A1GP’s Team GBR managed to salvage four points from a troubled weekend at Portugal’s Portimao circuit despite putting out an announcement suggesting it had written off the remainder of the season.
Dan Clarke, replacing Danny Watts, suffered through an anonymous sprint race but managed seventh in the feature – despite a spin on lap eight while locked in battle with Malaysia, Monaco, Mexico and India.
Robert Doornbos of the Netherlands won the battle of the ex-F1 drivers in the sprint, beating Italian pole-sitter Vitantonio Liuzzi away from the line and dominating the rest of the race.
But Doornbos – fitting the race in between his IndyCar committments – lost the chance to cash in his feature race pole for a second victory when his car suffered an electrical problem during the parade lap and caught fire.
The race was eventually won by Switzerland’s Neel Jani, and the Swiss remain as A1GP series leaders – despite the best efforts of Ireland and Adam Carroll.
Carroll took second place in the sprint, and looked to have shrugged off a drive through penalty in the feature to repeat the feat – but a second penalty, applied after the race, dropped him to fifth.
Parkistan’s Yorkshire-born driver and seat-holder Adam Khan was to have finally made his season debut after his car was adapted to fit his taller-than-average frame – but instead missed the event to head off to the Gulf with Renault’s F1 roadshow as a demonstration driver.
He missed seeing Team GBR hit by technical problems during Friday practice, when Clarke was one of just two drivers to fail to set a time in the first session, although he managed to get 18th on the timesheet by the second. He went on to qualify 13th for the sprint and 16th for the feature race.
In the first lap of the sprint he made up one position only to lose it again after a safety car period and a restart. Clarke pitted as soon as the pit window opened and, after all the nations had made their mandatory stops, was back in 12th place. A red flag for a multi-car accident halted the race early, meaning that was his finishing position.
In the feature Clarke, in his team’s words, “did not have the best of starts” but had improved to 14th position by the end of the opening lap.
Over the next few laps he made his way up to 11th place and a flying pitstop helped him maintain that position at the half-way point. In the second half of the race he continued to make up places, finishing seventh and picking up four points.
Clarke said at the end of the weekend: “I didn’t capitalise on the [sprint race] start as much as I could have, but I managed to stay out of trouble and turn some consistent laps, learn more about the car and bring it home ready for the main feature race.
“I’m pleased that we scored points [in the feature race]. If I’d been told on Friday that we’d finish seventh I wouldn’t have believed it, so we managed to turn it around today.
“All the changes we made kept improving the car and I was learning and using it as a test session as well as a race, so it’s been very productive.
“We’ve definitely made progress which will help towards the Brands Hatch event, which is at a circuit I know well. As a home race I want to do well in front of the fans and I think we now have a good foundation for this.”
The race was the first since Watts, a driver with great experience of the standard series car and a proven ability to deliver consistent points finishes, announced he was pursuing a full-time career in sportscars.
This was the latest blow in an awful season for the team that saw its hopes of competing for the series title wrecked before it had put a wheel on the tarmac.
In-house production of a much-hyped Ferrari-inspired chassis did not go to schedule – and Team GBR was one of the squads that was unable to take part in the season opener as a result, as well as getting no testing time.
Watts, who had been involved in initial production tests on the car, has been replaced by former Champ Car pilot Clarke, who had his first outing with Team GBR in New Zealand while Watts took paternity leave.
Clarke had a difficult weekend there after a disappointing qualifying and a lively sprint race that saw him nearly taken out by the Brazillian car.
He is, however, reportedly hopeful that driving in the remaining races of the 2008/09 season could be the start of a long-term relationship with the team.
The team’s preview for this weekend’s activities contained the following statement: “Team GBR has endured a difficult few months; problems with the new car and the inevitable ravages of the economic downturn have thrown more than enough hurdles in the way.
“The team remains positive and has taken a leaf out of Brawn-Mercedes’ book by already being well into planning for next season in a bid to hit the ground running when the fifth year of A1GP kicks off in October this year.”
The trouble with this statement is the fact that Team GBR, unlike Brawn GP, is operating a series car. So technical development is out of its hands, although time to work on issues like staffing and sponsorship will no doubt be welcome.
Also notable is the fact that there are no quotes in any of the publicity material from team principal Katie Clements, previously ever-present as the voice of optimism from the highs of Watts’ double podium in China, to the many lows throughout the disrupted season.
The next race takes place in the UK, at Brands Hatch on the weekend of May 1-3. It was set to be the season finale, but a rescheduled Mexico City date has taken that privilege away.