Published: 06:00, 18 February 2021
| Updated: 11:27, 18 February 2021
When more than 70,000 people flocked to Brands Hatch for the first-ever A1 Grand Prix event, it looked for all the world like Formula 1 had returned to Kent.
Queues stretched back on the M25, Union Jacks caught the eye as fans cheered on their home heroes, and the goosebump-inducing sound of screaming V8 engines could be heard for miles around.
Although the much-hyped single-seater championship would only last four years, there was no denying the novel concept made an instant impact on its inaugural meeting in September 2005.
The brainchild of Sheikh Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family, the series initially featured 25 cars from national teams representing countries including Great Britain, France and Germany.
Using identical Lolas powered by 550bhp Zytek engines, the concept of nations having their own teams meant fans could not only support their favourite drivers but their countries too, and the venue became awash with spectators in scenes reminiscent of the last F1 Grand Prix held at the track in 1986.
"People forget there were rumours it was going to be a threat to F1 as there was such a lot of hype behind it," remembers Goudhurst's Simon Hill, who drove the pace car and later became the championship's TV pitlane reporter.
"Although it was clearly not F1, it gave the same sense of occasion.
"Brands was the perfect venue for it and they managed to get the balance right between razzmatazz and a very serious motor race."
Future F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr triumphed in both races for Team Brazil on the opening weekend – 22 years to the day after his father Nelson Piquet Sr won the European Grand Prix at the track in a Brabham-BMW.
But series bosses were quick to play down the claims it could rival F1 – with Sheikh Maktoum describing them as "two completely different concepts".
At the inaugural Brands event, the £29 ticket was a third of the cheapest for that year's British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
And in contrast to F1's technology, A1 had simpler cars in a bid to create a series of races that would be more down to drivers' skill levels, with no complicated electronics or aerodynamic add-ons to create extra downforce.
During the championship's last-ever meeting at Brands in May 2009, up-and-coming Chatham-born racer Aaron Steele secured a seat in the rookie driver test on the Friday before the main event.
He describes his one-off drive in the series – which by that point had switched to new 'Powered by Ferrari' cars – as a "phenomenal experience".
"It turned out to be the very final event as the whole thing then faded away, but doing that event at Brands – my stomping ground – was incredible," he says.
"It was one of the most perfect days of my life – the full Grand Prix circuit, blue skies, sunshine, and a good temperature.
"You could walk around in a t-shirt and some of my friends who came to watch even got sunburnt.
"But something I probably underestimated at the time was the feeling of driving the British car as a British driver at the British round of a worldwide event.
"You always hear Lewis Hamilton going on about his home Grand Prix at Silverstone and how it gives him that little bit extra, but I know what it means, even from just doing that."
The 2005 meeting, which was the first of four A1 events held at Brands, attracted 72,000 people over the weekend – including 46,000 fans on the Sunday.
It came less than two years after former F1 driver Jonathan Palmer's MotorSport Vision concern had taken over the West Kingsdown circuit, which had to be upgraded to allow the event to take place.
Circuit bosses spent about £500,000 upgrading the Grand Prix loop to secure an FIA Grade 2 licence, with major works taking place at Hawthorn, Westfield and on the run to Sheene Curve.
The revised Westfield bend was used for the first time in June 2005, featuring a slower entry and a 45-metre extension to the gravel trap.
But the changes didn't stop A1 drivers losing control at the sweeping right-hand turn – with Hill describing some of the competitors as "glorified club racers".
He says: "Because of the nationality thing, they were bringing in drivers for some of the countries who I could have honestly jumped in and gone quicker than – and I was in my 40s at the time.
"Some of them were awful, but others were very good."
One of the latter was future F1 star Nico Hulkenberg, who scored nine victories during his time in the series for Team Germany – including the feature race win at Brands in April 2007.
But while many top drivers competed in the championship, the 'World Cup of Motorsport' wouldn't last.
