The website Atlas F1 was a popular and comprehensive website dedicated to Formula One, which eventually merged into a partnership with Autosport in 2004. The site was well known for its excellent articles and insight into Formula One and maintained a loyal fan-base, who still enjoy browsing the ‘nostalgic posts’ maintained on the internet from the site’s former glory days.
In 1957, controversial Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand published her longest and best-known novel Atlas Shrugged, set in the indeterminable future and revolving around a society strangled by excessive government regulations. The best inventors and brightest minds in the world keep mysteriously disappearing, refusing to have their ideas watered down to mediocrity by the all-powerful beurocrats and declaring the State holds no right to tax away their wealth in the name of ‘fairness’. Throughout the novel, people attempt to answer the question ‘Who is John Galt?’, a phrase which becomes the equivalent of saying ‘I don’t know the answer’.
In GP Atlas: Shrugging… there is growing discontent amongst the Formula One teams and fans as innovation upon innovation is banned by the FIA to slow the cars down and ‘prevent dominance’. This leads to a grid of cars which all look very similar, with little change in performance from one circuit to the next. Measures designed to help the poorest teams by cutting costs, such as engines and gearboxes which last for almost a quarter of a season, coincide with the longest ever run in Grand Prix history of the poorest teams not scoring a single point.
The series explores the efforts of a breakaway series with the goal of returning Grand Prix racing to the ‘Golden era’ of noisy cars with fat tyres, wacky designs and exciting tracks, at a price affordable to the fans. What can the new series learn from the mistakes made during the CART Vs Indy war? Will such a liberal rule-book ever work for real? And who is John Galt?
Disclaimer: Whilst real names have been used in this series to help tell the story, the opinions expressed within the series may not be those belonging to the persons mentioned, and ultimately represent the author’s view of current affairs in motorsport.
Part 1: The Dawn of GP Atlas
Episode 1: The Egyptian Grand Prix – ‘Come in and join us’
Thursday 25th February
There was a definite air of excitement inside ‘The world’s first indoor race track’ as the first round of the new World Professional Motor Championships approached. The massive structure ran over several floors above and below the ground and had caught the eye of not only the racing fraternity, but the architectural world too. This was pleasing for the circuit architect, Howard Roarke, as he still found that he could not stop himself inspecting the building every time he saw it. The workmen had done an excellent job, especially in such little time, but Roarke’s nature was such that he was always looking for improvements and new ways to innovate.
That would be a particularly tough task in this instance, though, so successful had he been at creating such an unusual building despite using fairly simple techniques.
‘I actually got a lot of stylistic freedom when I designed this place, far more than I had expected,’ he cheerfully explained to John Galt as they drove up to the circuit on the Thursday morning before the race, ‘Essentially all you’re doing is building a very tall, compact circuit and then putting some walls around it and a roof over the top. The only difficult bit was making it spectator friendly, but I figured that out without too many problems.’
They drove in through the gates, Roarke had stayed true to his usual style of having buildings reflect the local area, and the entrance to the circuit was sandy coloured with plenty of nods to ancient Egypt. The tall, pyramid shaped building ran as high as the skyscrapers that had made New York famous and was a modern wonder visible from miles around. Once Roarke and Galt were inside the grounds the road split into three lanes; General Public, VIPs, and Competitors & Staff, and snaked under ground, winding below the surface on a constant curve with a very gradually widening radius until they arrived at their car park. Egypt may have been a relatively new market for international motor racing, but Galt was determined to turn this unique venue into the showpiece event of his series, and Roarke had designed every inch with the enthusiast in mind.
Their inspection started in the general public car park, which was eerily empty on the day before any spectators arrived. Housed within the long curved roads below the ground was a large square structure running upwards, with the openings of the tunnels and facilities taking up one side and the other three sides housing elevator after elevator which ran up to the top. Just like Lloyds of London the elevators were entirely see-through so that the occupants could see everything going on as they gently rose back up to ground level. The floor above the general car park was the VIP car park, already containing a few luxury cars belonging to some key sponsors. Over the three day weekend it would boast enough luxury marques to constitute a motor show all by itself. The next floor was competitors and staff and would let the fans getting to the circuit early to try to spot their favourite stars and emerging talents and maybe, if they were lucky, share an elevator space with them too.
But even if fate didn’t smile on you as a fan and let you rub shoulders with your heroes, nobody would be denied the spectacle of the paddock, which sat on the highest floor below the ground and was visible from the clear elevators. Special passes to walk around it were priced affordably, but even those not going in could enjoy watching the team transporters unload, mechanics working on cars for the support races, and the various show-cars belonging to the top tier teams. Thursday was proving a busy day as teams hurried about making final preparations and giving interviews, some greeting their sponsors from the floor below with cars that were still in pieces and others that were merely being given an extra wax for the photographers.
Galt and Roarke got off on this floor and walked around, waving hello to anyone who wasn’t already clearly busy. On the far side from the elevator they hopped into one of the Aston Martins that was serving as the pace car and drove up through the tunnel that would take the race cars onto the entrance of the pit lane on race day. One of the advantages of building the world’s first indoor race track was that there was no need to put roofs on the pit buildings to keep the rain out, and so aside from a few beams to hang screens, they were entirely open so that special TV cameras hung from the circuit’s ceiling could see what was going on inside, as could those lucky enough to be standing on the VIP terrace behind the pit building, which also gave a great view of the upper floors of the circuit.
