The 2006/07 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport season kicked off in thrilling style today at the 4.18km Zandvoort circuit in the west of the Netherlands. A1 Team South Africa sealed victory in the 12-lap, 20 minute Sprint race, just 2.2 seconds ahead of A1 Team Mexico and A1 Team France. Germany, Great Britain and New Zealand rounded off the top six.
An impressive 23 teams from six continents competed for the pride of their nations in the race, which was watched by thousands of fervent fans. Anticipation grew as yesterday's bright sunshine and warm temperatures were replaced by overcast, grey skies and light rain that made the track conditions unpredictable.
South Africa's Adrian Zaugg started the 12-lap race from pole position following his last-gasp flying lap in yesterday's qualifying sessions that denied Mexico the top spot by a mere 0.1secs. A1 Team France lined up third with Nicolas Lapierre ahead of Germany's Nico Hulkenberg. Zaugg held the advantage into the first bend, but Mexico, on the drier outside line, was able to squeeze inside and take the lead on the exit. The two cars clashed as they tussled for position, with the South African car's bodywork picking up a deep gouge on the left-hand side.
Competing in his first-ever A1GP race, Zaugg immediately fought back to retake the lead in the second corner and pushed hard to pull out a one second advantage by the end of the first lap, "I made a good start," Zaugg said after the race. "It was hard but fair, and I had to push hard to back in front of Duran."
Further down the starting order, A1 Team Italy and A1 Team India were early retirements as cars ran three-abreast coming into Zandvoort's famous first corner, Tarzan. A1 Team New Zealand however was able to move up three positions into sixth ahead of Dutch rookie Jeroen Bleekemolen. The local favourite was disappointed to lose position, however was optimistic of improving in the following Feature race this afternoon, "It was a difficult start as I made a small mistake at the start that dropped me down a position. We had the speed, but it's always hard to overtake here. If we get a good strategy for the Feature race we could do well."
By the end of the second lap, the fight for the lead had developed into a three-way battle between South Africa, Mexico and France. With less than three seconds covering the trio, third-placed France pushed Mexico hard, and dived into the inside of Tarzan corner to try and take position from the green and red car. Mexican Duran however kept his line and stayed ahead. One team who made a move stick however was A1 Team China, who took Malaysia for 11th position.
As the skies cleared and the track became drier, competitors became bolder and on lap four Indonesia's Ananda Mikola tried an audacious move on the inside of Tarzan corner. The 26-year-old from Jakarta dived inside A1 Team Singapore's Christian Murchison, however braked too late and ran into the side of the red and gold Singaporean car. Murchison spun off the track and into retirement and Mikola found himself hit with a drive-through penalty that dropped the Indonesians to 19th overall. Mikola's indiscretion elevated the Czech team into 17th and the Greek team to 18th.
A1 Team Netherlands' Jeroen Bleekemolen tried hard to regain his eighth place starting position from Canada, however strong pressure from A1 Team Switzerland meant the Dutchman was forced to defend his line throughout the race. On lap six, Swiss driver Buemi dived inside the brightly-coloured orange car, but Bleekemolen held his line and position to finish the race ninth
Zaugg started to ease away from the field with a string of fastest laps. In an impressive debut for the rookie, Zaugg recorded the fastest lap of the race ahead of last year's Laguna Seca double race-winner Duran and series regular Nicolas Lapierre. Sealing victory by over two seconds, the Capetonian said, "I remember watching the series last season and seeing how skilled the drivers were, and now it feels so great to be standing here in the middle of it all. I admire everyone here, particularly Duran after his performance at Laguna Seca, and the team have done a really brilliant job and we can improve and build on it for the future."
Duran was pleased with his second position, "In these difficult conditions there was more grip on the outside line and it was hard to overtake by going off line, even though I tried hard. It was a fair racing and no one wants to put anyone else out of the race. This result is good for the team as we head into the Feature race."
Frenchman Lapierre fought for second until the very end, however had to settle for third at the chequered flag. "I had a good start and there was lots of action at the beginning of the race. I think I was quicker than Duran but it difficult to overtake. The most important thing is that we have a competitive grid position for the race and everything goes smoothly with the standing start and pit stops so we can get a podium position."
A1 Team South Africa will now start the second A1GP race of the weekend, the 45 lap Feature race, on pole position. The grid for the race will be determined by a unique points-scoring position that allocates points according to teams' finishing position, qualifying position and lap times in the Sprint race. One point is awarded to the winner, two to the runner-up, three to the third-placed finisher, running down to the 23rd classified finisher, who will be awarded 23 points. The same points system is applied to the qualifying and fastest lap classifications. The points are added together; the driver with the lowest amount of points will start the Feature race on pole.