Is there a market for B-class open-wheel series?

Today it was announced that the Asian rounds of Superleague Formula have been cancelled. This is on top of the earlier cancellation of the South American rounds. The original 2011 calendar also contained races in Russia, the middle east, Australia and New Zealand. None of these took place.

In the end, the only two races that took place were at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. This means that the championship was decided way back in July — but we only learned that today!

It was already quite an effort for those two races to take place anyway. Superleague had seemed worryingly dormant over the winter, and many suspected that it was dead.

Following in the footsteps of A1GP

The parallels between Superleague and A1GP (another failed attempt at an ‘F1 alternative’) have always been striking. Both have core concepts that are slightly alien to motorsport.

A1GP described itself as the “World Cup of Motorsport”. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t even win races. Nations did.

Meanwhile, Superleague was designed as a cross between football and motor racing. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t win races. Football clubs did. Any football fans I ever spoke to about Superleague were not very interested in the series. For this reason, the format was always going to be a loser.

But on the plus side for both A1GP and Superleague, they both provided some quite entertaining racing. And it is on this basis that they both attracted a cult following — a small but loyal fanbase. But this clearly isn’t enough of a fanbase to sustain a series for more than a few years.

A1GP lasted for four years. Cunningly, the series was run over the winter. Not very traditional for a motorsport series, but this meant that they could draw in motorsport fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was moderately successful, and it led to GP2 (the closest thing there is to an official feeder series to F1) creating a spin-off GP2 Asia series that was run in winter. (GP2 Asia has since also been wound up, having had a troubled 2010–2011 season of its own when it was affected by the unrest in Bahrain.)

Not a super formula

When A1GP closed down, Superleague opened up and has so far continued for three seasons. Superleague runs with the same type of car, with the same type of drivers on the same types of circuits. For want of a better phrase, these are a B-class car, with B-class drivers on largely B-class circuits.

I have nothing against this personally, and I personally enjoyed watching A1GP and Superleague whenever I got the chance. But you have to question whether it is a formula for success in terms of bringing in an audience.

Sad but true: the standard isn’t high enough

There are lots of brilliant series below Formula 1 that provide real appeal. It is a sad fact that the motor racing world revolves around Formula 1, and the most successful sub-F1 open-wheel series are all about finding the F1 stars of the future. GP2, World Series by Renault, GP3 and the many Formula 3 series all stake their claim as being a testing ground for the stars of the future.

But series like A1GP and Superleague Formula cannot make this claim. As a result, their appeal is sadly limited. A series like Superleague is populated by drivers who aren’t good enough to progress further up the ladder. Some drivers almost made it to F1, but didn’t quite have the last bit that was required. If you’re lucky, there might be the odd ex-F1 driver like Jos Verstappen. But the world isn’t exactly set alight by the prospect of a battle between Neel Jani and Craig Dolby.

It is true that A1GP has been a stomping ground for a few future F1 drivers like Nico Hülkenberg. But these drivers had to make their way through GP2 aftewards to get to F1.

Because let’s be fair here. It is generous to describe the drivers in Superleague as ‘B-class’. B-class open-wheel racers can be found in IndyCar. IndyCar struggles enough to survive as it is. But at least some of its drivers are household names like Dario Franchitti or Takuma Sato. Jobbing open-wheelers whose sights haven’t extended to IndyCar end up in a series like Superleague.

While I have always found the concept of Superleague Formula to be shaky, I do hope that it is able to survive this embarrassing season and come back stronger in 2012. But I sadly doubt it will be the case.


  1. A1GP actually mostly try to sell itself as a different kind of feeder series. Most drivers on it were always young guys thatwere between their main feeder series job in Europe. Superleague on other hand was mostly full of older guys like Pizzonia or guys that couldn’t get GP2 rides anymore.

  2. I pretty much agree with you on most fronts there, bar one. Superleague (and maybe also A1GP, I’m not sure) did also attract one other class of driver you don’t mention. Drivers whose talent might well have sent them towards F1, but whose budget ran out before they even got onto the feeder series to the feeder series to the feeder series. I think Dolby, and Max Wissel both fall into that category, and others do too. I’m biased there, of course, as I work for another one of them, too – but I think the point is valid. Some damn good drivers with zero budget – not even the comparative small change needed for F2 – got the chance to show what they could do against borderline-F1 talent and left us wondering what they might have done with the financial backing of, say, Jaime Alguersuari.

  3. Thanks for the comment Andy. I thought you might have something to say about this. 🙂

    You make a good point that there are many potentially talented drivers who can’t progress just because of budget. The question is how to come up with a way of promoting the talent while capturing the public’s imagination and making it commercially viable.

