GP2 - A most enticing prospect.....
2005 series winner Nico Rosberg is off to drive for Williams in F1, while Scott Speed, another front runner last year, will be driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso. Heikki Kovalainen and Neel Jani will be taking up testing duties in F1 and will not be coming back to attempt to claim the title, but several 2005 racewinners are coming back for more.
Alexandre Premat was, near as makes no difference, as fast as Nico Rosberg last year. He didn't win the title, at least in part because he made too many mistakes, but if he can marry some much needed consistency to his undoubted pace, he is probably favourite to walk away with the title this year.
Its highly unlikely he'll have it all his own way though. His partner in the crushingly dominant DAMS Team France A1GP team, Nicolas Lapierre, must be considered the de-facto number one at Arden, who ran Kovalainen last year and can justifably be considered kings of spec-formula single seater racing just now. Despite a disappointing time in 2005, he must be considered a serious contender this year.
Adam Carroll, it seemed, pulled off more overtaking manouvres than most of the rest of the grid combined last year, and certainly made a name for himself as a real racer. Back on the grid, this time with the ambitious Spanish team, Racing Engineering, he's got to be another favourite for the title.
Nelson Piquet Jr was a little disappointing last year. I had expected him to win the battle of the sons of famous fathers, but instead, while Rosberg walked off with the title, Piquet won just one race and could finish only eighth in the championship. On his day though, he was incredibly quick - witness his pole at the British race - and he knows that this year he has got to get the job done, if he wants to emulate his father's successes. He too should be worth watching.
If those four drivers are, in my view at least, the most promising of the series returnees, that's not to suggest that the others are all mere makeweights: Pla, Piccione and Bruni were all race winners, while Viso, Yoshimoto and, especially, Lopez, all also showed flashes of form on occasion.
There is a real possibility though, that the sophomore drivers will end up being beaten by one of a number of very promising newcomers. Of all of them, F3 Euroseries winner and McLaren protege, Lewis Hamilton looks to be the one to beat. On the one occasion I saw Hamilton race, some years ago at a BTCC support race at Croft in North Yorkshire, I have to admit he did nothing to catch my attention, but Ron Dennis is no fool, and his subsequent record suggests he is the real deal. Others making their way over from the Euroseries, and worth keeping an eye on, include Franck Perera and Macau Grand Prix winner Lucas Di Grassi.
Fernando Alonso's success in F1 appears to have opened the floodgates for up and coming young Spanish drivers. Of these, the one with the most substantial credentials is Renault World Series runner-up Adrian Valles, who unlike the F3 graduates, will have the advantage of substantial experience in high powered single seaters. Unfortunately, like fellow Spaniard and World Series graduate, Felix Porteiro, he will be driving for Adrian Campos' outfit, which was not exactly a front-running team last year. By contrast, teenage Spanish F3 graduate Jose Villa doesn't have quite the same kind of track record, but will be with Repsol backed 2005 frontrunners Racing Engineering, which just might give him the edge over his more experienced countrymen. The Spanish contingent is completed by 2005 returnee Sergio Hernandez, who showed occasional flashes of form last year, if not anything to suggest he'll ever have F1 bosses beating a path to his door.
Timo Glock, who unlike any of his GP2 rivals has not only already driven in F1, but has already scored points there (for Jordan back in 2004) has returned from across the Atlantic, where he had been doing a solid job in Champ Cars and is perhaps another dark horse for the world championship. Luca Filippi, the European F3000 champion who showed well in testing last December, is also worth keeping an eye on.
So who's missing? Given his dominance of British F3 last year and his frequent competitive showings in A1GP over the winter, its a shame that Portuguese rising star Alvaro Parente hasn't got a drive, not least because one suspects its more down to a lack of funding than any doubts about his ability. Likewise, the absence of F3 Euroseries frontrunners Loic Duval (off to take his chances in the insular world of Formula Nippon) and Adrian Sutil (one of Midland F1's test drivers, though how much testing he'll actually get remains to be seen) is disappointing. In an ideal world, it would be good to see Gary Paffett and Robert Kubica up against the likes of Hamilton, Premat, Glock and Piquet too, although they at least have worthwhile F1 testing roles instead. On the plus side, though there are only a couple of drivers who really don't belong at this level at all, and when one compares that to bottom half of F2 and F3000 entry lists over the years, that's really not a bad strike rate.
Of course, the most exciting driver line up in the world would be worth nothing if the formula was wrong, but GP2 showed that it had that very right indeed last year. Unlike F3000, they are only a few seconds slower than the cars making up the back of the F1 grid and with their greater reliance than F1 cars on 'ground effect' to generate downforce, they are somewhat more able to run together in close company (though winged single seaters will always struggle to a degree to do this). With 600 BHP and no traction control, these cars are really not a million miles away from the F1 cars of the early 1990s in performance terms, and from this year, they'll be on slick tyres too.
Never mind Bahrain, can't wait until Valencia.....