A1GP is back in the spotlight this Sunday with the first round of the World Cup of Motorsport's second season. New Zealand finished 4th in the inaugural championship, behind France, Switzerland and Great Britain, and heads into the first meeting at Zandvoort in the Netherlands with a new racing team. 'Black Beauty' drivers Matt Halliday & Jonny Reid cast a look over the first season and give their thoughts on the 13 rounds that lie ahead in Season 2.
What attracted you to A1GP? Why do you think so many drivers have returned for the second season?
Matt: I was initially drawn to A1GP because I couldn't find the money to race single seaters and my involvement didn't require funding. I already had a relationship with New Zealand seat holder Colin Giltrap, who explained that it was an awesome concept, a potentially tough championship – which it proved – and was a chance to drive for New Zealand. It doesn't surprise me that the gun drivers are back because A1GP is one of the best championships there is…and we get to display our nationalistic pride.
Jonny: I was attracted by the chance to race for my country and compete on the world stage in the sport that I love. The drivers have returned because it's a great championship to be part of. It's a unique format; there's no other form of racing like it anywhere because there's so much pride representing your nation.
How has testing been going?
Matt: I haven't been in the car since the final round in China earlier this year, but it seems just like yesterday. I've been racing a similar car in Asia, a Formula Renault V6, as well as competing in V8 Supercars for the two endurance races in Australia. I've also been training hard and I'm sure I'll settle straight back in.
Jonny: Fantastic! I think we have a very competitive car and a superb team. We improved a lot during testing and the foundations are there for a top season.
How excited are you by this season? What are your goals for the new A1GP season?
Matt: I'm way excited! There are so many areas as a team and as a driver that we can do better. Last year we ran as a one-car team and it was the first time I'd raced in single-seaters for two years. I'm loath to make predications, but we definitely want to run up the front more consistently and take our whole campaign up a notch. And, personally, I'd like to win a round or three.
Jonny: The performance in testing was a big confidence booster so close to the first race. I'm energised and the team will be very competitive. We have the whole package. Our goal is always the same: win races.
What kind of impact did you hope that A1GP made on motorsport fans after its first season? How will the series do this season?
Matt: There were more critics than supporters to start with, but once people saw the racing, the quality and attraction of A1GP was undeniable. We had superb racing and great events and it attracted more than just the traditional motorsport fans…people were interested in seeing their nation's car take on the world. We all hoped it would take off, but it was better than even we expected. What it achieved in 12 months was phenomenal…and it's only going to get better.
Jonny: When the big name drivers joined in the inaugural season it added life to the championship and gave it a degree of street cred. It made a real impact on motorsport worldwide and it's just the beginning.
How does the thrill of A1GP compare to the motorsport experiences that you have had in your career so far?
Matt: A1GP's the pinnacle of my career and everything about it is exceptional because a.) it's a great single-seater championship, b.) you represent your country and I never thought I'd have the chance to do that and c.) I like the circuits and the car. There's a lot of pressure when representing your country, but you have to block that out and simply enjoy yourself.
Jonny: A1GP has been my career highlight to date and I'm just so proud to compete for my nation. I'm looking forward to doing it again.
What was your most memorable race last season and why?
Matt: The first-ever race at Brand's Hatch when people were on more of a level playing field because it was all so new. To qualify second and make the podium for the Sprint Race was a real buzz. To see Colin Giltrap's beaming smile and the joy in the whole team made it a big moment.
Jonny: The Sprint Race in Germany was my most memorable on track experience. We did it tough all weekend and to come back from adversity and post two 4ths after qualifying 14 th showed a lot of character. Being on the grid in Sydney and hearing the New Zealand fans was also a special moment. I can't wait to hit Taupo!
Race drivers are superstitious people. What are your superstitions? Do you have any pre-race rituals? Do you have a driving motto?
Matt: I used to have lucky underpants. Then I had a big crash in the USA and they were cut off my body and thrown in the trash. People say they can't have been that lucky given the severity of the crash, but I politely point out that I survived…so they're still pretty lucky in my book. Since then I've gone away from superstitions because they're often more of a headache that a help.
Jonny: I always put on right items first – right sock, right boot, right glove, etc. Wouldn't think of changing it.
What countries are you most looking forward to going to? Are there any particular tracks that you enjoyed racing on and which ones did you find demanding?
Matt: I can't wait for everyone to come to New Zealand for the Taupo round. It's going to be a spectacular weekend. I'm also a big fan of street races, so I'm looking forward to going back to Durban; that was a great atmosphere and a cool race last season. Finally, given my experiences in Asia during the off-season I'm keen to attack Sental and Sepang with a bit more knowledge than I had last season.
Jonny: I'm looking forward to the Czech Republic because I've raced at Brno before in Formula 3000 and I'm familiar with the track, which has a lot of elevation and rewards drivers who attack the fast corners. It's my sort of place.
The camaraderie in the paddock between all the drivers, team principals and other team members is something that you must be looking forward to again. What were the most memorable moments and will individuals do you have to look out for?
Matt: Individuals to look out for? Definitely the grid girls in Portugal! Why aren't we going back there? Certainly A1GP has got something special. It's a tough championship but it's a great group of people and I enjoy spending time with everyone. You don't go out of your way to make friends with your rivals, but the drivers definitely get on well. Doing pre-race events like swimming with sharks or walking the Sydney Harbour Bridge certainly gives you a chance to mix and mingle away from the intense competition.
Jonny: Catching up when doing unique activities like walking the Sydney Harbour Bridge encourages rapport and those relationships are just another thing I enjoy about A1GP.
What do you think of the possibility of an A1GP event being staged at night?
Matt: It would simply be another example of A1GP's innovative approach, but I'd probably need to up my carrot intake to do well.
Jonny: It'd be cool…and might end up in a better time zone for watching it back home in New Zealand!
What are your predictions for the top three finishers this season?
Matt: I hate making predictions, but we'll be striving to put New Zealand at the top and I think the front runners will be similar to last year. There's six or seven teams with a strong chance of winning, including France, Brazil, Great Britain, the Swiss, the Netherlands and Germany.
Jonny: NZ, GBR and France.
What is an A1GP car like to drive?
Matt: It's a piece of cake – hop in, go fast and don't crash! Seriously, it's a unique car and quite difficult to drive as it is hard work to get the balance right. It's very exciting over the course of a race and I like that we can run relatively close to the cars in front. It's also a very tough car that stands up to a bit of a beating. Overall, it's just a great car and provides the tools to put on a superb show for the crowd.
Jonny: She's a beauty! Just going through corners and feeling the downforce is a thrill.
How do you control use of the PowerBoost?
Matt: The PowerBoost is a unique factor and it is easily the most commonly asked question I receive from the fans. It's a useful aid to help passing if used properly and it ramps up the excitement factor. I certainly like to have a few for later in the race, especially for any re-starts under yellow.
Which do you think will be the most closely fought/demanding race of the season?
Matt: Street races always have the element of surprise because the circuit changes over the course of the weekend, but the most demanding race for us as a team will probably be on home soil in Taupo. Man, we could be roaring down the straight at a great rate, propelled by the crowd noise!
Jonny: None more so than others, but I do think you have to make an impact early, snare some points and be a front-runner. So getting out of the blocks quickly will be important.