Let’s burn

Few people believed that Sheikh Maktoum could launch the A1 Grand Prix series from scratch, but he has proved the critics wrong. However, as Anil Bhoyrul and Tamara Walid report, the challenge is now to do it all over again. Will he win in season two?

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By  Anil Bhoyrul and Tamara Walid Published  April 16, 2006

|~|55747275_10-200.jpg|~|BOY RACER: Sheikh Maktoum in shades.|~|Few people believed that Sheikh Maktoum could launch the A1 Grand Prix series from scratch, but he has proved the critics wrong. However, as Anil Bhoyrul and Tamara Walid report, the challenge is now to do it all over again. Will he win in season two? It is easy to find compliments for Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum. Still under 30 years old, the nephew of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed has a lot to shout about: a graduate of Boston University, he speaks four languages, has driven in four Formula 4 races, plays pretty good bass guitar, and for good measure has successfully listed an oil company on the London Stock Exchange. But on October 1st this year, at the Zandvoort Circuit Park in Holland, Sheikh Maktoum faces his biggest ever challenge: can he successfully pull off the second season of his A1 Grand Prix series? Just weeks since the final race of the inaugural season in Shanghai, and Sheikh Maktoum is busy preparing, rehearsing and selling season number two. The critics who said he could never take on Formula One have been proved wrong: it is still going. However, the F1 knives have been sharpening, rumours of discontent are spreading, and stories of cash shortages are emerging within the sport. “He said he would not take on F1, but you can’t have a series like A1GP and not expect it to be compared. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not going to get any easier,” says Craig Pollock, former boss of the British American Racing F1 team. Motor sport analyst Ramesh Kumar is more to the point, saying: “The biggest issue A1GP faces is money. Teams will be asking themselves, was it worth it? Have they got a return on investment?” Just before the start of the first ever A1 race, Sheikh Maktoum was in buoyant mood, telling Arabian Business: “I kept going, I never thought for a moment I would fail. You see, winners never surrender. They just take things one step at a time, like one big chess game.” That ‘chess game’ has been carefully played out in the past year by Sheikh Maktoum, and on the face of it, with considerable success. The A1GP brought together for the first time 25 different nations, each competing with identical racing cars on a level playing field. Competing countries each effectively bought team franchises, some paying as much as US$100 million for entry into the series. And with live television coverage sold to Sky Sports in Britain, Sky Italia, Fox TV in Australia and ESPN in Asia, the potential global audience was close to 300 million – on paper, at least. “If you break it down more precisely,” says Sheikh Maktoum, “our 25 competing nations represent 80% of the world’s population.” But the reality has proved slightly more difficult. The first race last September was a 150,000 sell out at Britain’s Brands Hatch circuit. So was the street circuit in Durban, South Africa, while the final race at Shaghai also drew impressive numbers. But elsewhere, including at the flagship tracks in Dubai and Malaysia, new fans have been harder to find. And despite the projected 290 million audience reach, estimates suggest the television viewing figures were closer to nine million. “You can look at that two ways – my analysis is that nine million people, if that is the figure, tuning in from scratch, is a huge, huge success,” says media analyst Bernard Lohen. “Until the first race in Brands Hatch, nobody had heard of A1GP and had no reason to watch it. Sheikh Maktoum should be applauded because he has put on a very good show,” he adds. Sky Sports and other broadcasters have been impressed enough to sign on for the second season, but sponsors have been less keen. Part of the problem, they argue, is the A1GP focuses on teams, while sponsors prefer star drivers. Vodafone has coughed up spent US$50 million helping to prop up the Ferrari F1 team for the past few years, but would it consider a switch to A1? “You can’t take away from the fact that A1GP was created out of nothing and it is here to stay, but it’s a matter of scale,” says a Vodafone official. “The first A1GP series was won by France, but it’s very hard to get emotional about that. French people aren’t dancing on the streets and celebrating. But when Ferrari won the F1 titles, thousands were out on the streets of Italy, just as they were in Germany to celebrate Michael Schumacher’s success. The point is that a driver, or even a car manufacturer, stirs up far more emotion in motor sport than a country ever will. It’s not like football, where people are very patriotic.” That said, the omens are good for the second season, with 25,000 Dutch fans having already snapped up tickets for the first race in Holland on October 1st. Sheikh Maktoum himself is in no doubt that more success is on the way, explaining, “the huge demand that we have experienced for tickets for this event is hardly surprising, with 25,000 tickets sold in the first five days. Throughout the first season of A1 Grand Prix, the Dutch fans have proved themselves to be the most passionate and loyal fans in the world. “We hope to reward this by putting on a great show for them on 1 October and will try our best to provide as many people as possible with a grandstand seat.” Motor sport analyst Ramesh Kumar, however, adds: “If you look at the first season, then yes, some places like Brands Hatch were a great success. No-one is arguing with that. But the series takes place over more than one circuit, it goes all around the world. That is why Formula One is so successful, because whether it goes to Barcelona – where, to be honest, few people care about F1 – or San Marino, and still it is almost always a sell out. The real challenge for A1 next season will be to get more consistent crowds.” The other challenge could be persuading each team to sign up again. On top of buying the franchise to enter the series, team budgets can often be as high as US$3 million a year. But the total prize money for each round is only US$1million, with US$300,000 allocated to the winning team. It meant that France, which won the majority of the first season’s 11 races, collected US$1.92 million in prize money, probably less than its first year budget. Team Indonesia meanwhile, had to make do with just US$30,000 in prize money for the whole season. Even A1’s top earning driver has only US$1.06 million to show in prize money, around 10% of the prize money he would have earned with the same success in F1. Kumar says: “You can be sure that some teams will be looking at this and thinking we earned less than US$100,000 in prize money and its going to cost us at least US$1 million, at the very low end of budgets, to take part again. They will be asking whether they can afford to do so.” The odds are they will, given that not just the franchises but the team budgets are often funded by national celebrities. Last season Brazil won only US$490,000 in prize money despite having one of the biggest budgets around. So where does A1 go from here? Sources point out that, whichever way you do the maths, Sheikh Maktoum has successfully created a US$2 billion business in the space of a year. It is quite some achievement – the type only his more experienced F1 counterpart Bernie Ecclestone could probably pull off. As he once said: “I had a dream and I was able to make it reality. How many other people on the planet have dreams but never turn them into reality? How many other people can say they have done what I did? I can.” He can say that again.||**||

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