    Arguaby Formula Two was an attempt at that, but in a few short years its influence has already waned quickly.

  4. I absolutely loved A1GP and I do think it had a place as a winter series. I’d really hoped that in time as it grew they would get more well-known ‘name’ drivers (and/or as the series got bigger it could create its own stars), faster cars, and more popularity.
    Sadly that didn’t happen and they made the mistake of extending the season into May instead of stopping it in March, which meant a lot of drivers couldn’t commit. Not to mention the disaster of the ownership and financial situations.
    They got things wrong, it was a mistake to refer to each car as a country as it should always have been ‘[driver] in the [country] car’. They got things right, their’s was the first decent online streaming service in racing and the live timing was fantastic too.

    I never had a problem with the mix of upcoming talent, old hands looking for somewhere to race in the twilight of their careers, and jobbing journeyman who would never be World Champions but are perfectly competent to handle a level (or level-and-a-half) below F1. In A1GP it didn’t matter as long as the racing was good because it never pretended to be a talent school, the idea was to have good racing and develop motorsport in different territories – it was always going to take time for that to filter through. It took international motorsport to places it hadn’t been in years, or in some cases ever. The first international race in New Zealand for /years/, a street race in Durban, Indonesia. Okay there was that disaster in Beijing with the hairpin not wide enough for the turning circle of the cars but we’ll gloss over that.. 🙂

    I’ve never taken to Superleague but I’ve never really given it a fair shot, the whole concept of football-meets-racing does nothing for me. The few races I did watch were interminably boring. People tell it me it got better. (And the car does look and sound proper cool.)

    I do think there is a market for a B-class series which doesn’t take itself too seriously, just that it can’t be held in European spring/summer because it competes with so many other things which suck away teams, drivers, sponsors, etc.

  5. But yes I am fed up with the preponderance of mostly European single-seater categories purely intended as a stepladder to the one above it. I like IndyCar because it is a destination it its own right. I thought AutoGP would be that for Europe but then they offered GP2 (or 3.5?) prize drives.
    New F2 is irrelevant and always was. It never had influence to lose, IMO.

  6. Thanks for the great in-depth comments Pat.

    I largely agree with you and I hope a format that works can be found.

    As for the excitement of Superleague, I thought this was pretty good in terms of entertainment:

  7. You actually answer your own question somewhat when you mention Indycar – any other open-wheel series doesn’t just have to compete with F1 but with that as well. While it’s not a global series (despite efforts to spread) it occupies a successful niche of its own. The problem for any other series is that a lot of the driver pool gets sucked up by F1, Indycar and their various feeder series (not to mention ancillary series like DTM) so there isn’t too much left to draw upon.

  8. Drivers-wise the thing between the two is dispersion I guess. I agree with Andy that some of the guys at the front are probably good enough to get to F1 but those near the back tend to be considerably at a lower level.

    I’m speaking more from an A1GP perspective here, as I didn’t really follow Superleague. However, I still felt A1GP did a lot of good in this area. It put nations with a low motorsport history on the map and, while the likes of Moreno Soeprapto (Team Indonesia) or Khalil Beschir (Team Lebanon) may not have set the world alight, it allowed them an opportunity to pit their wits against their peers and give them an indication about what level they needed to be at to improve. (I should add that both Indonesia and Lebanon also gave us some fairly good drivers).

    In response to Pat W I don’t think A1’s problems were due to what you called them (cars/countries/drivers) – it was more that the series bigwigs demonstrated extremely poor financial management. However, it could be that because they’re not attracting the big driver names from F1 and because the single-seater world revolves around F1, that any financial model will end up flawed – particularly in tough economic times (and even if the series does comprise some talented drivers). And with that it does come back to Duncan’s points; the football magazine FourFourTwo covered the debut Superleague race and said something like: “Imagine Ferrari, McLaren and BMW (the three fastest teams at the time) setting up football teams to play in the English Third Division (nPower League One)…this is essentially what Superleague are asking football fans to buy into.”

    I noticed in its final year that Superleague had rebranded as Superleague World Cup, while A1 frantically tried to relaunch as the A10 World Series. A merger between the two on some sort of nations model may provide the capital for some sort of B-Class with an A1GP-type format but again, with the fundamentals remaining, there would be a question of sustainability.

    P.S. I remembered the previous blog on railways this morning – and in this context thank London Midland. The line from Northampton-Rugby was blocked because of “an engineers’ train being derailed by a cow on the line near Long Buckby.” Refreshing transparency (albeit with probable sadness regarding the cow)!