Driving ambition

Inspired by a Dubai sheikh, A1 Grand Prix aims to put driver skill at the heart of a new global motorsport extravaganza based on UK technology.

Fangio, MOSS, Hill and Hunt. Once, motor racing was all about skill when legendary heroes with nerves of steel duelled wheel to wheel to be first to the chequered flag in a contest where a driver’s innate ability counted for more than the performance of his car.

It’s a far cry from today’s Formula One, in which races are often won or lost in the pits or the team HQ – a situation the established sport is only too well aware of and is taking steps to curb.

Putting driver skill centre stage is the vision of Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum al Maktoum of Dubai and his motivation for bankrolling A1 Grand Prix, a new global racing series. The sheikh and his partners – businessmen Brian Menell and Tony Teixeira, each with a 20 per cent stake – have the financial muscle to make it happen, and the first race is due to be staged in just over a year from now. Last week, Sky Sports signed to screen the new series.

A1 GP goes further than ever before in making the driver the determining factor because all the competitors will use the same car with the same engine. There have been one-make race series before, and competitions such as the US Champ series with a choice of two chassis. But even in these, some teams are better resourced than others and able to carry out much more development work. A1 GP will be unique in that there will be strict limitations on the adjustments teams can make to their cars.

The competition will be stoked further by the fact that there will be a one-team franchise for each country. Drivers will be racing under their national flag; Sheikh Maktoum hopes this will engender a sense of national pride and make A1 GP ‘the World Cup of Motorsport’.

As is usually the case in motorsport, the organisers have turned to UK engineers to make their vision a reality. Two UK firms with established reputations in motorsport have been chosen as key suppliers – Lola for the chassis and Zytek for the engine.

Lola has previously supplied chassis for Champ Car in the US, Formula Nippon in Japan and Formula 3000 in Europe. The Norfolk company was able to produce a running A1 GP prototype between being signed up this January and the launch of the concept in March. Zytek’s engine division has produced 85 units for Formula 3000, for which it has been sole engine supplier since 1996.

A1 GP general manager Stephen Watson – a former Formula 3000 racer and F1 test driver – is quick to claim that the new series is intended to complement F1 rather than compete with it, contrary to what some may think. Its races will be held in the F1 close season, mainly at tracks in countries not closely associated with international motorsport. Even F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has endorsed the idea.

‘It’s not comparable with F1 because it’s a different concept,’ claimed Watson. ‘The idea is to promote driver skills on as level a playing field as possible, rather than pitch manufacturer against manufacturer. Another advantage is there won’t be big R&D costs.’

This last point is a crucial difference. A1 GP itself will effectively take on the burden of R&D. The plan is that once the design is finalised, apart from development to eliminate teething troubles, it will remain unchanged for the first three seasons.

That doesn’t mean the cars will be sub-standard, as they will incorporate state-of-the-art technology, the latest chassis construction and electronic control unit (ECU) technology. The A1 GP car will boast the familiar carbon fibre chassis tub, aerodynamic aids to provide significant downforce, and power from an advanced 520bhp 3.4 litre V8 engine which will give the potential for 300kph on circuits with a favourable layout. There won’t, however, be electronic traction control or stability control.

The look of the car has also been designed to be different and distinctive. Sheikh Maktoum has gone as far as claiming that the only similarity with an F1 car is that it has four wheels and a driver. The A1 GP car will have a 3m wheelbase, weigh 600kg without fuel and driver, the usual front and rear double wishbone suspension and a six-speed sequential gearbox.

The Engineer met Watson earlier this month fresh from the first test session at Snetterton, Norfolk. This was intended to be a ‘shakedown session’ – to make sure all different suppliers’ components were working together and to come up with a basic driveable set-up. In fact, said Watson, the car had exceeded expectations, covering 400km in two days and pulling 3g turns. ‘The car was faultless from a reliability point of view,’ he said. ‘The engine didn’t skip a beat.’

Engine reliability is a key issue, and Watson was instrumental in the decision to specify a V8 power plant to provide the required 520bhp rather than wring it out of a stressed V6. ‘That way we gain reliability and flexibility,’ he said. ‘We want an engine life of 3,500km before rebuilding, so that will only be needed at the end of the season, to keep costs low.’

The intention is to complete a season’s worth of test running by the start of the 2005 series. A1 GP will not only undertake the R&D, but will also look after the logistics of moving the cars between races and – uniquely for any race series – will actually own the cars.

‘The teams will arrive on the Wednesday before the race weekend,’ said Watson. ‘They’ll pick up two cars, and select a sealed ECU for the engine from a pool.’ Teams will be barred from adding any ‘foreign material’ or additional components to the ECU.

They will still employ pit teams, because they will be allowed to fine-tune the chassis, steering and suspension parameters. These include wing angle, tyre pressure, toe-in/toe-out, castor and camber angles within the tolerance of the suspension, anti-roll bar settings, spring rates, damper bump/rebound rates (but not the dampers themselves) and ride heights.

Although the pit teams won’t be able to touch the engine, they will be permitted to choose different gear ratios. Where changes are carried out by substituting components, parts supplied by A1 GP have to be used. A1 GP will also supply fuel and tyres.

