Swiss and Ireland head-to-head
A1 Team Ireland and A1 Team Switzerland are the winners of the past two A1GP championships. We took their seat holders – the people who make all the key decisions in putting the team together – aside to ask them a few no-holes-barred questions on their success in A1GP, and their future with their star drivers.
Mark Gallagher, seat holder, A1 Team Ireland
Max Welti, seat holder, A1 Team Switzerland
So let’s start easy. What makes your team so successful?
MARK: “Well, I guess it’s understanding all of the millions of things that have to come together to make it work. But most of all, it’s getting the people to work together. One of the great points about A1GP is that given that the technology is the same for everyone, it really is the people and how they work together which determines the success or failure. We reached the point where we had a perfectly formed team of people who knew how to work together.”
MAX: “It is consistency and a very good atmosphere in the team, plus a brilliant driver and engineers. It really is, as boring as it might sound, all about team work.”
Who was your greatest rival in 2008/09?
MARK: “Our greatest rival this season, without question, was A1 Team Switzerland and Neel Jani. I have never spoken to Neel at any great length but I regard him as one of the very best drivers in the world. It is A1GP’s good fortune that he is not in Formula One because he has very much set the benchmark by which others are measured. While there was great satisfaction in Ireland by beating the other 19 nations, the one we had to measure ourselves with was Neel and the way he pushed us, particularly over the Kyalami and Algarve weekends. It made for a very exciting finale at Brands Hatch and it really could have gone either way.”
MAX: “Ireland. Not only their race driver but their whole team was great and their strength was their team work as well. They have a brilliant team; they always have had a brilliant team and they pulled it together this season.”
Describe winning the A1GP World Cup of Motorsport feels like?
MARK: “Words can’t adequately describe what it feels like to win the A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. May 3, 2009 was a strange day for me. Adam’s double pole the day before meant from the minute we started we were literally leading from the front and it just went perfectly. It is very unusual for things to work that well. The feeling in winning, words are difficult to find to describe it but I’ll try: euphoria, elation, satisfaction, relief. All the hard work for four years to get to the point to where you have achieved all you set out to is extraordinary.”
MAX: “The fantastic thing about A1GP and being successful is the fact that you are racing for your county and representing your culture all over the world. For smaller countries like Switzerland and Ireland or maybe Holland as well, it is fantastic to represent your country all over the world with this fantastic sport. It’s got a lovely atmosphere with not too much politics going on. Beside, I am in love with the team I have and when you are successful that’s the icing on the cake, isn’t it?”
Which title was harder to win – Switzerland’s in 2007/08 or Ireland’s in 2008/09?
“That’s a hard question to answer. All I will say is that I feel that in every season the winner has to work hard. This year, the new A1GP Powered by Ferrari car was a big technical challenge and we all had to grow up as teams and learn how to work with more complex electronics, to get the most out of those Michelin tires and to use the PowerBoosts, which were very effective on the Ferrari engine. The new technical challenge of this year probably made it greater so I would say this year was the toughest one to win. It certainly had some unique challenges but I think for both years the champions are fitting.” MAX:
“That is a tough question to answer. The team weren’t as strong in pitstops in Season Three as they were in Season Four, but if I’m honest I think the field was just closer at the front in Season Three. Everyone was on the third year with the original car and knew it inside out, so to find any edge was much harder. Season Three was the more challenging.”
Describe the best decision you’ve ever made in A1GP.
MARK: “The best decision I made was to focus on getting Adam Carroll to drive for me. I did try to get him to drive for us in the first two seasons but he was busy. It wasn’t rocket science because the determining factor in making these cars go faster than one another is ultimately down to the guy behind the wheel.”
MAX: “I would say a combination of always speaking to Neel Jani, being able to convince James Robinson to come and join us and securing all the great sponsors I have.”
So what would you say is the biggest regret or mistake you have ever made in A1GP?