The track layout itself took some inspiration from great corners elsewhere in the world, but Roarke was keen to make his own mark in the design in as many ways as possible and drivers were expecting a long and tough race over sixty laps of the 3.5 mile course. From above one could spot similarities to a downscaled Indianapolis, although it featured only one banked turn and the road course would run clockwise. The start finish straight ran down the left hand side of the map, with a dip in the middle so that people could see over the pit and VIP buildings, and fed into the banked turn one, a very fast and wide radius right-handed hairpin. Unlike most circuits, this featured three intermediate time-splits that broke the lap down into quarters, rather than the conventional thirds. After turn one, a straight ran steeply uphill and into the very difficult turn two, also a right hander and still sloping uphill as the drivers turned 270 degrees. The climb leveled out on the top floor and a short straight fed into the tight, difficult complex at turns three (right), four (left), five (right) and six (left again), designed to test the drivers ability to set up for a tight sequence with an important exit. Another short straight fed into the flat turn seven left-hander, but then the track began to slope downwards again and onto the middle floor, with turn eight a little sharper and forming an elongated hairpin with the preceding turn seven and housing the second timing beam in the middle. As the track declined and ran under the top floor the drivers set themselves up for turn nine, a right-handed hairpin which tightened up in the middle and then opened out on the exit. Turn ten was a sharp, slow left hander that fed into an even tighter left handed turn eleven, before the cars accelerated along the middle floor straight and then braked heavily for the ‘nasty’ turn twelve, a 90 degree right hander as fierce as any North American street circuit which would claim a number of cars over the course of the weekend. After turn twelve came another straight, past the third timing beam and into the decline back onto the lower floor; two fast and sweeping right hand bend with a straight in the middle. After turn fourteen, another straight ran under the middle floor and into another right angled right hand bend; but turn fifteen differed from turn twelve as that was fast and resembled Bridge corner on the old Silverstone. A small straight allowed the drivers to set up for turn sixteen, the fifth of six consecutive right hand bends which ended the lap and one of the few easy corners on the track. The straight afterwards led into the final turn, seventeen, modeled on the last corner at Catalunya with a fast dart right before the Mickey-mouse chicane had been added in 2007. A shorter version could be made by turning right at turn eight and dropping down to rejoin with the entry to turn eleven, and the course could also be run in reverse to form an oval, running straight on at turn fifteen (giving the exit of this corner in road-course mode some hints of the old Monza banking meeting the exit of the Parabolica) and rising up hill sharply to an almost hump-back bridge like section at turn two, sloping down towards the banked turn which would now be the last corner on the track. The giant main grandstand which ran around the perimeter gave the venue an amphitheatre like feel, and wherever possible supports and walls had been made of thick, see-through materials so that fans watching from the outside could see corners on multiple flaws. Some bends offered standing room on the inside behind catch fencing for those wanting to be closer to the track, but the best views were in the grandstands looking in.
The final track maintenance was finished as the afternoon went on; the last sponsor hoardings put in place and the marshal posts stocked up with soft drinks and snacks. In the pits and paddock, the smallest teams were working flat out to get their cars ready in time. Ross Brawn looked over Mercedes calmly and Adrian Newey surveyed the works Lola team. Although Lola and Aston Martin would be working closely together throughout the season, they remained separate entities and most expected that the Newey’s magical chassis to make great strides over the course of the year. Lola were picking up plenty of fans with their dedication to historical liveries and popular drivers Sergio Perez and Anthony Davidson. Perez would drive the team’s first car, painted in their official colours of dark green and white, whilst Davison would drive the ‘tribute’ car running five different historically-inspired special liveries over the course of the season. The car itself featured the same Lola chassis available to customer teams (although the developments were reserved initially for the works squad), with the heavy but powerful Aston Martin V12 fitted behind the driver and an incredibly low-riding body with sweeping curves from end to end. Newey watched over the mechanics working on the two cars, raising a smile at the Orange and Blue colours of the second car in tribute to Lola’s last attempt at Formula One in 1997 with the disastrous T97/30. The team knew better than ever to be complacent but privately they were confident of at least beating SFR Team China; who were at the track all night on Thursday and into Friday practice still putting the car together, with Ma Qing-hua unlikely to improve their fortunes even when the machine was fully assembled.
Galt made his way out of the pits and headed to one of the conference rooms in the VIP building, where he would join the circuit’s promoter, Jean-Pierre Rapheal, for an interview with the series’ UK broadcaster Sport 4 that would form part of the build up to their qualifying and race coverage.
‘So, Mr Galt,’ asked the interviewer, ‘it must be very exciting to see your series running a competitive weekend for the very first time; How are you feeling?’
Friday 26th February
KERS would be an important feature throughout the weekend, and indeed the whole championship, as the removal of limits on KERS made teams invest more and more in making their cars more efficient in search of better performance. Williams had boosted resources allocated to their innovative ‘flywheel KERS’, which was now provided as standard with Renault and Porsche customer engines and offered a very different type of performance boost to those running a conventional battery-KERS. Although, both systems seemed to offer a similar kind of laptime around the indoor circuit.
