A1GP: Round 1 – Zandvoort, Netherlands – Sun Oct 5

Oh dear. As much as you want to laud A1GP for embarking on a whole new level for the young series, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the organisers had bitten off more than could be chewed, and the season opener was in some respects a bit of a debacle and a damp squib – which was exacerbated by the sodden conditions.

A1GP had already had to abandon their planned season opened in Italy because of the overrunning chassis development, and several teams (including usual front runners Team GB) had to pull out of Zandvoort too because they received their new Ferrari-powered chassis too late, and with too few spares to make it viable for them to compete. Others, including Team France and Team China, only received their cars on Friday and weren’t able to prepare in time for practice, only barely making it out for qualifying or the race proper.

A1GP organisers had to make a series of emergency changes to the series configuration as a result: qualifying was converted to an hour-long continuous session to give the cars more running, an extra session was added on Sunday, and the points system changed to give those teams ruled out of the first season a chance to still compete in the title race overall (teams will now ‘drop’ their worst race weekend from their final championship standings.)

All very embarrassing. And as the heavy rain arrived on Sunday, also potentially very dangerous: because the teams were going to be heading out on track with almost no set-up data, no idea what was going to happen when they hit the first turn in the new cars in wet conditions.

Fortunately the actual race day action when it came was highly entertaining – at least for those wrapped up nice and warm and dry, because it was the truly atrocious conditions that made for all types of fun and games out there, for the TV viewers if not for the drivers or teams.

Sprint race

The sprint race started under safety car conditions as the rain came down heavily. And good job too, given that when the green flag finally came out, Team Ireland’s Adam Carroll spun coming out of the final corner onto the start-finish straight, turned one-eighty and got hit by Team Monaco. Both cars went out, while at the other end of the start-finish straight Team Lebanon promptly aquaplaned off at the first turn and narrowly missed hitting anyone on his way to the gravel. He was able to recover, as was Team Australia after being hit by an aquaplaning Team South Korea car a few laps later.

Up in front, Jeroen Bleekemolen was delighting the home crowd opening up a big lead ahead of youngster Earl Bamber in the Team NZ car. But with the conditions worsening by the minute and the rain getting even heavier, the Team Netherlands car started to struggle badly and Team NZ caught up and finally got the jump on the leader going into the hairpin. Bleekemolen fought back desperately but ended up going off-track through muddy puddles and Bamber scampered off into the distance as the Dutch car continued to struggle and promptly got overtaken by Team Malaysia and Team France, which was putting in some of the fastest laps of the day.

But it was Fairuz Fauzy in the Team Malaysia who was getting better and better with every passing lap. He hunted down Bamber and in an impressive move – sticking to a tight inside line through the long left hander of Hugenholz in now almost impossible conditions to take a well-deserved lead.

The race was scheduled for 14 laps, but with two to go Team Brazil spun their car into the barriers (causing considerable damage that ruled them out of the feature race) and then Team China spun at the final turn and lightly hit the barrier at the entrance to the pit lane, and finally the organisers decided enough was enough – at this rate there wouldn’t be enough teams with intact cars and sufficient spare parts to take the feature race grid. The red flag was thrown and the race called.

Pos Driver               Team                      Gap
 1. Fairuz Fauzy         Malaysia            19:44.533
 2. Earl Bamber          New Zealand            +3.474
 3. Loic Duval           France                 +6.270
 4. Jeroen Bleekemolen   Netherlands           +13.433
 5. Neel Jani            Switzerland           +16.896
 6. Adrian Zaugg         South Africa          +20.925
 7. Fabio Onidi          Italy                 +22.214
 8. Charlie Kimball      USA                   +24.150
 9. Filipe Albuquerque   Portugal              +29.427
10. Daniel Morad         Lebanon               +38.929
11. John Martin          Australia           +1:27.471
12. Ho-Pin Tung          China                  +1 lap
13. Felipe Guimaraes     Brazil                 +1 lap

Retirements

    Jin Woo Hwang        Korea                  3 laps
    Satrio Hermanto      Indonesia              2 laps
    Adam Carroll         Ireland                2 laps
    Clivio Piccione      Monaco                  1 lap

Fastest lap Duval, 1:45.939 on lap 6

Feature race

With conditions still appalling for the feature race, the safety car once again led the way around for the first couple of laps. once the track went green, Malaysia got off to a confident start but Team NZ was immediately under pressure from first Team France (continuing their impressive pace from the sprint session) and then Team Netherlands (who had a much better setup than they did in the morning.)