MARK: “My biggest regret in the last four years is that A1GP does not allow you to run a two-car team so therefore, in taking Adam, I had to give up on Ralph Firman. That is a regret because I have enormous respect for Ralph’s ability. He is, still to this day, underrated and he, like Adam, would have benefited from the way the team has grown.”
MAX: “There have been mistakes, of course but I don’t regret anything. I mean that. I hope the financial risk I took in believing so much in A1GP is a good one.”
Do you believe you have the best racing driver in your country currently driving your car, regardless of who is or is not available thanks to other series or contracts? MARK:
“In Adam Carroll, unquestionably. I think all the other Irish drivers would agree on that and the only context that I would put that in is that at his age, with his experience and at his point at his career, he is the best and the correct man for the job and he has proven that. There are other members who are younger, highly talented but just need more experience and a bit more time in a car, there are also older drivers who are also talented but are at different points in their career, in terms of where they see themselves and whether they could go out in a single seater car as complex as this. Adam is at the right point and so it’s not the case of being better than anyone else, he is just the best man for the job and the best Ireland had at the present time.”MAX:
”At the moment I believe Neel is not only the best driver Switzerland has but I am of the opinion that he is one of the best drivers worldwide. We had Sebastien Buemi [current Formula 1 driver] for six races in Season Two but he did not show the ability then that he regularly shows now. Unfortunately in the last couple of years I haven’t had the chance to work with him again. I can’t really compare Sebastien and Neel now, because Sebastien has certainly developed since he was with us in A1GP. But still, in my opinion Neel is of the very best drivers Switzerland has ever had.”
Will you continue with your respective drivers in Season Five?
MARK: “We have discussed this before and since winning the title at Brands Hatch. Adam would love to play a part in defending Ireland’s World Cup of Motorsport title. I think the phrase ‘play a part’ is important because he knows that after two years that we might want to bring other young drivers on and he would encourage that. It’s come as no surprise to people to learn that Adam would love to look at other opportunities beyond A1GP, he would love to do races like the Indy 500 and the Grand Prix in Monaco, and those other series do hold an appeal for him but he has a huge passion for A1GP. He believes this is the best series he has ever done, he has promised us that whatever or if ever he went on to do other things he will still drive for A1 Team Ireland again. He has told me that no contract or boss would ever stop him coming back, because he enjoyed it so much and because it is the most significant part of his career to date.”
MAX: ”Yes, that is the intention of both sides. I’m saying that carefully, however. It looks pretty good, but there will be a couple of key decisions taken by potential new partners ,if they are positive then yes, but if they are negative it will be a bit harder. I’m also a bit careful because should there be space for him in Formula One and one of the best teams gave him an opportunity to drive then I think there would be a chance that I would lose him. However, he has told me that he would rather race up front in A1GP and contend for championships on a level playing field than race at the back of the grid in Formula One”
Name one unsung hero in your team who doesn’t get much credit for the job they do.
MARK: “Niall Quinn, our rookie driver. He doesn’t get any coverage or publicity, he’s not famous in Ireland, he hasn’t been on any chat shows, he hasn’t been photographed, he doesn’t sign many autographs and he doesn’t gets any credit for the fact that he has to climb in to the car on Friday morning and more often than not only to determine a problem with the car. He is a terrific driver, a great person, a brilliant team player and a real credit to himself for how he has conducted himself these past two years. If Adam was to no longer driver for us we would certainly want to give Niall the opportunity, because my word he has certainly put his time in as an apprentice.”
MAX: “I am proud of the guys who do a fantastic unseen job – my mechanics. Firstly, their improvement from last season to all the seasons before was unbelievable, and they have never had a mechanical failure. They have had to deal with a couple of accidents where they had to work all night, and don’t forget they got the car twelve hours before the first practice started in Zandvoort. They worked all night without any sleep. And you never see them. You see them doing a pit stop but that is always anonymous. They wear their helmets but would you recognize them as soon as they have their helmets off? Never.”
What rule change would you like to see implemented in A1GP?
