Nicolas Lapierre is expecting a stern challenge over the forthcoming A1GP season, as Team France aim to retain their title in the face of a raft of opposition all eager to steal it away from them.

The French came, saw and conquered during A1GP's inaugural campaign last year, waltzing away with no fewer than 13 race victories courtesy of GP2 stars Lapierre and team-mate Alexandre Premat. But the manner of their dominance - especially in the early rounds - has forced their rival countries to dramatically up their game for 2006-07, and Lapierre knows repeating that achievement will be no mean feat.

"Last year we did work a little bit better than everybody else in the beginning which gave us a slight advantage in the middle, but by the end of the season the others had caught us," he told at the pre-season Silverstone test. "There are a lot of new teams and drivers this year and the competition looks a bit stronger. For sure we won't have such a big advantage this time around."

Perhaps not, but France remain the team to beat in the series and are sure to be a major contender for honours. This threat was underlined on the first morning at Silverstone when Lapierre set the second-fastest time despite not running many laps, hinting at another title bid in the offing.

"At the test a lot of teams looked competitive and they really seem to have improved compared to last year," he added. "It's going to be a tough fight this year but I prefer it that way."

Before the season begins Lapierre still has one more round of the GP2 championship to take part in for Arden International, supporting the Italian Grand Prix at Monza this weekend. He will doubtless be hoping to go out on a high after an injury at Monaco back in May ruined what was looking like being a strong campaign for the young man from the Alps.

"The A1GP car has more downforce and the tyres are a bit harder, which makes it about three or four seconds slower per lap than a GP2 machine," he explained. "The atmosphere in A1GP is great though.

"I'm really excited about it the new season - it's good to keep busy during the winter and I hope we can fight for the title again. We are here to defend it."



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