Grand prix racing returned to Africa in January when, for the first time since 1985, a grand prix race was run in South Africa. The country was once a fixture on the Formula One (F1) grand prix circuit, until the French government forbade the Ligier and Renault teams from visiting South Africa as part of an anti-apartheid campaign. That final race, boycotted so effectively by the French, was a financial disaster for the F1 organisers, and for over two decades South African fans have been denied top-flight motor racing run on local soil.
But that has now all changed. F1 has yet to make its return to South Africa--although it might be imminent with the proposed building of a new race-circuit outside Cape Town--but A1 GP racing made a triumphant debut on the last weekend of January 2006. In front of President Thabo Mbeki and more than 100,000 spectators, the South African A1 GP was run over a specially designed Durban street circuit.
A1 is the brainchild of Sheik Maktoum Hasher Maktoum A1 Maktoum, scion of Dubai's fabulously wealthy royal family. He has plunged millions into this new sport; underwriting much of the reported $40m start-up costs as well as helping finance the design and building of the racing cars and their engines and guaranteeing the prize money up for grabs at each race. The winning team receives a cash prize of $300,000 and points that are tallied-up at the end of the season to ascertain the season's winning team.
For all its apparent similarities with F1, it is radically different from the generally better-known series and, promoters insist and spectators generally agree, radically more exciting too.
The main differences are that the cars are identical and race as national teams. For many motor-racing fans, tired of the 'procession' that has characterised so many F1 races in recent years, A1 GP offers a far more competitive spectacle.
All A1 cars share the same body shell, running gear and power plant, namely a Lola chassis and 550bhp V8 Zytec engine capable of a top speed of around 190mph. A special overtake button adds an extra 30bhp to the engine's output, but can be used only in short spurts.
The teams are forbidden to 'tweak' or adjust any of the high-tech engineering, so it is left to the driver to make the difference using his (there are no 'hers') skill and courage to gain an advantage over rival drivers and beat them to the chequered flag. It is...