“I would honestly say that the way the rules have been developed it has reached a point of real excellence. The only thing I feel I would like to change is the Powerboost in Qualifying. All the drivers should be allowed to use the Powerboost twice in Qualifying over the four segments whenever they fancy it.”MAX:
”What I would like to see is more possibility to see rookies or potential rookies time in the car. It’s not about more testing but it is about giving more options to test potential rookies. Maybe a rookie race or a rookie championship would be good, someway of evaluating an evolution of rookies’ performance throughout the season.”
A1GP Mexico City, 2008. Who deserved to win? [We chose the words of that question carefully. It’s worth remembering that both Ireland and Switzerland fought over a controversial victory, that was ultimately decided when Switzerland was given a penalty for an unsafe pit exit]
MARK: “Ireland unquestionably. Switzerland lost the plot completely that day. Neel should have stopped in the pit lane and let us go. So, having said he is the benchmark, everyone has an off day and he certainly had an off day that day.”
MAX: ” I don’t know if we should have won or not but the fact we got so badly punished destroyed a good race. Who in the end would have won, I don’t know. We had the potential to win but Adam drove a great race as well. It would have gone to the last centimeters of the race and this was destroyed by a much too hard punishment, in our opinion. Both would have deserved it, and I was happy for Ireland. They were chasing a win for ages and there it was.”
Which rival team deserves the most success for the effort they put in?
MARK: “We hate them at rugby but I have to say New Zealand. If I had to vote for a country to win the championship other than Ireland I would say New Zealand because they have been formidable competitors for the past three seasons. They have been there or thereabouts all the time and desperately unlucky not to have gained a championship win. It’s about time a southern hemisphere nation did something in A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. If I had a second regret in A1GP it would be that I have never been to the New Zealand race because it is too far to go for a weekend but everyone raves about New Zealand and the races they put on. I have great admiration for the way that New Zealand has conducted themselves.”
MAX: “A team which is always impressing but hasn’t yet had the success they deserve is A1 Team Netherlands. I think they are doing a very good job in many areas: marketing wise, PR wise and sporting wise. They are a good A1GP ambassador worldwide but they haven’t had the chance at big success yet.”
What would you describe as the strongest aspect of the opposite person’s team?
“The strongest aspect of A1 Team Switzerland is the same aspect of our team and why we have been champions and that’s the way they work together, their team work, their team spirit and their desire to be competitive in A1GP. Just the way that Max, James Robinson, Neel and all of the team want it. When you want it that bad you tend to be competitive.”MAX:
“A1 Team Ireland is a very professional organization; there is a lot of experience in each team member. They have a big advantage that they have their technical team together that is working all year long to get there, it is always the same people working together for a long time and this helps a lot. All of the other teams have to put a new team together often and it automatically means they have to live with personnel changes and as we know in technical sports consistency is the key to success.”
Who will be your greatest rival in Season Five?
MARK: “Canada, if they return. Sadly they were not part of last season but they were part of the previous season and we helped engineer their car then. In my opinion Robert Wickens is the most exciting driver other than Adam that I have ever seen in A1GP and if he can be tempted back to A1GP with a Canadian team, he would be formidable opposition.”
MAX: “I think its going to be Ireland again and maybe the Netherlands. I am sure the Netherlands are very close to being very successful. The next contender is Portugal, let’s not forget them. The achievement of Portugal last year with a minimum budget was impressive as well. This is a hard question because I think with A1GP there are people who have a lot of potential. Think about New Zealand, and think about India, the USA and France. If something is lacking it is only a tiny bit to go when they get one or two ingredients together.”
Anything else to say to each other?
MARK: “We think it’s a shame that in the off-season we never get to visit any of our competitors in their native countries and given that this is an interview with Max, Adam and I would love to be invited to the Swiss Alps for a nice dinner and some skiing. We would love to invite Max and Neel to Dublin for a weekend that they definitely won’t forget but actually they wont be able to remember.”
MAX: ”That is very nice, sure. I can assure you, you can pretty much have a night to forget in Zurich too!”