The introduction of the new Ferrari-powered cars for the 2008/09 season wasn't a success and the series folded amid spiralling costs.
Steele – who raced karts at Buckmore Park, Lydd and Bayford Meadows in Sittingbourne in his younger years – says the politics was "quite interesting" when he landed his test.
"As it was well reported at the time, the financial situation of the championship was somewhat stretched and probably past breaking point which was why that ended up being the last round," he says.
"On the Thursday before the event, I was supposed to have my seat fitting but the cars hadn't turned up as the shipping company was basically holding them hostage until they got paid.
"It took many, many hours of negotiating between the organisers and the logistics company to get them released and the cars only arrived at about 10pm.
"I ended up sitting in the car at midnight thinking I'm supposed to be driving this car the next morning!"
Hill, whose 26-year-old son Jake races in the British Touring Car Championship, says working alongside F1 world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Alan Jones, John Surtees during his time in the series is one of his best memories.
The trio all became figureheads for their teams, taking up 'seat holder' positions for their respective countries.
"I had the honour of being the pace car driver for the first season so technically I led the first-ever race," Hill remembers.
"Nelson Piquet Jr was on pole at Brands and I remember being on the grid when he said 'so Mr Pace Car Man, can you help me win this race... can you give me a clue when you are going to go?'
"I thought that was quite ironic when a few years later he was involved in crashgate at Singapore."
Before enjoying his A1GP drive, Steele had raced in Formula BMW, Formula Renault BARC and Formula Palmer Audi, and was nominated for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award in 2008, losing out to current Formula E star Alexander Sims.
"I was doing quite well at the time and had quite a high profile," he says.
"That day at Brands was easily one of the top moments in the career I had – I will never forget it and sadly will probably never emulate again.
"I get a tingling sensation even thinking about it now; just to get the chance to drive it was phenomenal. It's a classic cliche, but it was almost indescribable."
'It was a spectacle which is often missing in motorsport nowadays'
Steele, now 32 and living in the West Midlands, won the F3 Cup in 2015 but has concentrated on work commitments since, running his own automotive engineering company.
"If I ever won the lottery, I can assure you I would be trying to source one of those A1 cars as a track toy," he says.
"I have never driven anything in my life since which has matched that for ability – the speed was on another level.
"I came out of Surtees onto the Grand Prix loop and it was just insane; the lights on the dash were flicking up, I was pulling the paddles and it was just relentless.
"The scenery came at me at warp speed and it felt like I was going to drive into the bridge at Pilgrims Drop. I was taking Hawthorn at 160mph!"
The full 2.4-mile GP circuit was used for all Kent A1 events and Hill, an experienced racer-turned-commentator, led Team Germany drivers Timo Scheider and Adrian Sutil on a track walk before the first meeting in 2005.
Like Steele, Sutil didn't race at Brands, but the list of F1 drivers to have competed in the county is an interesting one – and even includes Max Verstappen's dad, Jos, who drove for Team Holland in the inaugural season.
"I think Brands was the perfect choice for A1 because of its heritage and links to Formula 1," Hill says.
"They had that very distinctive V8 noise and sounded like an F1 car from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
"The closest we will see to it at the circuit again is the Masters Historic Formula One Championship.
"It might be because I am getting old, but, for me, I would rather see that than something that is there just to make the numbers up."
Steele shares a similar view, describing A1 at Brands as "proper cars and proper noises on a proper track".
"No wonder it was so popular and so many people wanted to see what it was all about – it was a spectacle which is often missing in motorsport nowadays," he says.
"But if running anything like that around Brands again involved cutting down trees or moving barriers back half a mile, you would be better off not doing it.
"The track and the character of it should be preserved over the modern regulations of a high-speed championship.
"Like Oulton Park, these places are special and are meccas of motorsport from years gone by.
"I wouldn't condone them changing any part of the track to accommodate it, but if they were happy to race a car like that around there again, it would be an event-and-a-half, that's for sure."