A1GP: Rounds 13 & 14 – Brands Hatch, Great Britain – 3 May

The fourth season of A1GP came to an end this week at Brands Hatch (unexpectedly prematurely following the cancellation of the Mexico City round due to swine flu) with a thrilling showdown between Ireland, Switzerland and Portugal for the title.

Sprint race

Adam Carroll was thrilled to win the sprint race and put Ireland in the best possible position for the championship going into the final race. But it wasn’t quite as straightforward as they might have hoped for.

Carooll got a good start from the grid, but it paled next to the flying Mexican car driven by Salvador Duran who blasted into the lead going into the first corner. Carroll could easily stay in touch, but overtaking never seemed on – it would all rest on the mandatory pit stop.

As it turned out, Mexico and Ireland both came into the pits on lap 5. Ireland’s pit crew are the best in the business, and Carroll exited the pit box first while Mexico struggled with a problematic front left tyre. It was enough of a delay not only to lose them the lead, but even second spot – to India, who had pitted the lap previously and made the best use of fresh rubber to put in a fast lap. Even worse for Duran, when Team USA pitted on lap 7, they too were able to emerge from the pit lane ahead of Mexico, robbing Duran of the final podium position.

Fortunately for Mexico, JR Hildebrand had a nasty moment exiting Clark Curve at the end of lap 10 allowing Duran to reclaim third spot. But there was no hope of catching India, let alone of trying to retake the lead – Carroll had disappeared off into the distance, over 7s ahead of the rest of the field at the end, although he had one scary moment on lap 11 when he went into a corner too deep, put two wheels off track, and nearly lost control. After that he drive slightly more conservatively, although it was still important for the championship stakes that he should get the point for fastest lap as well.

Even better for Ireland, their championship rivals didn’t fare so well. Portugal’s Filipe Albuquerque finished fifth after a first lap collision with Team USA on Paddock Hill Bend, while Neel Jani ran wide into the same turn on lap 3 to lose a place to Australia and ended up a disappointing eighth, left wondering what had happened to their usual blistering race pace.

New Zealand had an eventful but fruitless race, running 7th early in the race but then running wide into Surtees on lap 3 and onto the grass. No damage was don, but by lap 15 Earl Bamber was outside the top ten and running behind Team Lebanon when Daniel Morad lost the back of his car right in front of the Kiwi black beauty going into Paddock Hill, putting the car into the gravel and leaving Bamber no where to go except to follw him. Fortunately the cars didn’t make contact, although they were beached in the run-off area and out of the race.

The only other retirement of the race was Team Monaco on lap 8: the car crawled to a stop exiting the pit lane, belching smoke and – a minute later – also showing some flames licking the bodywork.

At the sharp end of the field, the result puts Ireland 8pts ahead of Team Switerland and 11pts ahead of Portugal, meaning that sixth place or better in the feature race would be enough to secure the championship.

Pos Driver                Team                   Time
 1. Adam Carroll          Ireland          22m32.704s
 2. Narain Karthikeyan    India                +7.230
 3. Salvador Duran        Mexico              +12.340
 4. JR Hildebrand         USA                 +12.689
 5. Filipe Albuquerque    Portugal            +13.018
 6. Jeroen Bleekemolen    Netherlands         +13.783
 7. John Martin           Australia           +15.208
 8. Neel Jani             Switzerland         +22.220
 9. Nicolas Prost         France              +22.945
10. Vitantonio Liuzzi     Italy               +27.062
11. Michael Ammermuller   Germany             +31.947
12. Satrio Hermanto       Indonesia           +33.159
13. Dan Clarke            Great Britain       +33.541
14. Franky Cheng          China               +34.963
15. Alan van der Merwe    South Africa        +40.488
16. Aaron Lim             Malaysia            +41.528

Retirements

 Daniel Morad             Lebanon             13 laps
 Earl Bamber              New Zealand         13 laps
 Clivio Piccione          Monaco               8 laps
 Felipe Guimaraes         Brazil               0 laps


Fastest lap, Carroll 1m12.276s

Feature race

All Ireland needed was sixth place or better to clinch the title: but Adam Carroll had bigger plans for the final race of the A1GP season.

After a waved-off first attempt at a start for a stalled South Africa car on the grid, the feature race got underway with a much better start for Ireland than the sprint race, while Team Portugal also making great progress up the inside to climb to 5th.

But behind the leaders, Team USA touched the back of the Team China car, who spun and collected innocent bystanders India on the outside. China slithered to a stop on the gravel, but Narain Karthikeyan had a rougher time of it and nearly dug in at one point. Fortunately the car didn’t roll and he was able to climb out, shaken not stirred, while the safety car led the field around for the wreckage to be cleared up.

At the restart, Carroll had no problems getting away int he lead, and kept the top spot until the first mandatory pit stop window whereupon Ireland were the first to pit, pulling off another of their blinding pit crew performances. That briefly gave the lead to Monaco, who had been able to start second despite the pit lane fire in the sprint cup race, but Monaco’s stop was sluggish and they ended up fifth after the pit stops flitered through.

Mexico by contrast stayed out several laps longer, and put the time to good use by coming out of the pit lane right in front of Australia to gain 6th place; Australia then quickly dropped another spot, to Team GBR, after Dan Clarke pulled off arguably the overtaking move of the day going into Paddock Hill Bend, late braking and somehow managing not to send the car into a slide exiting the turn on lap 14.

