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A1GP at Brands Hatch: Formula 1's 'rival' that saw Nico Hulkenberg, Jos Verstappen and Nelson Piquet Jr race in Kent

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.

The 'World Cup of Motorsport' featured a full complement of nations in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The 'World Cup of Motorsport' featured a full complement of nations in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin

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.

The first Brands event in 2005 attracted 72,000 people over the weekend – including 46,000 fans on the Sunday. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The first Brands event in 2005 attracted 72,000 people over the weekend – including 46,000 fans on the Sunday. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The start of the sprint race in April 2007; like Formula E, most of the events were held during the F1 off-season
The start of the sprint race in April 2007; like Formula E, most of the events were held during the F1 off-season
Frenchman Alexandre Premat and New Zealand's Matt Halliday alongside race winner Nelson Piquet Jr in 2005. "I'm not racing for myself but for my country – A1 is going to be huge," Piquet Jr said afterwards. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Frenchman Alexandre Premat and New Zealand's Matt Halliday alongside race winner Nelson Piquet Jr in 2005. "I'm not racing for myself but for my country – A1 is going to be huge," Piquet Jr said afterwards. Picture: Barry Goodwin

"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.

The inaugural event in 2005 became famous for Team Lebanon's spectacular barrel-roll at Paddock Hill Bend during the feature race. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The inaugural event in 2005 became famous for Team Lebanon's spectacular barrel-roll at Paddock Hill Bend during the feature race. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The crash involved Italy's Enrico Toccacelo and Lebanese driver Khalil Beschir. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The crash involved Italy's Enrico Toccacelo and Lebanese driver Khalil Beschir. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Beschir is helped away from the wreckage. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Beschir is helped away from the wreckage. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The race continued as the wreckage of the Lebanese car was taken away. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The race continued as the wreckage of the Lebanese car was taken away. Picture: Barry Goodwin

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.

Chatham-born Aaron Steele took part in the rookie practice session in 2009, finishing ninth. Picture: Andy Payton/PSP
Chatham-born Aaron Steele took part in the rookie practice session in 2009, finishing ninth. Picture: Andy Payton/PSP
Sheikh Maktoum, MSV chief executive Jonathan Palmer and Team GB boss John Surtees at Brands in January 2005; Sheikh Maktoum sold his shares in the series in 2006
Sheikh Maktoum, MSV chief executive Jonathan Palmer and Team GB boss John Surtees at Brands in January 2005; Sheikh Maktoum sold his shares in the series in 2006
The class of 2007 on A1's second visit to Brands; a number of top teams ran cars in the championship during its history – including crack touring car squad West Surrey Racing and Christian Horner's Arden International
The class of 2007 on A1's second visit to Brands; a number of top teams ran cars in the championship during its history – including crack touring car squad West Surrey Racing and Christian Horner's Arden International

"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."

Nerves of Steele: Aaron exits Surtees during his A1 test in May 2009. The later cars were based on the F1 world championship-winning Ferrari F2004. Picture: Andy Payton/PSP
Nerves of Steele: Aaron exits Surtees during his A1 test in May 2009. The later cars were based on the F1 world championship-winning Ferrari F2004. Picture: Andy Payton/PSP
Ex-British Formula 3 champion Robbie Kerr enjoyed lots of support in 2007
Ex-British Formula 3 champion Robbie Kerr enjoyed lots of support in 2007
Nelson Piquet Jr starred at Brands Hatch in 2005 – 22 years to the day after his father Nelson Piquet Sr won the European Grand Prix at the track in a Brabham-BMW. Adding a further twist, Jonathan Palmer made his F1 debut for the Williams team in the same race
Nelson Piquet Jr starred at Brands Hatch in 2005 – 22 years to the day after his father Nelson Piquet Sr won the European Grand Prix at the track in a Brabham-BMW. Adding a further twist, Jonathan Palmer made his F1 debut for the Williams team in the same race

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.

