Preview: A1 GP Ready for Kick-Off

Brazilian striker Ronaldo can look forward to a World Cup debut of a different sort this weekend

Brands Hatch, the southern English circuit that hosted some memorable Formula One battles in the days of James Hunt and Nigel Mansell, will kick off the self-styled 'World Cup of Motorsport' - also known as the A1 Grand Prix series.

The brainchild of Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum, the energetic young nephew of the Crown Prince of Dubai, the new championship pits 25 national teams against each other in identical Lola cars.

It is a novel concept for motor racing and Real Madrid 'Galactico' Ronaldo, the World Cup winner who will be busy with his Spanish soccer club on Sunday, is co-owner of the Brazilian team with former Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Their driver for the first race will be Nelson Piquet junior, son of another F1 great.

"Like soccer, A1 GP is a team sport," Ronaldo declared at the Sao Paulo launch of Team Brazil. "In soccer, we have already won the World Cup five times and it would be wonderful to win the first motor racing World Cup as well."

The soccer link continues with Portugal midfielder Luis Figo owning his country's team with Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz.

'Bollywood' actor Anil Kapoor is Team India's president.

There are also familiar names from Formula One's past. Former Ferrari champion John Surtees, the only man to win world titles on two wheels and four, is backing Britain while Australia have Alan Jones and Austria's team is led by Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg.

Lauda's son Mathias will be in the Austrian car and 1980 champion Jones's son Christian is on Australia's list of nominated drivers.

The South African team owner is businessman Tokyo Sexwale, a former cellmate of Nelson Mandela. His car will carry Mandela's prison number 46664 on its side as well as 2010 - the year that the country hosts the soccer World Cup.

New Concept

A1 say they are complementing, rather than competing with, Formula One as a series run primarily in the quiet European winter months.

"Comparisons are inevitable but the reality is that I don't think anyone is trying to set A1 up as a competitor to Formula One," says Mark Gallagher, running the Irish team after years of involvement in Grand Prix racing.

"It is a different branch of the sport. It offers an alternative and its a fascinating alternative.

"I think it will really take off in those countries where Formula One doesn't have a team, or a driver or a race."

Formula One, with Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix likely to crown 24-year-old Spaniard Fernando Alonso as the sport's youngest champion, can expect to win any immediate television ratings battle.

Maktoum, whose family is better known for a love of horse racing than engine horsepower, nonetheless has considerable ambitions.

"This is the right concept with the right car at the right time," he told the Guardian newspaper.

"And if I can pull it off...whoosh. This will be a two-billion-pound business by the time we get into the second year.

"Only a madman like me can come up with an idea like this. But I've gone from being called a madman to dreamer to visionary in a very short time."

National Colours

The 520bhp V8-engined cars, less sophisticated and less powerful than in Formula One but designed to encourage overtaking, will be painted in national colours and provided to 'seat holders' on a franchise basis.

Racers must be citizens of the nation they represent but can be replaced, with points awarded to countries and not individuals.

Two races will be held on Sunday, a sprint of 20 to 30 minutes followed by a feature race for twice as long. Points will be awarded to the top 10 finishers in each.

The 25 slots have gone to Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Britain, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States.

After Britain, the series moves to Germany and Portugal before Australia, Malaysia, Dubai, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and a finale in China on April 12 next year.

Despite Maktoum's evident enthusiasm, others remain to be convinced - at least on a sporting level.

"A1 is just one of the many international one-make series," Max Mosley, president of the FIA, said on a visit to Shanghai this week.

"It is not too different from the Nissan World Series and GP2 championship."

GP2 is a feeder series for Formula One, with younger drivers racing at Grand Prix weekends in identical Renault-powered cars.

"The idea could give rise to a commercially successful series, which may stand out from the other one-make series in the world of motorsports," said Mosley.

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