Friday morning would not bring dawn rising over the circuit, rather somebody merely switching the lights on. The circuit looked impressive and just a little daunting for drivers witnessing it for the first time as they stepped out of the elevator by the final turn and tried to comprehend racing over three levels. Reigning champion Nico Rosberg had seen a map of the track but hadn’t been able to visit the venue in person owing to all his sponsor commitments in the build up to the race.
‘It looks incredible, really amazing,’ he told a German newspaper as he walked to the Mercedes garage, ‘Nobody’s been able to make a computer simulation of it yet so we’ll all be learning it for the first time – and I think that’ll be good for the fans too as we’ll all want to go out on track straight away to get as many laps in as possible’.
To keep things as even as possible, after the drivers were split into two groups for practice, each would go onto the circuit after it had been used by the same support category, to try to minimise the gains in track speed following WPMC rubber going down. The morning practices would follow on from the Clio Cup, whilst the afternoon sessions ran after the Meganne Celebrity Trophy. The car parks and paddock which had been billed as events in themselves were already bustling by a quarter to eight on the Friday morning, and fans who had arrived early and were riding up in the elevators and could see the Clio Cup fraternity laughing with one another, excited to be the first to try this unique new facility. Williams driver Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t much keen on attracting attention and drove up to the circuit through the tunnel, but Kamui Kobayashi was trying to give his personal sponsors as much exposure as physically possible and deliberately left something in the boot of his car so that he could take the public lift twice and speak with the fans; signing autographs and posing for photos that would cover his heavily-logo’d team-issue shirt all over Twitter.
Still an incredibly popular driver, Kobayashi stayed with the fans as long as he could before heading to the driver’s briefing; another unique event in that all the competitors assembled together in the giant briefing room – around two hundred of them across all classes – to eat breakfast. The drivers judged each other; those with a healthy nutritious breakfast looking down on those with heartier meals for not taking their sport seriously enough, those with the heartier meals doubting the full effect a healthy start of the day could really have.
For Paul Stoddart a few floors below, breakfast was a cup of coffee and several cigarettes. Perhaps he’d been mad to come and run a racing team, he wasn’t sure. All he did know for sure was that he ‘didn’t do a retirement’. He’d be skeptical at first of the open-formula rules, having pushed himself for more restrictions when in Formula One, but Galt had sold the idea to him on the same principles of how he’d built up his airline business - you just had to be clever.
The option of running a one-car team had certainly made for an easier birth, too. Stoddart looked over the latest Minardi; the PSW1, sitting patiently in the garage. For a small team ambitious enough to design and construct their own chassis, getting ready for the first race had been surprisingly undramatic and they felt good about qualifying for the main race – the first goal of all the newcomers. One of the more angled designs, the car was painted in Black with white detailing and had caught the attention of several big publications for its novel sponsorship schemes; each company backing the team would submit their logo in black and white or greyscale, a move which had generated a lot of attention and helped justify the investment. European Aviation sat on the side of the car, with a tasteful Porsche logo on the engine cover and Red Bull on the front and rear wings after the Austrian company had supplied some parts of the car through Red Bull Technologies. A few members of staff had left Scuderia Toro Rosso to join Minardi over the winter, too, but that hadn’t been of as much interest to the press as the paint scheme. A popular team in America after their brief stint in Champ Car, Sunoco Race Fuel was supplying the team for free in exchange for advertising on the car and use of the team in commercials State-side. The Porsche V8 engine was reliable and efficient if a little heavy, but their involvement with the series supplying Minardi and Conquest Racing gave Porsche extra development beds for their endurance racing parts. Factory driver Mark Webber would pilot the car for the opening rounds before his endurance racing commitments took over and Stoddart was already in negotiations for potential replacements. If a driver with enough funding could come to the team, he was even entertaining the possibility of expanding to extra cars with paid drivers in the other machines, though for now that was a longer-term goal.
Stoddart reached around for his cigarettes and began to imagine how he might get a tobacco firm to sponsor his team. He looked out from the pitlane and saw that the grandstands were already starting to fill up. It was an impressive Friday morning for an entirely new championship, helped in part by Rapheal putting together two week and ten day holiday packages to Shamh-al-Sheikh that included tickets to the entire weekend that had drawn a lot of European fans to witness the opening of the circuit. He walked back to the garage and greeted Webber after the driver’s briefing had finished. They ran over a few finer details about the car and their plans for the morning session as they heard the Clios venture out onto the track for the first time. To the surprise of many there were no serious accidents in this first session; one driver spun and hit the barrier with the back of his car but was able to get back to the pits, and several cars following each other gave the car in front a nudge after misjudging the braking points, but for the first twenty minutes of running at least there were no serious accidents.
When the chequered flag came out, the Clios returned to the paddock, with the WPMC drivers due out in session one settled into their cars, and waited for the pitlane to open. Fans were tuning in around the world, many in Britain watching over breakfast, as they were only an hour behind. Rosberg’s prediction proved correct and the minute the lights turned green all eighteen cars in the session headed for the circuit. Being furthest away from the pit exit though Rosberg was far from the first GPMC car to set out to practice, that honour went to Stefan GP’s Jaime Alguesari, followed by Racing Engineering’s Nick Heidfeld and then Jules Bianchi’s Marussia. Brendon Hartley and Sam Bird were the first into the pits with car troubles, whilst Vitteri Bottas was the first to crash when he went straight on at the difficult turn two. Although he’d miss the rest of the morning sessions, the car would be repaired without trouble, in time for the afternoon.
