1 November ~ It’s not every day you see a Spaniard turning out for Flamengo, while the last time someone from Leicestershire scored frequently for Tottenham Hotspur he went on to advertise crisps. Yet this season has seen Andy Soucek wear overalls in the colours of the Brazilian team, while Craig Dolby’s haul of 697 points this season makes Gary Lineker’s record look like small fry in comparison. Using the strap line “The Beautiful Race”, Superleague Formula has just completed its third season.
Yet the football team-liveried cars still struggle to make an impact on fans of either sport. Eighteen football teams from around the globe competed in 12 races (including one in Inner Mongolia), with a mixture of promising drivers such as Dolby racing against former Formula One campaigners.
The format is novel and "football-themed", something that has irked racing traditionalists. The cars compete in knockout matches in qualifying until the final decides who is on pole. The meeting then has two 45-minute races (as in two halves of football), with the second one featuring a reverse grid whereby the car that finishes last in the "first half" begins the "second half" on pole (again, upsetting the purists).
Then follows a ten-minute extra-time Super Final for the best teams of the weekend, with the winner scooping a €100,000 (£87,000). Money is not an issue for the competition, with Angolan oil conglomerate Sonangol dishing out more than €5 million in prize money over the course of the season.
As a spectacle, though, Superleague Formula is still struggling for recognition. One difficulty is the failure of the football teams to impose their identity on the paying spectators. Crowds have been sparse with racing fans struggling to get to grips with “that joke of a football series”, while football supporters fail to see any link to a 180mph car in their team’s colours. Motor sports fans talk about Hamilton, Button and Alonso more than they do Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull; it is the drivers with whom they identify.
The SLF website shows races for free while television coverage is hidden away on ESPN but this tends to be summer-centric, when there is no football to broadcast. Apart from commentators referring to the football team rather than the driver (which is the norm in single-seater racing), the drivers wearing club shirts on the podium, and the dashing and crashing of team colours, there still seems little to pull the Atlético Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool fans to the action.
The football clubs involved only tend to make occasional token references in programmes or websites – should their team be doing well. Yet a number of clubs, such as PSV Eindhoven, have signed up to the series beyond 2013. Perhaps it is a good thing commentators refer to team names, seeing as the likes of Galatasaray, Lyon and PSV have all changed drivers four or more times this season.
Anderlecht showed the sort of domination they rarely produce on the football pitch, pipping Tottenham Hotspur to the title in the final race of the season. For those of us who enjoy the close racing, the grunt of a V12 and more overtaking in one race than in a season of F1, Superleague Formula is a welcome addition to the motor sports calendar. But the identity crisis looks set to continue. Gav Stone Les Rosbifs