The second season of A1 Grand Prix of Nations action officially got underway on a breezy and hazy Saturday afternoon at Zandvoort with much of the pre-qualifying talk focusing on matters away from the track.

The absence of (former) Dutch hero Jos Verstappen and the news that A1 founder and main stakeholder Sheikh Maktoum would be standing down as the chairman coupled with a large crop of new (and somewhat unproven) drivers had given the final build-up a somewhat tense, uncertain feel.

However thanks to a large, enthusiastic and somewhat anti-Verstappen Dutch throng and some superb driving from many of the A1 newcomers, Sunday's two races are a highly appetising prospect for all single seater lovers.

Although A1's 'best two from four' qualifying system is somewhat convoluted for those not completely up to speed with the series it undoubtedly creates excitement, as was the case on Saturday when Team South Africa rookie Adrian Zaugg shook the establishment by taking pole position in the fourth and final session.

Nineteen year old Zaugg, a recent addition to the World Series by Nissan grid, was a frontrunner in all four 15-minute segments but didn't sit on the pole until just two minutes remained in the final session when his 1min 27.349secs tour around the 2.6-mile Zandvoort circuit eclipsed everything else before it.

That lap, when combined with Zaugg's second fastest lap, a 1:28.182secs effort from segment three was enough to push Team Germany's Niko Hulkenberg off top spot.

Hulkenberg was another A1 rookie to shine on Saturday, setting second fastest time in the opening segment before fading slightly in session two and then bouncing back with a vengeance in segment three with a 1:27.661secs lap that was good enough to put Germany on pole position with one session to go.

Unfortunately Hulkenberg couldn't match that effort in the final, generally faster session and his 1:28.144secs lap wasn't enough to keep Germany on top of the pile.

With teams mainly having just two brand new sets of tyres to use for the four sessions, judging ambient and track temperatures was critical and with a stiff breeze and some ominous clouds overhead also adding to the mix, finding one of the brief but powerful bursts of sunshine that also peppered the Dutch coast was of paramount importance.

Team Mexico's Salvador Duran evidently found a patch of sun in the final session as he stopped the clocks in a time of 1:27.670secs to take second place on the grid. After leading the pack at the half way point of qualifying Duran, who had two laps in the 1:27 range, will be looking to capitalise on his previous A1 experience as well as Zaugg's inexperience to make a good start in Sunday's sprint battle.

Defending A1 Champions France will start third thanks to four solid but unspectacular laps from Nicolas Lapierre with Germany fourth and Switzerland fifth in the hands of the third teenager in the top five, Sebastien Buemi.

Team Great Britain and driver Darren Manning employed the same strategy in each session, waiting until the final moments before going out and even though the experienced Yorkshireman was the final car on track in every session and didn't have to worry about slower traffic, he will be disappointed with sixth overall.

After effectively throwing away the first two sessions and saving his two new sets of tyres for the final two segments Manning put Team GB in contention for pole with second fastest time in segment three but then a disappointing 1:28.310secs lap in the last session pushed him back to sixth overall.

Row four of the sprint race grid has a distinctly North American feel to it with Team USA's Phil Giebler and Team Canada's James Hinchcliffe seventh and eighth fastest, new Dutch hero Jeroen Bleekemolen ninth and New Zealand's Matt Halliday completing the top ten.

While the race organisers may have been worried over the amount of Jos Verstappen fans who might stay away for the weekend a quick glance in the grandstands and on the surrounding sand dunes put those fears to bed very quickly as Bleekemolen was urged on by what could be the biggest qualifying day crowd ever seen at an A1 event.

Although the Dutch team may have made a slight strategic error by sending Bleekemolen out on two sets of fresh tyres in the opening two sessions Bleekemolen still kept the home nation in contention right up until the end of the third segment. Sitting third overall less than two tenths of a second behind Germany with one session to go Bleekemolen's tyres finally cried enough in the final segment with a 1:30.033secs the end result.

A1's two new Nations, Singapore and Greece both gave a good account of themselves with Christian Murchison set to start the smart looking Singapore entry from 20th place and Greek driver Takis Kaitazis one place back in 21st.

Kaitazis had the biggest scare of the session when, in the opening minutes of segment four he came upon no less than three marshals pushing the spun Team Pakistan entry backwards up the track at the Audi Bocht chicane. Thankfully Kaitazis was able to bring his car to a halt but it was a case of disaster avoided for the marshals and the event itself.

 

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