The drivers in session two watched from the pits. Lewis Hamilton watched with little surprise as team-mate Rosberg set the fastest time in the first session, whilst further down the pitlane Heikki Kovalainen was in deep conversation with his Prodrive Aston Martin team-mate Sebastien Buemi about how the car was handling, and complaining of oversteer. Buemi’s mechanics worked away on their car as best they could based on Kovalainen’s feedback, ready for the second group’s morning session. Back out on track Webber was putting in respectable times in the Minardi and besting fellow champ-car returnee team Newman Haas as Sebstian Bourdais reacquainted himself with his former team. The popular Hesketh team were kept busy as Susie Wolff dived in and out of the pits to make small changes to the car, only for her best lap at the end of the session to be ruined when she had to slow for a yellow flag after Ma Qing-hua spun out and broke his rear-wing, stalling the car in the process.
The flag came out with Rosberg topping the times and he returned to the pits satisfied with the car. The team had produced a fairly conventional design but had worked hard refining it over the winter, and thus far ‘playing it safe’ seemed to be the best option. The car was reliable and still as competitive as it had been in Formula One. Williams Flywheel KERS might have been more of a concern, but based on the first session, Star driver Raikkonen was more concerned in keeping Force India’s Adrian Sutil behind him than he was with chasing after Rosberg at the very front.
Hopes that putting the Clio cup cars out between the two GPMC sessions would remove some of the advantage of laying down GPMC rubber was somewhat undone when the Clio qualifying session was drastically reduced after a big accident three minutes in at turn twelve at the very difficult right-angle right hander on the middle floor. The driver lost control in the middle of the bend and snapped into the wall, bringing out the red flags after only three drivers, not expected to be in the fight for pole, had set laps. Their times would actually put them first, fifth and eighth on the grid, after the final few minutes of green flag running gave birth to a busy track with lots of traffic and stopped a number of the frontrunners from setting representative laptimes.
Everyone was expecting the second session to now be significantly quicker, at least from the morning, and for many teams there was less of a scramble to get out on track, as some drivers altered the setup of their car based on what their teammates had said before venturing out onto the circuit. Drayson racing had a good car but had an alarming problem in that the car, as it seemed to stall every time it came to a standstill and was struggling to get away again. Driver Robert Wickens was pushed out of the pits but went on to set a good time in a car then handled well but unremarkably. Anthony Davidson was first onto the tack in the special-liveried Lola, followed by Alexander Rossi and Jose Maria Lopez. Davide Valsecchi sat in the garage for the first twelve minutes as the team adjusted the car based on the comments of Sam Bird, who had run in session one. The early pace was set by the two Marussia’s of Chilton and Razia, although they were the only drivers from the established teams to run in the first twenty minutes at all.
Hamilton’s season got off to a bad start as he became the next casualty of turn twelve, misjudging it on his very first flying lap and clipping the inside of the bed, breaking the suspension and spitting him out on the exit so bad that he slammed into the wall hard enough to crack the chassis. Although Hamilton himself was unhurt, the car was a write-off and he would be unable to run in the afternoon session. Turn twelve would also claim Adrian Quaife-Hobbs in his Coloni right at the end of the session, although the damage to the car was minor enough to be fixed easily. With Hamilton’s Mercedes sidelined and the track getting faster and faster Maldonado set the best time for Williams, closely followed by Paul di Resta’s Force India and a surprise Vitaly Petrov in the Toyota as they managed to beat the Marussia’s. Davidson experienced some problems with the Lola ‘bottoming-out’ going through turns fifteen and sixteen and many felt this problem masked the Lola’s true pace.
The afternoon running would go on to confirm many people’s suspicions that Newey’s experimental works Lola was going to experience some teething troubles, and they were easily beaten by the works Dallara squad in the timesheets. The customer car battle was a different story, however, and six of the seven Lolas would make the grid for the main race on Sunday, compared to only three Dallara’s of the eleven entered.
The track continued to get faster during the afternoon, although the aim of reducing the advantage of running in group two came to greater fruition after the Meganne celebrity trophy cars managed to avoid any accidents in their two practice sessions. Out of the running in his own car, Hamilton watched his brother Nicholas head out on track in his special car adapted with hand-controls, which he would share with the legendary Alex Zanardi. The two were both quick in practice and seen as one of the favourites for the overall honours in a tough, closely-fought field. Their qualifying times would be good enough for third and tenth on the grid in the first two races.
Despite losing Hamilton’s laps, Mercedes had set up their car without difficulty and, still fastest, Rosberg came in early so as to not risk damaging the car. Raikkonen was second quickest in the first group but half a second down after also electing to not run so many laps. An engine failure early on in the session meant Susie Wolff would be resigned to the pre-race, a fate shared by Jaime Alguersuari after his gearbox broke. Jolyon Palmer would also have to go through pre-qualifying after crashing his works Dallara at turn eight. Sergio Perez looked fast and had competitive times in the first two sectors of the lap, but the Lola’s problems in the final laps continued to hamper him and he was losing several seconds fighting the car through the final quarter.
