Due to the Indonesian A1 GP being postponed, the series only restarts for 2006 this weekend at the tight street circuit in Durban, South Africa. While organisers have taken every safety precaution possible and FIA Safety Inspector Charlie Whiting has given it the green light, a lot of the type of minor “offs” we have seen in A1 so far would certainly lead to the end of the challenge for the team – as the kitty litter at a lot of corners is replaced by hard concrete wall. It seems we are in for an exciting race.
Race organisers are upbeat: “Although we started construction of the circuit only at the beginning of December, with roadworks and erection of the first temporary grandstands, great progress has been made and all of Durban and the province of KwaZulu Natal are looking forward to the honour of hosting the South African leg of this exciting motorsport ‘World Cup of Nations’, and the only street race in the 12-round series,” said Cooper.
“Despite the very short time frame, we’re making excellent progress,” continued Cooper. “It’s a big team effort and everyone is pulling together very well.”
Ticket sales have been strong and the race is almost sold out, with more sales expected as the race weekend commences – and with good reason. A1 has had a long break and there is every chance that we may see some new teams making headway in this race. Team Switzerland with the talented Neel Jani (confirmed as 3rd driver for Scuderia Toro Rosso this season) as driver has been hovering not far behind the so-far dominant team France for a number of races now and would have had a clean sweep of victories on the last race day but for some terrible luck.
Furthermore, we will likely see some new drivers as the A1 stars are recognised and snapped up by teams in other series. Jani’s move to F1 has already been mentioned, the very successful French driver Nicholas Lapierre will be contesting the 2006 GP2 Championship with top team Arden International, Nelson Piquet Jr is staying on for a second GP2 campaign with the PiquetSports team and Matthias Lauda has been linked to a Mercedes DTM drive. How all of this will affect their A1 drives is unclear at this point.
What we do know is that the hopes of the New Zealand team to field the higly successful IRL driver Scott Dixon this year have been crushed by his Indy Car team, Target – the Indy team maintaining that they want his full focus.
The drivers also seem to have renewed their focus during the lull, taking the opportunity to train hard. Ralf Firman, for instance, spent a week training with Olympic athletes in St Moritz, Switzerland. Under the guidance of highly-rated trainer Bernie Shrosbree, whose other motorsport clients have included Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Giancarlo Fisichella, the Irish driver spent six hours a day cross country-skiing before joining Olympic rowers for three-hour sessions in the gym.
Stephen Simpson has also redoubled his training efforts in anticipation of his home race and is cautiously optimistic: “We’ve improved with each race meeting and in Dubai, where our car, Vulindlela, was at its most competitive, we were just four tenths of a second off the pace. Now we must consolidate, continue to make improvements and score more points in the competition.”
“The Durban race will be a big challenge for all of us. A street race is very different to a custom-made circuit, but it will be an amazing experience to compete in front of a South African crowd. I think they’re in for an experience of a lifetime and with the circuit being brand new and unknown to all the drivers, the results are going to be hard to predict.
“South Africans can be sure, though, that their team will be putting in a maximum effort to do them all proud at home.”
For more on how A1 compares with F1, see A1 vs F1: Real off-season entertainment?
Edu de Jager