His Highness Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum has announced his plans for the new A1 Grand Prix series, which the Dubai royal believes will be a completely new concept in motor racing. The sheik says that the series is not in competition with Formula 1 although there is no doubt that if it proves to be a success the two championships will be fighting for the same revenues from sponsors and from TV companies.
The sheik, who has a background in finance, says that he hopes to "bring a new flavour to the industry that has been stale for too long" and says he believes that he can achieve this because he is an outsider in the sport. The secret, he believes, is in the financial structure of the new championship.
"The idea is to have one car per country," he says. "People or companies will bid for the national franchise and will then concentrate on running a profitable business with income generated by sponsorship, merchandising, prize money and local media rights. A1 will provide the infrastructure and the cars, will handle the logistics and ensure maximum television coverage."
Maktoum has identified a number of different franchises around the world, although he says that there are still seven open. The countries he has chosen are Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Portugal, Russia, Scandinavia, South Africa, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the UK. The driver and the sponsors on each car must be from the country of the franchise-holder and he says that he has already found one organisation that is willing to spend as much as $180m for a three-year franchise.
"Obviously the cost of the franchise will be different from country to country," he says.
The A1 car has already been approved and crash-tested by the FIA and the sheik says that he is now negotiating to sell 11 of the franchises mentioned but expects this to increase to around 24.
The plans is for the series to run between September and March with three-day meetings in Dubai, China, Japan Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Bahrain and Qatar. A1 will be selling the right to promote events in the various countries.
Each event will be over three days with practice and qualifying on the first two days and then two races on Sunday: one a short sprint event and the other a one-hour feature with the option to include pits stops. After the races the cars will go back to the A1 organization between races.
The cars have been designed by Lola and will be powered by an aluminium 3.5-litre V6 engine built by Langford Performance Engineering in Wellingborough. This was designed for a European oval racing series which was planned in 2002 but that never came to fruition.
"We started with a completely different design of the car," said the sheik. "It had to look good because aesthetics do matter. It is very different."
Lola won the competition to build the chassis and Maktoum says that decision was not based on price.
"It is a very harsh industry," he said. "It's cut-throat and when you find someone you can trust, it does make a difference."
The resulting car is a 500 horsepower, 600kg machine which, the shiek says, will be hard to control.
"I spun it at 200kmh in testing the other day," he said.
"I am not competing against F1," said Maktoum. "It is different. Bernie Ecclestone has been extremely supportive. It opens up possible new venues for F1 in the future, that is why he is supporting it. Prize money will be $2m per event and we expect that drivers will live up to certain codes and behaviour when it comes to dealing with the fans."
Maktoum and his partners, South African diamond executives Brian Menell and Tony Texeira are confident that it will be a success and former racer Stephen Watson is to act as general manager.
The most important element will probably not be finding people to buy franchises but rather to get TV companies to buy the coverage. In order to achieve this Maktoum has brought in American Richard Dorfman, a former IMG and Kirch executive with 25 years of experience. He negotiated deals for the 2002 and 2006 soccer World Cups and the Rugby World Cup.
"The beauty of A1 is that the financial model makes it successful. Investment banks are interested in buying franchises becasue they can see that they will get a return for their money," said Sheik Maktoum. "This is going to be the World Cup of motorsport."
The organisers accept that it would not be possible for the teams invoolved to from the franchised country because standards would be so different and also hopes that the series will provide the impetus for driver development in various countries.
"We will be at a lower level than Formula 1," said Watson. "But we will be creating role models and idols in the different countries."
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