Maldonado would come close to Rosberg’s time when he ran in the second session, but glancing the wall on the exit of turn one forced him back to the garage and his qualifying simulation would have to wait until Saturday morning. Prodrive and Toyota looked to be the best of the rest as they finished up tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth and all four drivers separated by four tenths of a second. When the Hesketh car didn’t fail it seemed to be reasonably quick, and Mike Conway made it into the main race in twentieth place confident he could find more time to take the fight to the lower midfield. Meanwhile Davidson was only doing marginally better with the Lola than Perez had in group one, but ironically enough Perez’s automatic qualification into the main race, along with Hamilton’s, pushed Davidson into pre-race territory despite the Englishman setting the twenty-third best time. Sam Bird in twenty second for Epsilon Euskadi also found himself relegated.
After practice for the 125CC motorcycles it was time for the first race of the evening, and the Clio cup provided all the expected thrills and spills in its short eight lap races limited to twenty minutes. Practice for the World 2 cars showed the GP2 and Renault World series machines to be surprisingly closely matched and qualifying set up an all British lady-driver row three with Alice Powell and Louise Richardson set to line up alongside each other in Saturday’s feature race.
As night fell outside the circuit, the lights stayed on inside; not least at Coloni, Racing Engineering, Drayson Racing and SFR Team Chine who had no car yet in the main race.
The Saturday practice session saw the times come down further, and Rosberg again leading the way from Raikkonen. Nobody was quite sure just how hard the top teams were pushing, but seeing first to twenty-third covered by four and a half seconds gave the impression of quite a close field considering how many teams were new to the series. Hamilton was having to learn the track in the hour-long session but finished up sixth fastest, half a second clear of the star of the show Kamui Kobayashi, who powered his Toyota into seventh place and beating not only the Marussia’s but Bottas’s Williams as well.
‘I expect we’ll see a less-exciting grid for the race after qualifying,’ he conceded after the session, ‘but it’s always satisfying to put in such a good lap like that and to see yourself nice and high on the timing chart. I expect in quail we’ll be closer to where Vitaly was (fifteenth), though, since I expect the top teams have been sandbagging’.
Qualifying for World 2 and Formula Renault followed the WPMC Saturday morning practice session before qualifying kicked off at twelve noon local time. The knockout system used in Formula One and Indy Car road courses was something Galt was a fan of, and was a popular system with the fans, too. Global television audiences around the world were strong with so many viewers keen to get their first racing fix of the year, vindicating the decision to start the season a week before the Formula One Australian Grand Prix.
As qualifying approached the drivers stuck in the B races took up spaces in their garages, keen to see how the track was developing since they had no Saturday practice session of their own. The Lola team looked over their car with a strange mix of satisfaction and apprehension, since the car looked unusual after they drastically raised the ride height to cure their ‘bottoming out’ problems, which had led to Perez shooting up the order to eleventh in the Saturday morning practice session but made for a rather unusual looking car.
Reliability was, as expected, proving to be dividing the field and many midfield teams weren’t pushing their cars in the first knockout session believing it gave them the best hope of making it into session two. Luiz Razia’s Marussia, Justin Wilson’s Dallara and Vitaly Petrov’s Toyota all had mechanical problems which prevented them from setting representative laptimes, whilst Davide Valeschi crashed his Epsilon Euskadi on his outlap and would end up starting last. Rosberg continued to dominate with the fastest time, although a lively lap from Lewis Hamilton saw the Briton improve to second on the timesheets with Maldonado continuing to push the Williams as he took third. Perez was enjoying the modified Lola and took an excellent ninth in the first session, with Kobayashi continuing to impress in twelfth. Rossi, Baguette and Bourdais all did well to make it into Q2, Bourdais only just pipping Webber’s Minardi as the Australian wound up seventeenth, sharing row nine with Conway’s Hesketh.
Surprisingly, session two saw no mechanical casualties or accidents, and Mercedes made a statement of intent by returning their cars to the garage with just under three minutes to go, confident that they would be making the top eight. This allowed somebody other than Rosberg to top the timesheets for the first time all weekend and it was Pastor Maldonado who continued to push his Williams, leading the two Force India’s with Raikkonen fourth and clearly not pushing the car as much. Although most of the attention was on Maldonado’s fastest time and Mercedes’ brash confidence, Perez stunned everyone with a late lap that moved him up from tenth to seventh and put the works Lola into an incredible top-eight shootout place on its debut. Bianchi did well to beat not only Chilton, but also Bottas after the Finn made a mistake on his final run and allowed Bianchi to give Marussia representation. Kobayashi was once again eleventh and would share row six with Kovaleinen. Alexander Rossi did very well in the much older Stefan GP car to take thirteenth spot ahead of Bourdais, with Buemi disappointed to be only fifteenth and sharing row eight with the Conquest Racing of Baguette.
Normal order was largely restored in the shootout, although the fans were a little disappointed to see only six cars set times after Perez’s refused to start for the final session and Bianchi ground to a halt at the end of the pitlane.
