A capacity crowd of 75,000 fans watched another stunning race at the A1GP World Cup of Motorsport's opening weekend at Zandvoort. The 70 minute Feature race, characterised by breathtaking overtaking moves and unpredictable conditions, was finally won by A1 Team Germany, the country's first-ever A1GP victory, just over seven seconds ahead of A1 Teams USA and Australia. A1 Team Netherlands finished its home race in a popular 4th position.
The race drama started even before the green light as the Swiss car stalled on the formation lap. A1 Team Malaysia, who had started on the row behind Switzerland, jinked to the right to pass the stricken car but caught its left-rear wheel and broke the suspension. Both cars were pushed away from the grid into the pit lane but eventually rejoined the field.
When the race got underway from a standing start, polesitter A1 Team South Africa was slow away from the line and fell to fourth position into the first corner. Driver Zaugg's frustration was to continue as he clashed with A1 Team Great Britain and ran straight on into a gravel trap, losing his front wing. Unable to rejoin, Zaugg retired on the spot. The Czech Republic team too had a torrid start, also losing the front wing and returning to the pits before the end of the first lap.
With South Africa out of the race, Mexico pushed to the front of the field, with France second, Germany third and Great Britain fourth. Mexico's advantage was not to last though as Duran ran wide coming into Tarzan on the second lap, allowing France into the lead. The following lap Germany, with rookie Nico Hulkenberg at the wheel, also squeezed through and relegated Mexico to third position.
With a clear track ahead Lapierre started to build on his lead and pulled out a three second advantage by the end of the third lap. The lead was to be negated on lap eight however when A1 Team Pakistan spun, coming into the pit lane for a mandatory tyre change. With the car in a dangerous position, the safety car was deployed for two laps to allow the Pakistani car to be moved to a safer location.
Lapierre used the safety car period cleverly, bunching up the field into the last corner of the circuit before accelerating hard down the straight; coming into Tarzan, the French car already had a three second advantage.
The race was to take another twist on lap 14 when torrential rain started to fall on the Dutch track, which quickly became saturated with water. With water soon running down the track, claps of thunder and lightning overhead, most of the field elected to change to full wet tyres. A1 Team USA however remained on slick tyres, gambling that the weather would change and the track would dry out.
On lap 17 the capacity Dutch crowd went wild as the orange A1 Team Netherlands car, driven masterfully by Jeroen Bleekemolen, stormed past Great Britain on the outside of the first corner. Using his experience of the track to the full, Bleekemolen dived to the outside of Tarzan onto the banking, kept the line and made the move stick.
With the rain falling hard, leaders France came into the pits for rain tyres. Still on slicks, the blue and red American car was promoted to the lead of the race, a position it held until lap 23. Struggling to find grip on the drenched circuit, many cars, including Great Britain, New Zealand and Pakistan ran wide. While Great Britain and New Zealand rejoined, Pakistan's race came to a premature end when driver Nur Ali went into the barriers.
Running on full wets, A1 Team France carved into the USA's lead and by the end of lap 23 the two cars were running nose to tail. It appeared the American gamble was not paying off as Lapierre scythed past, followed by the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. The following lap the Swiss car also powered past, driver Buemi clearly wanting to make up the time lost when the team was awarded a drive-through penalty for pitting a lap early, a penalty that Mexico had been similarly awarded.
A1 Team Netherlands tried hard to find a way past Germany and leaders France and on lap 27 Bleekemolen made the same daring move he had successfully used on Great Britain earlier in the race, sending the Dutch fans wild as he jumped to the lead of the race. In yet another turn of events, however, the rain had cleared and a dry line was starting to emerge on the track. France returned to the pits for slick tyres, followed by Great Britain, and the Netherlands' advantage grew. Lapierre could not continue his progress though as mechanical failure on the following lap called a halt to his charge.
With the track drying out rapidly but just minutes remaining, A1 Team Netherlands made a daring decision to keep Bleekemolen out on wets. The USA's gamble to stay on slicks now paid dividends as Giebler took more than five seconds from the Dutch lead. On lap 37, the American pushed past and the Netherlands were relegated to second.
Behind A1 Team USA, Germany had been making steady progress through the field and rookie Hulkenberg found himself fighting with the Netherlands for second. Despite his best efforts, Bleekemolen's wet tyres did not give enough grip on the dry circuit and Hulkenberg squeezed past on lap 36. With the USA just fractions of a second in front, the German pushed on, holding his nerve to capture the lead on the following lap.
Determined to give his crowds of supporters the result they wanted, Bleekemolen pushed on to the final lap, however at the last corner he was overtaken by a charging A1 Team Australia.
Nineteen-year-old Hulkenberg was delighted to give A1 Team Germany their first-ever series victory, "I pushed hard and did my best throughout the race. I didn't think that I could win after my second stop and I didn't realise what position I was - I thought I was around 10th, until my engineer radioed at told me I was P.1! It was a fantastic race and the changeable weather really added to the excitement, as we were all swapping between slicks and wet weather tyres. This was a really great weekend for Team Germany and we are looking forward to Brno." Germany seat holder applauded his protégé's efforts, "I'm very proud of our achievement - there are very few fast drivers in Germany at the moment and even fewer special drivers. Nico has done a great job and it's fantastic that it's the first race for A1GP and Germany's first win. I hope that the German crowds get behind us to help us achieve even more."
A1 Team USA's Phil Giebler congratulated his team's daring strategy, which enabled him to secure the second spot on the podium, "It was a difficult race with the weather and I have to thank my team for trusting my judgement to stay on slicks. It took some guts and a lot of luck but I knew that the track would dry up and the weather would blow over, so I just stuck with it. It was however like driving on egg shells at points and I was close to coming off a few times. I had a terrible start and lost many places but a good strategy brought me back on top. I'm hoping that we can compete at the top of the championship all season."
Australian Ryan Briscoe also relished his third place, although expressed his apologies at denying the Netherlands their dream result on the final lap, "We've been struggling over the weekend with the car set up, but for the feature race we changed some things and it seemed to come together. It was tough with the weather conditions, and we were one of the first to put wets on, which was a bit of a gamble and we were lucky to get away with it. It was very exciting with all the pit stops and I have to thank the team as ours went very smoothly. My team told me that I was just behind Jeroen on the last lap and I was much faster than him, so I knew that I could take him. But when I looked out at the crowd and it was all orange, I felt bad about passing him on the last lap, but I had to do it - sorry Holland!"
Tony Teixeira, A1GP Deputy Chairman was delighted with the weekend's outcome, "We couldn't have wished for a better start to the new season than hosting what is probably the biggest event the Netherlands has ever seen. Approximately 114,000 people came to Zandvoort over the weekend, all passionately supporting their country and showing the strength of the nation versus nation concept. With six different countries on the podium, Australia coming up from 14th to finish third, Germany having its first win and the USA on the podium for the first time, A1GP clearly demonstrated its ability to deliver close, competitive racing on a truly level playing field. National heroes were born today and A1GP proved itself as a valuable sponsorship platform on a global scale. This was a great weekend for A1GP, the A1 Teams and motorsport in general."
A1 Team Germany now leads the championship standing going into the second race of the season at Brno in the Czech Republic next week.