When Chelsea, Leeds and Tottenham signed up for the failed Premier 1 series
On Tuesday, Formula 1 announced a unique new partnership with Tottenham Hotspur that would see a karting track built under the North London club’s stadium but it is not the first time the two sports have mixed.
The Premier 1 Grand Prix was a series that, in football terms, never made it to kick off but with the likes of Chelsea, Leeds, Tottenham and Valencia behind it, it was more than just a pipe dream.
Both football and Formula 1 were not quite the money-making juggernauts they are today and as often happens with those at the top of the sport, there was a constant desire to ask what comes next.
In 2001, the answer was Premier 1 Grand Prix.
So climb aboard the PlanetF1.com time machine as we take you back to the start of the millennium and the birth of this unique, but doomed, series…
It’s October 2000. Michael Schumacher has just won his first World Championship with Ferrari, breaking a drought of 21 years for the most famous team of them all when a British investor called Colin Sullivan (no, not Matt Damon’s character from the Departed) comes up with what he believes is the next great idea.
The premise of the Premier Grand Prix series was simple. Take two of the world’s most popular sports, smash them together and sell the outcome for mega bucks. But instead of having F1 teams invest into football outfits – a time consuming and expensive endeavour – Sullivan, who had tried to purchase the Silverstone circuit a year earlier, decides to get football clubs to have their own teams in a new series.
But Sullivan had some convincing to do, firstly with the football clubs. He turned to Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association and their research showed that at least 40% of football season ticket holders had an interest in motor racing. At the turn of the new year, the project moved up a gear as they recruited Heinz Schurtenberger. The Swiss was another former chief executive who worked at International Sport and Leisure, the marketing company that helped FIFA turn football into the cash cow it is today.
The trio began to map out the rules of the series in a step that was crucial if it were to become a reality and the goals were certainly ambitious. At least 24 cars on the grid at every race, six more than the F1 grid at the time, all cars to be the same chassis and all with the same engine. For while the concept of having football teams involved was enough for initial interest, the idea of having drivers compete in equal machinery was a topic of conversation that had dominated fan talk since the beginning of F1.
There would be no pit stops, the weekend would feature qualifying on the Saturday before two races on the Sunday with each lasting 100 miles or an hour with a 30-minute break in between and the calendar had been carefully designed to avoid a clash with the F1 season.
Crucially for the clubs as well, there was no need to invest in the teams and they would be selected according to their performance in the past six years in their respective domestic leagues.
Slowly but surely, these plans, as well as the sizeable funding provided by investment firm SMC Capital Investments and the promise of a share of the TV deal and a £1 million prize fund per race, got teams’ attention. A reported 30 clubs from across Europe were interested in having their logo and colours on a car and the series was given provisional backing by the FIA in October 2001, a few months after Benfica had become the first club to officially sign up.
But their goal of starting with the 2002 season was looking ambitious, for a start they could not find enough teams to fill their 24-car grid even with Leeds and Valencia on board. There was also the issue of getting the cars built in time. With a season start date of July, Reynard Motorsport were asked to produce 50 cars at a rate of six per week.
A representative of Premier 1 Grand Prix told the media early in the year that testing for the car, named the GP01, would begin during the first week of April 2002 but soon after, Reynard Motorsport was declared bankrupt.
The series was deferred a year but, perhaps with their eyes blinded by the lucrative offer they had been sold, the clubs kept faith while Johnny Herbert was confirmed as a driver and the likes of Mark Blundell, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill were rumoured to be joining.
The calendar had not even hit 2003 when the series was deferred to 2004 as no constructor was willing to pick up the baton left behind by Reynard so the start was again delayed a year.
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Like many bright ideas that burst into life, the Premier 1 Grand Prix series fizzled out. By mid 2003, not much was heard from the organisers as teams began pulling out of the once ambitious adventure. Sullivan, the father of the project, reportedly invested more than $100 million into the failed series and no one knows what happened to the cars already made by Reynard before they went bust. Presumably they sit in a desolate storage locker somewhere as an obvious reminder that sometimes even the brightest ideas aren’t the best ones.
But Premier 1 Grand Prix walked so that Superleague Formula could run for seven years after the first season of the former was intended to start, fans witnessed the inaugural season of a series that mixed football and Formula 1.
The Superleague Formula continued the Premier 1 Grand Prix project but dropped some of the more ambitious elements that made its predecessor fail. The goal was to have a starting grid of 20 teams, each with one car and much of the costs would be taken on by the series itself, leaving football clubs with the attractive proposal of promotion without much cost.
Liverpool, Tottenham, Rangers, Atletcio Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan and many more all signed up and in 2008, the teams actually went racing. The first event, held at the UK’s Donington Park was won by Beijing Guoan’s Davide Rigon with the second race at the same track on the same day won by Sevilla’s Borja García. Rigon would go on to win the inaugural championship with a final race watched in 70 countries. Liverpool would take the 2009 crown before the series’ biggest season in 2010 with a doubling of the races to 12 and a prize fund of €1 million to eventual champions Anderlecht.
But the series, as Premier 1 Grand Prix had done before, bit off more than it could chew. Just six football teams stayed on for the 2011 and final season with many racing outfits instead represented by their nationality. Just four races took place before a slew of cancellations saw Australia’s John Martin crowned the premature champion.
Just as Premier 1 Grand Prix had done eight years ago, Superleague Formula faded into distant memory.
Spurs did finish second in two seasons though so we guess some things never change…
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