Ireland’s lead over Netherlands in 2nd was over 7s, but Adam Carroll was having to contend with lapped traffic in the form of Team USA (who had needed an additional pit stop to change their front wing after their first lap shenanigans) and ended up dropping two seconds of that gap before the second pit stop window opened and Carroll was again first car in to put an end to trailing JR Hildebrand. It wasn’t such a good stop this time, but no serious harm was done: Jeroen Bleekemolen almost overshot the pit lane entrance when he pitted on the next lap, and then he found his exit impeded by the incoming Team GBR car: consequently Ireland sailed past before Netherlands got back on track. The gap was much closer, however.

Once the pit stops were concluded, Ireland again came up with the problem of the backmarker Team USA car holding them up. An appeal to the crew in the pit lane finally got JR Hildebrand to yield the position on lap 41, allowing Carroll to get into clear air again with nothing between him and the race win – and moreover, the championship. He put the gap over the Netherlands back up to 10s by the penultimate lap, when he started hitting further back markers – but these proved to be a little more considerate and aware than Team USA had been.

New Zealand ended up in the gravel for their second consecutive race, the back end of the car snapping away from Earl Bamber on lap 7 for no apparent reason, while Team Malaysia retired on lap 28 when Aaron Lim simply ran off the track and beached in the gravel.

Team Germany made it to lap 26 before an exhaust problem apparently triggered a system shutdown and Michael Ammermuller abruptly cruised to a halt and pulled off the track. Team Switzerland and Team GBR also suffered cracked exhausts: Neel Jani was able to carry on almost unaffected but, lacking engine power, Dan Clarke found himself under pressure from John Martin in the Team Australia car but managed to battle on to the chequered flag to make this home event one of the better, fiestier performances of the season for the otherwise ailing British outfit.

Team Switzerland came in third, which under other circumstances would have been a good result, but Neel Jani and the team were clearly frustrated that their title bid had simply fizzled out at the very end. Portugal, too, felt that they had had the momentum behind them coming into the final race and were particularly hit by the loss of the Mexico round. Both teams did well but were essentially side shows today in what was all about Ireland, a peerless performance from them that saw them cross the finish line way out in front in sprint race, feature event and indeed championship, sealing Ireland’s first-ever international motorsport championship in the nation’s history. The Brands Hatch whitewash was a perfect, brilliant way to seal the deal too.

While it was a shame to lose the Team Mexico round, at least the often-troubled 2008/9 season of A1GP ended with style and a flourish, with cheers and celebrations before a big and enthusiastic motorsport crowd.

Pos  Driver               Team           Time
 1.  Adam Carroll         Ireland        1h04m14.970s
 2.  Jeroen Bleekemolen   Netherlands     +   10.156s
 3.  Neel Jani            Switzerland     +   13.564s
 4.  Clivio Piccione      Monaco          +   14.293s
 5.  Filipe Albuquerque   Portugal        +   16.484s
 6.  Salvador Duran       Mexico          +   21.810s
 7.  Dan Clarke           Great Britain   +   23.409s
 8.  John Martin          Australia       +   24.493s
 9.  Vitantonio Liuzzi    Italy           +   46.004s
10.  Nicolas Prost        France          +   49.094s
11.  Alan van der Merwe   South Africa    + 1m13.905s
12.  Daniel Morad         Lebanon         + 1m16.257s
13.  Satrio Hermanto      Indonesia       +     1 lap
14.  JR Hildebrand        USA             +     1 lap

Retirements:

    Aaron Lim            Malaysia       27 laps
    Michael Ammermuller  Germany        26 laps
    Earl Bamber          New Zealand     6 laps
    Cheng Cong Fu        China           0 laps
    Narain Karthikeyan   India           0 laps
    Felipe Guimaraes     Brazil          0 laps

Championship

Ireland’s domination of the final round of the A1GP 2008/9 season mkaes the championship table look rather safe and easy for them, so it’s worth remembering that they came into this final race two points behind Switzerland who looked the safer bet for the title, and only four points ahead of Portugal.

It shows why Switzerland and Portugal will be so disappointed with the outcome, as they both had strong chances just one day earlier. But even if the season had continued on to Mexico, the gap that Ireland opened up here would have been almost impossible to close.

Ireland put their strong finish down to the decision to focus the team on one driver – on Adam Carroll – from very early on. It’s worth other nations remembering that in future, and not switching drivers or “making do” with whoever is available.

Netherlands came a creditable fourth, but after that the points tail off very rapidly showing lack of consistency over the seven weekend season.

Pos Team    Points
1   Ireland         112
2   Switzerland      95
3   Portugal         92
4   Netherlands      75
5   France           47
6   Malaysia         43
7   New Zealand      36
8   Australia        36
9   Monaco           35
10  Great Britain    28
11  USA              24
12  India            19
13  Mexico           19
14  South Africa     19
15  Brazil           18
16  Italy            17
17  Lebanon           8
18  China             7
19  Korea             4
20  Indonesia         3
21  Germany           2

Hopefully now that the series has completed its difficult transition to a new chassis and the new Ferrari engine, it can focus on building up a proper season of events. This one has been hit by the lack of readiness of hardware, teams falling apart because of economic problems, and the sudden cancellation of scheduled races for a host of races (like swine flu in the case of Mexico.) It all makes the series somewhat slap dash and hit and miss, and after a very impressively professional first two to three seasons all of a sudden A1GP is looking a bit amateur hour.

It needs to shape up and restore its reputation if it is to make it beyond five seasons.

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