Surtees the old hand in a new world

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The Independent Online

At 71, the fascination for all things motorsport has not diminished in the later stages of his extraordinary life, hence his presence as boss of Team GB at Brands Hatch this weekend, scene of the first in the 12-race A1 Grand Prix series. He retorts sharply if you suggest that it is incongruous to find a man who won seven motorcycle grands prix in 1960 and a world championship for Ferrari in 1964 involved in the genesis of a new version of motorsport. "You could say that someone at a later stage than me runs F1," he says drily, alluding to Bernie Ecclestone.

The Formula One ring-master is understood to have expressed insouciance regard-ing the competition from A1, though you suspect that the attention the newcomer has received compared with this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix will not have entirely pleased him, even though this alternative, a World Cup of motor racing - to be broadcast live on Sky Sports - is based on an entirely different philosophy from that of the manufacturer-dominated F1.

It has been masterminded, and financed, by the 28-year-old Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum, the nephew of Dubai's ruler. It's all about horsepower, but not the kind we traditionally associate with members of Dubai's ruling clan. Involving a reported £44m in start-up costs, and prize money of £38m over the first three years, this is a big boys' Scalextric, featuring identical cars decked out in national colours, constructed around a Lola chassis, powered by identical 3.4 V8 Zytec engines generating 550bhp, and represent- ing 25 nations as diverse as Russia and Lebanon, Indo-nesia and the Czech Republic.

"We're not trying to take on F1; there's no point," insists Surtees. "We're not competing at the same time - except this weekend. It's also new money, which can only be good for motorsport."

Surtees is in his element as he supervises Team GB's two drivers: Robbie Kerr, winner of the British Formula 3 championship in 2002, and Alex Lloyd, a Manxman who won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award in 2003. Kerr, from Leicestershire, had just finished practice, and in two sessions had finished fifth and second quickest. "There's no pecking order as such, but I've been lucky enough to be chosen for the first two races, and the position will then be reassessed," says Kerr. "Ultimately, I'd like to race in F1, and this will raise my profile."

There are some familiar names among the team principals and drivers. Nelson Angelo Piquet, the son of Piquet Snr, drives for Brazil. Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg are running the Austrian team. Alan Jones is in charge of the Australian operation. But it's the fact that this weekend involves so many nations new to motorsport which makes it unique. "This will reach out into areas that haven't been touched by motorsport, as you can see by the grid," says Surtees, who after retiring from driving ran his own F1 team in the 1970s. "This is quite extraordinary. Think of the populations in those countries and how much interest a national car could create, even if they won't be ultra-competitive to start with."

That is putting it politely. On Friday, India's driver Karum Chandhok collided with Holland's former F1 driver Jos Verstappen at Druids, hurling the latter into the air and badly damaging his car. China's Qinghua Ma spun off at the Paddock Hill bend.

Surtees is not unduly concerned. "The important thing is there will be several teams very closely matched, and excitement when all go into Paddock Hill for the first time will be considerable. I was tempted by the fact that I thought it would be a superb vehicle for the British motor-sport industry. I thought it would also give an opportunity to younger drivers to be able to become noted names."

Does Surtees feel like a father indulging himself with his sons' toys? "A lot of things don't change. It's not an entirely new world," he says. "But you are not all trying to beat each other with superior technology, as you are with F1. There should be more overtaking; it'll be very much seat-of-the-pants stuff."

And that factor, you feel, is what has really brought this legendary figure back to the fore once more.