‘But one good thing to definitely come out of this new series,’ Simon Taylor told the English-speaking world as he commentated for Sport4, ‘is that Bianchi and Perez have done so well today to get where they are and they’ll actually be able to start in those places tomorrow, rather than taking a ten place change like they would do in Formula One. Yes, in fact, you can see now… the, er, Lola mechanics there shaking hands with one another after a job well done and I have to say quite rightly so; an outstanding job from the entire team to get into the top eight like that’.
Hamilton was quickest after the first laps had been completed, but a mistake on his final run meant he didn’t improve as the other drivers turned up the wick in the battle for pole. Rosberg had left a lot in reserve and took an easy but excellent pole, although a great deal of praise was heaped on Sutil after the Force India driver set up an all-German front row. Maldonado had been quickest in the first quarter of the lap but his excitable driving caught up with him and his overdriving the car later on restricted him to fourth on the grid, behind Raikkonen.
After the session Rosberg and Sutil spoke happily with the media, with Rosberg admitting he had no excuse for ‘anything but victory tomorrow’. Third placed man Raikkonen was his usual quiet self but told the press he believed the team to be stronger over a race distance than in qualifying trim.
The motorcycle qualifying session brought more excitement, and to the delight of everyone no rider had yet fallen off on-circuit. Most were finding the demanding elevation changes incredibly difficult and rewarding in equal measure, and all were looking forward to the race the following day.
Nick Heidfeld was first on track in the pre-race qualifying session and was seventh fastest overall, ahead of team-mate Mitch Evans, despite only getting a handful of laps in after a water leak. Wickens was still struggling to get the Drayson’s Chevrolet engine to start and keep running, but he was pushed out of the pits early on and found himself setting good times in the process. Lola had brought the ride height of Davidson’s car down a little as they tried to find the lowest point the car could plausibly run at and he went on to set the fastest time and secure pre-race pole, with Alguesari’s Stefan GP set to join him on the front row. Wickens came in with a few minutes to go for a tyre change and, after being bump-started again, secured third on the grid with Susie Wolff fourth for Hesketh despite coming in halfway through with a gearbox problem.
After a quiet start, the fourth Clio Cup Egypt race in the six-race weekend championship saw twelve lead changes in the final six laps, with the winner taking the points lead after the previous leader came into the pits with engine trouble. A big accident that claimed four cars as write-offs marred the fifth race later in the day, but the first Formula Renault race saw an incredible battle for the lead after the polesitter lead the first seven laps only to be passed coming out of the final turn with a lap to go. The World 2 feature race was a slightly calmer affair but still provided good racing throughout the field; Louise Richardson claiming her first single-seater podium after making an early pitstop and making up a lot of time in clean air.
Meanwhile in the second Meganne Celebrity Trophy Reid and Colburn lead the entire way from pole, with Zanardi and Hamilton holding off a long snake of cars behind them both before and after the driver change. Paul Drayson and Marino Franchitti came together in the closing stages and took both cars out of the race, whilst Jean Alesi spent a lot of the race in third before a mistake trying to pass Hamilton dropped him several places down the order and leading to Reid/Colburn, Zanardi/Hamilton and Viso/Hodgetts all tied on points heading in to the final race on Sunday evening.
Fans were at the track early on Sunday morning, keen to see as much of the GPMC cars as they could and wanting to start with the warm-up session at 9AM. Keen to stress the point to everybody watching at home, regardless of when they tuned in, Simon Taylor kept reminding the audience about the open fuel and tyre rules in the new series.
‘So what we have this morning is something not seen in Formula One for over ten years, absolutely no idea about who is running what strategy today. The teams can run any fuel and tyre strategy they like, don’t forget, but no weights get published before the race and we’re all left guessing as to who will be stopping once, twice, three times or perhaps even not at all. It’ll be interesting to see how the different tyre companies fare during the race and which cars can be the most efficient – don’t forget there’s a bonus point for the driver who finishes on the lead lap whilst using the least amount of fuel, too many points are up for grabs.'
As the cars headed out on track for the warm-up session, Mike Conway sat in the pitlane watching the mechanics adjust his Hesketh. He’d qualified for the race without any trouble but was very concerned about the reliability of his car, and the team were making some changes just as a precaution. Susie Wolff would be in the pre-race in the other car and mentally prepared herself for the short sprint that would dictate whether she made it to the main event or not.
