SEPTEMBER 2, 2006
A1 Grand Prix on the offensive
The new A1 Grand Prix Series has always made much of the fact that it has no intention to trying to rival Formula 1. It is thus rather odd that the series has just announced plans to upgrade the performance of its cars in 2008 to "a level comparable with Formula 1".
"We are the World Cup of Motorsport," says Tony Texeira, the deputy chairman of A1 Grand Prix. "Formula 1 is Formula 1. We obviously will always say that we are complimentary to that and they are complimentary to us. We don't want to be quicker than F1 or anything else."
The very fact that A1 is moving in this direction underlines the fact that the two championships are on a path towards conflict over TV coverage, sponsors, drivers and fans.
It is worth noting that in recent weeks we have heard whispers that GP2 - a series which is owned by F1 figures Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore - is aiming to start a winter series. If it happens, this will be a direct attack on A1 as many of the GP2 teams at the moment also run operations in A1 in the winter to maintain year-round earnings. The problem for GP2 is that many of the teams are not happy with the costs and the quality of the equipment and may not bother with a GP2 winter series, preferring to go with A1 Grand Prix, which pays better.
The intended upgrade of A1 will see Lola making a bigger and more aerodynamically-efficient chassis, while Zytek will look at upgrading the current ZA1348, a 90-degree all-aluminium 3.4-litre V8 that produces around 520hp, but can be be boosted by another 30hp with a boost button in the cockpit, by around 200hp. This will give the cars around 750hp.
At the moment Formula 1 2.4-litre V8 engines are producing between 750 and 800bhp but in the future these will be frozen at 2006 levels and will have a 19000rpm limit. The FIA hopes that by 2009 there will be new energy storage devices in the cars that will provide "surge power" which will enable overtaking. The FIA predicts that the first F1 surge power units will deliver an additional 60 bhp for up to nine seconds and as developments are made this will increase to 120bhp. In 2011 Formula 1 is planning to move into a much more fuel-efficient formula.
The danger in all of this is that while F1 is busy cost-cutting and being politically-correct its rivals will move up to the same levels of horsepower and could begin to challenge F1's high technology image. If F1 teams are sharing more and more technology, with the sale of components and so on, it is possible that the deciding factor between the different series will cease to be technology and will be a question of who produces the best show. Formula 1 has the advantage of being the FIA-designated World Championship which gives it considerable credibility, but TV viewing figures pay little heed to such things. And where the TV goes so the sponsors, the teams and the spectators follow. Ultimately the FIA cannot afford not to follow if a rival championship is bigger than its own. And there is absolutely no reason at all why the World Cup of Motorsport cannot one day become the FIA World Cup of Motorsport. Having World Championships and World Cups at the same time has long been a common thing in karting.
There are lessons to be learned from American racing where Indycar racing was once the dominant form of racing and NASCAR was a big regional sport. Poor management of open-wheeler racing led to a split between CART and the Indy Racing League and the result has been a gradual drift of money, teams and prestige from open-wheeler racing to NASCAR which, as a result, has become the dominant motorsport series in North America.
The biggest weakness of F1 is that it demands huge sums in fees and virtual all promotional rights from racing circuits. Many F1 tracks survive only because the governments help them. If a sufficient number of important venues decide that A1 Grand Prix make more financial sense (and that depends largely on crowd numbers) F1 may be faced with either having to drop its prices or face losing some of its famous traditional venues.
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