Pit stops will be allowed, but not refuelling. The ability to change these parameters will be enough to provide a significant challenge to the set-up teams, Watson believes. ‘They’ll have their own expertise, but it will be like the Olympics – every javelin thrower will have the same javelin,’ he said.

Dedicated support from Zytek and Lola will also be on hand at each race.

At the end of the race weekend, A1 GP will take the cars away. Between events teams will be able to analyse the data they have collected, but that’s all. ‘In Champ Car there is a choice of two chassis, but wealthy teams have the ability to do wind tunnel testing, or seven-post rig testing (where the vehicle is mounted on a rig which simulates suspension loads). This will not be allowed in A1 GP,’ said Watson.

Attempting to get round the rules will be a risky business. ‘If you cheat, you risk losing your franchise, and that’s a huge financial penalty,’ said Watson. ‘and as you’re representing your country it will also be a national disgrace.’

The A1 car will have at least two unique features. One is an engine boost button designed to give a temporary increase in power. The other is the paddle shift gear-changing system, also designed by Zytek, which will be all-electronic, as opposed F1 cars’ electro-pneumatic system. Having a fully electronic system allows more freedom in writing the software governing changes.

This system – previously used only on Zytek’s Le Mans sports cars – provides for a flat (full throttle) upshift, with a programmed-in throttle blip to match revs on the downshift. ‘We’re currently calibrating it to punch in the gear properly when you’re standing on the brakes,’ said Watson.

This week, testing moved to Jerez in Spain, where the hotter, dustier conditions will be closer to the prevailing climate in most of the race locations. There will be more tyre degradation, higher engine and oil temperatures, a higher track temperature – which affects grip – and dust, which has a bearing on engine filtration. Cooling through radiators and around the engine, including ancillary components such as the alternator, needs to be verified. Since air is less dense at higher temperatures, it is necessary to make sure the flow into the engine is sufficient to develop full power. Cockpit temperatures and brake performance also have to be evaluated.

Inevitably, safety has been a prime concern. The car passed FIA crash tests with a 50 per cent margin. ‘I want my drivers to feel secure,’ said the sheikh. ‘We’re making no compromises – the car will be as safe as it can be made.’

Manufacture of the chassis tubs is expected to be under way by the end of the month, while Zytek is also gearing up for engine production. Although some outstanding issues remain. Tyre development has still to be undertaken. A tyre supplier has not yet been decided, although the car is currently running on Avon items. There will only be one type of slick and one wet weather version.

There is also a part engineering/part aesthetic debate over whether the wheels should be 13in or 18in. Watson feels 13in is preferable from an engineering point of view. Sheikh Maktoum prefers the more aggressive 18in. A decision is expected soon.

Overall, Watson claimed development is right on target. ‘We’re exactly to time. We’ve done so much wind tunnel testing, simulation and seven-post rig testing that we’re very confident in the design,’ he said. ‘The car is very driveable – it will slide progressively, and it responds very well to changes. I haven’t had so much fun thrashing a car like that for years. ‘If the world’s race fans find similar enjoyment watching A1 GP, it could become a staple of the world’s sporting calendar.

Sidebar: Two events

Backers in up to 30 countries, including the UK, are being invited to apply for A1 GP franchises. The cost will depend on the wealth of the nation concerned.

Each franchisee will get revenues from sponsors’ ads on their car and merchand-ising and radio broadcast rights in their country, plus a share of TV broadcast fees.

Some countries will not have a pool of ready-made driving talent available, potentially putting them at an initial disadvantage. But Sheikh Maktoum believes the decision to run under national flags will generate interest in ‘races within races’ as rivals such as India and Pakistan or Turkey and Greece battle for supremacy.

There will be two events on each race weekend. A 15-20 minute sprint race will count towards final grid positions for the main race which will last 40-60 minutes. Championship points and prize money will be awarded according to finishing position. Dubai, Bahrain, Australia and Malaysia are among those tipped as likely race venues when the first franchisees are named at the end of September.

Sidebar:

Zytek’s record in Formula 3000, in which it has been involved since 1989, was a crucial factor in the contract to build 40 engines for A1 GP. The company’s engines have covered over two million km in the series.

Also in its favour was Zytek’s ability to act as a one-stop shop, providing the wiring looms and electronic control units. A1 GP had to satisfy itself that Zytek could meet the tolerances on power output to put all drivers on an equal footing.

The decision to go for a less-stressed V8 engine did not make the job any less demanding, said John Manchester, operations director of Zytek Engineering. ‘If anything it makes it more of a challenge. 520bhp is not a small amount. You’ve got to get the horsepower but still go for 3,500km between rebuilds. There’s a fine line between getting as much power out as possible and keeping the reliability, without over-designing.’

The ZA 1348 engine, specially designed for A1 GP, is a naturally-aspirated 90 degree all-aluminium V8 of 3.4 litres, developing 520bhp (390kW) and 330lbft [442Nm] of torque.

A unique feature is the power boost button to provide an additional element to involve TV viewers. It will add 30bhp of extra power but its use will be limited to perhaps 40 seconds a race. A bar graph at the side of the TV screen will show how much time each team has left, giving viewers an insight into team strategy.

Zytek is still finalising how this will be achieved: two possibilities are by changing the electronic control unit (ECU) mapping or restricting/de-restricting airflow.

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