Big crowds on the pitlane walkabout in May 2008. Picture: Andy Payton
Big crowds on the pitlane walkabout in May 2008. Picture: Andy Payton
As Ireland's Adam Carroll leads the feature race, India's Narain Karthikeyan hits the gravel at Paddock Hill Bend in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
As Ireland's Adam Carroll leads the feature race, India's Narain Karthikeyan hits the gravel at Paddock Hill Bend in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
A young Nico Hulkenberg won race two at Brands in April 2007. Team GB's Robbie Kerr and Italy's Enrico Toccacelo joined him on the podium
A young Nico Hulkenberg won race two at Brands in April 2007. Team GB's Robbie Kerr and Italy's Enrico Toccacelo joined him on the podium
Team GB's Robbie Kerr performs end-of-season doughnuts after the feature race in 2008. Picture: Andy Payton
Team GB's Robbie Kerr performs end-of-season doughnuts after the feature race in 2008. Picture: Andy Payton

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".

Goudhurst's Simon Hill, whose son Jake races in the BTCC, drove the A1 pace car and later became the championship's TV pitlane reporter. He's pictured here prior to the Durban race in South Africa in February 2007
Goudhurst's Simon Hill, whose son Jake races in the BTCC, drove the A1 pace car and later became the championship's TV pitlane reporter. He's pictured here prior to the Durban race in South Africa in February 2007
Team GB's Robbie Kerr goes wheel-to-wheel through Paddock Hill Bend with Germany's Nico Hulkenberg in 2007
Team GB's Robbie Kerr goes wheel-to-wheel through Paddock Hill Bend with Germany's Nico Hulkenberg in 2007
A1's F1 links...
A1's F1 links...

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.

Irish supporters show their loyalty in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
Irish supporters show their loyalty in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
Nelson Piquet Jr leads the field into Paddock Hill Bend in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Nelson Piquet Jr leads the field into Paddock Hill Bend in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Robbie Kerr's grid girl at the season finale in 2008. Picture: Andy Payton
Robbie Kerr's grid girl at the season finale in 2008. Picture: Andy Payton

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.

Adam Carroll dominated the final round at Brands Hatch in 2009 to win the championship for Team Ireland. He is pictured here with the squad's seat holder Mark Gallagher. Picture: Andy Payton
Adam Carroll dominated the final round at Brands Hatch in 2009 to win the championship for Team Ireland. He is pictured here with the squad's seat holder Mark Gallagher. Picture: Andy Payton
Salvador Duran racing for Team Mexico in 2005. He competed in Formula Renault 3.5, NASCAR and Formula E after A1. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Salvador Duran racing for Team Mexico in 2005. He competed in Formula Renault 3.5, NASCAR and Formula E after A1. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Thousands attended the first-ever A1 event in September 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Thousands attended the first-ever A1 event in September 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Team GB's Dan Clarke managed 13th in the sprint race and seventh in the feature race during the final meeting in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
Team GB's Dan Clarke managed 13th in the sprint race and seventh in the feature race during the final meeting in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton

"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!"

1980 Formula 1 world champion and Team Australia seat holder Alan Jones with MSV's Jonathan Palmer in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
1980 Formula 1 world champion and Team Australia seat holder Alan Jones with MSV's Jonathan Palmer in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
Sky Sports screened live coverage of the much-hyped series, with Georgie Thompson presenting the show and touring car star Andy Priaulx providing analysis on the opening weekend in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Sky Sports screened live coverage of the much-hyped series, with Georgie Thompson presenting the show and touring car star Andy Priaulx providing analysis on the opening weekend in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Future IndyCar champion Will Power – driving for Team Australia – finished second in race two in September 2005. Nelson Piquet Jr had grabbed the lead with a superb move around the outside of Surtees. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Future IndyCar champion Will Power – driving for Team Australia – finished second in race two in September 2005. Nelson Piquet Jr had grabbed the lead with a superb move around the outside of Surtees. Picture: Barry Goodwin

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.