With the warm-up finished, the thirteen drivers set for the pre-race walked through the brightly lit tunnel to the circuit and, after being paraded round the track, drove their cars to the grid. All except Wickens, who had qualified third but still couldn’t get his Chevrolet engine to keep running properly, and relegating him to a start from the pitlane. Davidson’s Lola was favourite to win the race from pole, and still trying to squeeze more time out of the car, the team had lowered the ride height a little more to see if they could run their cars lower to the ground during the main event. Perez’s car had been fixed but missed the warm-up, and the team were sending Davidson out to treat the pre-race as a test session, confident he would make the field anyway. The cars set off on the warm-up lap with Taylor describing the field:
‘And so a good morning to those of you joining us back home in the UK, I hope you’re all excited for what I expect to be a thrillingly short race. Three spaces up for grabs in the main event this afternoon and I wouldn’t like to say which drivers will take them. We’ve seen Anthony Davidson, starting on pole there in the Blue and Orange Lola, numbered twenty-two, run very quickly throughout this weekend along with team-mate Perez in those gloriously-noisy Aston Martin V12 powered cars, but the team has so far struggled with reliability and I don’t think there’s any guarantee Davidson will complete all eight laps this morning. But, if he does, it’s hard to see him being stopped. Jaime Alguesari starts alongside in the second of the Stefan GP entries, but there’s an empty space where Robert Wickens should sit in the Drayson Racing car; he’ll be starting from the pits and giving a clear run down the inside to Brendon Hartley, who’s on row two with his team-mate at Coloni, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, behind Susie Wolff in the Hesketh. Now what’s really interesting is that the next five cars are all running the Williams-develioped Flywheel KERS, and I think we’re all fascinated to see how they get off the line as it is supposed to be the better system at low speeds.’
Wickens got ready to drive as hard as he could from the pitlane, pessimistic about his chances of making up for being push-started after the field had all got away. When the lights went green the advantage of the Williams KERS off the line became clear, with the lower half of the field jumping off the line. Hartley’s plan to attack Wolff on the inside of turn one was put on hold when he had to defend from Heidfeld and Briscoe, and a lock up from Briscoe going into the crowded first turn pushed Quaife-Hobbs into the wall. Davidson led away from Alguersuari, with Wolff in third for the first two laps, when she came under pressure from Heidfeld, who had established himself in fourth place after passing Hartley coming out of turn twelve. Wickens made it past Qing-Hua and Cerqueda easily and moved in to the top ten on lap three, when Sam Bird ground to a halt with gearbox failure. The Canadian actually went on to set fastest lap in the pre race, but had started too far behind the main pack to make much impact, and eventually finished seventh after winning a race-long battle with Jolyon Palmer’s Dallara.
Up front, Davidson had build a lead of over five seconds by the half way point, with sparks flying out from under the car spectacularly throughout, much to the delight of the fans. Hardley had muscled his way past Briscoe when the Conquest driver had gone wide at turn six and then drove around the Coloni’s shortcomings to claim fifth place at the flag. His ability to hold up Briscoe allowed Heidfeld some breathing room in fourth as he closely followed Wolff and Alguersuari. On lap five of eight Wolff pulled alongside Alguesari going down the main straight and managed to take the inside line throughout the long turn one, forcing Alguersuari wide. Heidfeld tried to get past both cars going in to turn two but had to back out of his move on Wolff and settle for third place. Now in clear air Wolff pulled a small gap over their battle for third, which was eventually won by Alguersuari after the Spaniard went up the inside at turn nine and then kept Heidfeld behind him for the rest of the race.
Davidson’s pace in the lead suddenly dropped off on lap six, and the replays showed he was beginning to bottom out going through turn fifteen again. Wolff took two seconds out of his lead on that lap, and then three on the following lap as Davidson had to keep fighting the Lola through the final part of the lap. Halfway through the final lap he was just over a second clear, but the Hesketh pulled up behind him through the closing turns and sent one up the inside going into turn seventeen for the final time. Wolff crossed the line to win the race from Davidson, and Alguersuari claimed the last spot in the main race with third.
The Hesketh camp were overjoyed and welcomed Wolff back to the pits triumphantly.
‘There may not be a trophy or any points for this race,’ she told the cameras, ‘but it always feels great to win something. I think we’ve actually got quite a quick car and I just hope that Mike and I can do our best with it in the main race.’
Davidson took his Lola in to the pits, disappointed to have not won but very confident about the pace of his car. The mechanics upped the ride height of his and Perez’s car a little and got ready for the main race. The whole paddock nervously had their eyes on the teams running Williams flywheel KERS after seeing just how powerful it was off the line, although the general consensus was still that Rosberg would win the race for Mercedes.
Television audience figures around the world were strong and as half past one approached, there was a real air of excitement on the starting grid. The drivers set off on the warm-up lap with nobody really sure who would be running what kind of strategy, or even how many cars would see the chequered flag. Some were even expecting there to be as high a retirement ratio as fifty-per-cent, and finishing alone to give you a good chance of scoring some good points.
When the lights went green Raikkonen found himself boxed in behind the lead two cars, whilst Maldonado made best use of the Williams KERS to slot into second place coming out of turn one, and storming into the lead between turns eight and nine. Raikkonen made it past Sutil at the end of the lap and then took Rosberg for second place a lap later.
Another chaotic first corner saw Luiz Razia become the first retirement after his car was forced into the wall, whilst Davidson made a fast start in his Lola only to be caught out by the concertina effect and run into the back of Petrov’s Toyota, forcing both the cars into the pits for repairs. Back at the front Maldonado and Raikkonen pulled away in the lead, with Bottas making up for his lesser form earlier in the weekend by passing both Hamilton and then Sutil during the opening laps to slot into a fine fourth place. Hamilton continued to slip down the order and was eighth by lap six, by the same point team-mate Rosberg in third was over four seconds behind the leaders. Engineer Jock Clear came onto the radio to tell the reigning Formula One world champion ‘We believe Williams will get tired soon’ and not to worry. It was on lap seven that the first mechanical retirement occurred in the form of Jose Maria Lopez, who brought his Dallara into the pits with an oil leak. A lap later the man he’d been battling, Mike Conway, joined him on the sidelines with a gearbox problem in his Hesketh, as he’d feared.