Team US and Team China were early spinners, but were able to carry on; Team Ireland however got beached on the gravel and had to be winched away, while Team Italy aquaplaned into the back of Team South Africa and put both cars out, Team Indonesia had a heavy impact into the barriers after spinning, while Team Switzerland had a more low key retirement limping into the pits with gear failure possibly as a result of the rain getting into the electronics.

Malaysia and Netherlands both came in early for their first mandatory pit stops, and both had problems with rear wheel attachments that lost them time. Netherlands then had an aditional problem with a gear shift issue that forced an additional pit stop, putting them well down the running order. Team France stayed out much longer and had a smoother stop save for a stray wheel bouncing free into the pit lane and came out well in front of Malaysia, but were lucky to avoid a penalty for the errant tyre. Later on in the race, Australia were also lucky to avoid a penalty themselves for unsafe release of their car into the path of Team Lebanon.

The safety car was finally brought out on lap 16 because of the sheer number of cars piling up out on track: a heavy crash by Team Portugal on turn 13 and an innocuous spin by Team South Korea were the final straws that forced the organisers’ hands. France was leading Malaysia and New Zealand with Team Lebanon an impressive 4th and then Australia, US and then Netherlands in 7th after their enforced extra stop, and only 11 cars were still running.

The safety car bunched the field right back up again – particularly helpful for Team Netherlands, which quickly got past Team US, only to lose the position later on when their gear shift problem recurred. Jeroen Bleekemolen finally got a new steering wheel to fix the problem at his next pit stop, while Team US went on to take the lead of the race after France, Malaysia and New Zealand came in for effective pit stops. Alas, just after setting the fastest lap of the race so far, Charlie Kimball  then touched the white line on the outside of turn 7 which threw the car into a spin and off into the deep gravel. Despite retiring, he would still get a point for being classified in 10th position in a race of high attrition – nine cars finally finished, out of 17 starters.

The safety car made a second appearance on lap 32 when Team Lebanon lost the back end going through a deepening puddle on the start-finish straight, spun and collected Team China in the process. Both cars hurtled off the track at turn 1 at high speed, almost launching into the air before crunching into the tyre wall. Both cars sustained very heavy damage – a month is about what they will need to regroup for the next A1GP outing.

That left Team France heading the field as the race finished behind the safety car. It was a huge triumph for Loic Duval and the team, that only received the car on Friday, only ran it for the first time during qualifying on Saturday, and who ended up with two strong results – including the feature victory – despite having to work their way up from 11th on the grid. They must surely be the initial favourites for this year’s title as a result.

Malaysia in second will top the A1GP championship standings after this weekend after a win and a second, while New Zealand finish with a third – Earl Bamber looks like a future star of the series, a sure winner if not champion of tomorrow.

Pos  Driver               Team                       Gap
 1.  Loic Duval           France             1:11:58.723
 2.  Fairuz Fauzy         Malaysia              +  2.288
 3.  Earl Bamber          New Zealand           +  2.709
 4.  John Martin          Australia             +  6.329
 5.  Jeroen Bleekemolen   Netherlands           +  8.273
 6.  Clivio Piccione      Monaco                + 2 Laps
 7.  Jin Woo Hwang        Korea                 + 3 Laps
 8.  Daniel Morad         Lebanon               + 4 Laps
 9.  Ho-Pin Tung          China                 + 5 Laps
10.  Charlie Kimball      USA                   + 6 Laps

Not classified

     Felipe Albuquerque   Portugal               15 laps
     Satrio Hermanto      Indonesia              12 laps
     Adrian Zaugg         South Africa            5 laps
     Fabio Onidi          Italy                   5 laps
     Felipe Guimaraes     Brazil                  5 laps
     Adam Carroll         Ireland                 4 laps
     Neel Jani            Switzerland             4 laps

Fastest lap, Kimball 1:47.115 on lap 30
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