Huge crowds flocked to the Zandvoort circuit, the Netherlands, today for the start of the 2006/07 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, packing the circuit's grandstands and sand dunes close to the North Sea.
Two rookie practice sessions opened the season's action. A new introduction for this year, the sessions gave young drivers the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the demanding 4.18km Zandvoort track and the powerful 550bhp A1GP cars. Frenchman Loic Duval was fastest of the twenty rookies who participated in the two 25 minute sessions, with a lap just 0.618 seconds quicker than Dutch star Jeroen Bleekemolen.
Duval commented, 'This morning went well. Fortunately it was a good session as the car was set up perfectly for me. The first time I drove was last year at Silverstone, so this has been a great experience to test here. I'm confident that Nicolas Lapierre will do a good race this weekend and it will be an excellent opportunity for me to watch and learn.'
Bleekemolen was similarly exhilarated by his first experience of an A1GP car on his 'home' track. 'It's been a long time since I've driven an open-wheel car at Zandvoort, so it was very good to be up there at the front,' the 23-year-old Dutchman commented. 'I know the track well, it's only five minutes from my home, but the A1GP car was definitely the fastest thing I've driven around here. I spent the first 25 minutes familiarising myself with the track and the car and then the final session going for the times. It should be a very exciting race and I hope I can do well in front of all these fans. It's a great feeling to be in Zandvoort - the people are here to support me and the team - it was just amazing to hear all the people and see the orange flags on the hills - I don't think we have seen anything like it at Zandvoort.'
Another rookie, A1 Team Canada's James Hinchcliffe, was to shine in the later practice session. The 19-year-old Canadian topped the timesheets, just 0.046 seconds quicker than A1 Team Great Britain's Darren Manning. Hinchcliffe commented, 'It is a remarkable result for the team. This year we had everything in place early, we were well prepared, and the team could give me a brilliant car. I have never seen so may fans turn up for a Friday session - we are having a blast.' Hinchcliffe benefited from his earlier track experience, 'It's part of the job to learn the track, you learn to push the limits. It really forces drivers to come to grips quickly with the track and it's phenomenal that the team has given me a car to do that.'
Manning, who competed for the team for the first time in the 2005/06 season finale in Shanghai, completed three laps of the circuit with a best time of 1:29.040secs. A1 Team South Africa recorded the third-fastest time over the one hour session with new recruit, Adrian Zaugg, at the wheel. The free practice sessions also gave fans their first glimpse of A1 Teams Greece and Singapore, who enter the World Cup of Motorsport for the first time this year.
The racing action resumes tomorrow with a further free practice session and four 15 minute qualifying sessions that will determine the grid for Sunday's sprint race.
To check out our Zandvoort Friday gallery, click here