As Conway parked his car team-mate Wolff didn’t back off and, buoyed by win in the morning’s pre-race, took advantage of the tight gaggle in front of her tripping over themselves to move up into an excellent fifteenth place by lap nine. The main focus though was on the race upfront, with the two Williams’ building up a ten second lead and Raikkonen seizing first place when Maldonado went wide on the exit of turn two after carrying too much speed on the way in. Maldanado’s enthusiasm got the better of him two laps later when he became the next driver to crash at turn twelve, forcing him out of the race and bringing out the first safety car. The strategies were finally confirmed, with those ‘three stopping’, diving into the pits. Raikkonen dropped from the lead to fifth, and came out behind Hamilton. Rosberg resumed the lead with di Resta and Perez staying out and taking up the second and third positions. Bottas had to queue behind Raikkonen and suffered the most in the first round of stops as he dropped down to twelfth.
The two stop strategy with a long first stint looked to be the fastest way around the track provided there was the duly-delivered safety car, but Raikkonen and Williams (and Sutil in the Force India for that matter) had been trying to take advantage of a lighter fuel load early on by running three times, and would have fresh tyres and less fuel at the restart. Taylor told the audience he expected the Williams KERS to make them quick on the restart, too, and when the race resumed on lap fifteen, Perez found himself shuffled down the order after Raikkonen shot past him coming out of turn one, with Hamilton following the Williams through. Raikkonen would pass di Resta a lap later and set about reeling in Rosberg, who had made an excellent restart and given himself a little cushion to play with. Webber was doing an outstanding job in the Minardi and, staying out to run the two stop strategy, moved into fifth place after a fast restart.
Bertrand Baguette was having a similarly heroic run for Conquest until his brakes expired on lap nineteen and he slowly made his way back to the pits, only for Buemi to be caught unaware by the yellow flags going through a blind bend and putting himself into the wall. Luckily no safety car would be required, and Rosberg continued to lead until his pitstop on lap twenty-six and released Raikkonen in to clean air, giving the Finn a chance to build a gap over the German with his lighter car. Having looked after his tyres, Hamilton eventually found a way past di Resta as it soon became clear the Brit was attempting an ambitious one-stop strategy. Raikkonen stayed out for three laps longer than Rosberg and did enough to jump into the lead, as the three-stoppers made their second visit to the pits in and around the halfway mark. Raikkonen assumed the lead once Hamilton came in for his only stop on lap 33 and rejoined with a heavy car in sixth place, just ahead of the fight for fourteenth between Chilton and Kovaleinen, who were now a lap down. As they headed out of turn eleven and into the infamous turn twelve Kovalainen went for the inside line but Chilton shut the door and the pair collided, losing control and smashing into the back of Hamilton. All three cars were out on the spot and Hamilton turned out to be in the incident which caused the safety car that could have made his strategy work. Getting out of his wrecked car Hamilton shrugged his shoulders and headed back for the pits, whilst Chilton and Kovalainen both blamed each other.
Nobody was in a pit window at this point and the cars filed round behind the safety car as the accident at turn twelve was cleaned away. Only Bianchi came in for a stop complaining of blistering tyres on his Marussia, and he dropped to the back of the field, one lap down. Bottas had got himself up to an excellent third for Williams and might have been a contender at the restart, but he developed a clutch problem and was forced to retire before the race returned to green flag running. Raikkonen led the field away when the racing resumed on lap thirty-eight and was comfortably clear just coming out of the last corner. Webber was still making great use of KERS and took Perez and di Resta at the restart, then sensationally went past Sutil and Rosberg as they both ran wide coming out of turn nine. The Euphoria of the Minardi team was short lived, however, when his Porsche engine gave up the ghost on lap forty one, joined shortly after by Davidson’s Lola after the Aston Martin V12 developed an electrical problem.
Raikkonen and Rosberg came in together on lap forty-four and the Finn resumed ahead for Williams. Petrov was making a good recovery after his first lap incident and made it past Alguersuari and then Wolff as the final pitstops played out with the second safety car almost-neutralising the battle between the two strategies. As Raikkonen built just enough of a gap to keep Rosberg at bay, the attention turned to the battle for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth; as Perez held off the two Toyotas with Wolff following all three of them closely behind. Bianchi dropped out of the points with a puncture in the closing stages and Sutil pumped in the fastest lap right at the end of the race as the two Force India’s stayed out of trouble to take a clean double-points finish.
As Raikkonen and Williams celebrated a win, that most believed was a done deal for Mercedes, everyone agreed the first race of the new championship had been a success; exciting, competitive and unpredictable.
The battle for the upper midfield, and the unreliability of so many new designs, set the opening season up as an exciting prospect. Both Lola and Toyota felt their new cars had debuted well and Susie Wolff had given Hesketh plenty to smile about, even if her car did come to a halt just after passing the chequered flag. Meanwhile Force India headed to their home race leading the teams championship, and despite the strength of the Williams KERS unit, Race winner and points leader Raikkonen was its only user in the top ten