Team GB drivers Robbie Kerr and Oliver Jarvis in a charity event at Buckmore Park in 2008. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Team GB drivers Robbie Kerr and Oliver Jarvis in a charity event at Buckmore Park in 2008. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A1 Team GBR boss John Surtees with drivers Robbie Kerr and Alex Lloyd at Brands Hatch in 2005
A1 Team GBR boss John Surtees with drivers Robbie Kerr and Alex Lloyd at Brands Hatch in 2005
A full grid in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A full grid in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Aaron Steele says his A1 test was "one of the most perfect days of my life"
Aaron Steele says his A1 test was "one of the most perfect days of my life"

"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."

The feature race podium in May 2008: Team GB's Robbie Kerr, race winner Narain Karthikeyan and Swiss star Neel Jani. Picture: Andy Payton
The feature race podium in May 2008: Team GB's Robbie Kerr, race winner Narain Karthikeyan and Swiss star Neel Jani. Picture: Andy Payton
Each participating country was represented by a car sprayed in its national colours - here is Team Japan's Ryo Fukuda in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Each participating country was represented by a car sprayed in its national colours - here is Team Japan's Ryo Fukuda in 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Steele sat in the Ferrari-powered A1 car just hours before his test
Steele sat in the Ferrari-powered A1 car just hours before his test

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.

The identical Lolas used in the first years of the championship featured 3.4-litre V8 engines. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The identical Lolas used in the first years of the championship featured 3.4-litre V8 engines. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The opening ceremony at A1's final meeting in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
The opening ceremony at A1's final meeting in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
Former DTM star Oliver Jarvis drove for Team GB in the Friday practice session at Brands in 2007
Former DTM star Oliver Jarvis drove for Team GB in the Friday practice session at Brands in 2007

"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 'World Cup of Motorsport' concept proved popular with fans. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The 'World Cup of Motorsport' concept proved popular with fans. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Team GB and driver Robbie Kerr made history in 2007 when they became the first squad to win an A1GP race on home soil. Picture: Kerry Dunlop
Team GB and driver Robbie Kerr made history in 2007 when they became the first squad to win an A1GP race on home soil. Picture: Kerry Dunlop

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.

The sprint race podium in May 2009 - Narain Karthikeyan, winner Adam Carroll and Salvador Duran. Picture: Andy Payton
The sprint race podium in May 2009 - Narain Karthikeyan, winner Adam Carroll and Salvador Duran. Picture: Andy Payton
Team GB's Robbie Kerr went into the lead of the feature race in 2008 after the first round of pitstops, but the Englishman lost top-spot when his team produced a slow service later on. Picture: Andy Payton
Team GB's Robbie Kerr went into the lead of the feature race in 2008 after the first round of pitstops, but the Englishman lost top-spot when his team produced a slow service later on. Picture: Andy Payton
The Red Devils - the Parachute Regiment's display team - arrive at Brands as part of the opening ceremony in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton
The Red Devils - the Parachute Regiment's display team - arrive at Brands as part of the opening ceremony in 2009. Picture: Andy Payton

"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."

Aaron Steele started out in Formula BMW UK in 2005. Picture: Peter Still
Aaron Steele started out in Formula BMW UK in 2005. Picture: Peter Still
The circuit was awash with flags in September 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The circuit was awash with flags in September 2005. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Ireland's Adam Carroll, here leading the feature race in May 2009, had a near-perfect weekend: two poles, two wins and a fastest lap. Picture: Andy Payton
Ireland's Adam Carroll, here leading the feature race in May 2009, had a near-perfect weekend: two poles, two wins and a fastest lap. Picture: Andy Payton

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.

MSV's Jonathan Palmer poses with Team GB's A1GP car at a pre-season media day in 2008. Picture: Kerry Dunlop
MSV's Jonathan Palmer poses with Team GB's A1GP car at a pre-season media day in 2008. Picture: Kerry Dunlop
Team Germany's Nico Hulkenberg celebrates on the Brabham Straight in 2007
Team Germany's Nico Hulkenberg celebrates on the Brabham Straight in 2007

"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."

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