Wednesday, April 04, 2007

GP2 2007: Back down to earth?

If F3000 never had much success when it came to discovering new talent (just 2 F3000 champions ever went on to win Grands Prix), the early signs are that GP2 may be doing rather better. In the first two years, we've had Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton make the jump to F1 with serious teams, and Nelson Piquet Jr is waiting in the wings at Renault.

The question is whether the category can keep up this remarkable run of form as it goes into its third year, the last with the current car, at Bahrain in just over a week's time. Picking out favourites for the title seems a little more difficult than in the first two years. Last year, there were several established front-runners going into their second full season in the category and, in Lewis Hamilton, a standout F3 champion who looked like he might prove a match for any of them. This year, its hard to pick out anyone so obviously promising from among the sophomore drivers (the entry list, by the way is here). Reigning champions ART have two second year drivers, in Michael Ammermueller and Lucas Di Grassi. Both looked competent enough in their first year, given that Di Grassi was not with one of the more highly rated teams and Ammermueller had come straight up from Formula Renault, but neither man has so far done anythint to suggest that they are in the same class as Hamilton or Rosberg.

Luca Filippi, the former Euro F3000 champion is also back for a second year, but while team boss Dave Sears reckons he's quick, and he's topped the timesheets in testing on occasion, he didn't really do anything to suggest he was really from the top drawer last year. Andreas Zuber is back for another season but he is yet another driver who was neither fish nor fowl last year - winning a race on one occasion, but frequently looking utterly anonymous next to team mate Gianmaria Bruni at Trident. The same can be said of series returnee and former Spanish F3 champion Borja Garcia and of the rest Nicolas Lapierre has already failed to grasp too many opportunities and neither Javier Villa nor Jason Tahinci are likely to bother the top half of the grid.

What, then, of the newcomers? British F3 champion Mike Conway and fellow front runner Bruno Senna are both making the step up this season. Conway, in particular, has impressed me in the past when he used to race in Formula Renault, but I can't help but think that neither appeared to be in the same class as 2005 champion Alvaro Parente. What the Portuguese driver would give for a recognisable surname eh? Talking of recognisable surnames, Kazuki Nakajima, son of Satoru, the man who partnered Bruno's late uncle at Lotus some 20 years ago, is among those graduating from the Euroseries this year. He's got a Williams test drive too, though one can't help but feel his Japanese nationality and Williams' Toyota engine deal must have played a part (ironic really, because 20 years back, Williams lost their Honda engine deal in part because of their refusal to employ his Dad). His fellow countryman Kohei Hirate is also making the step up, and is probably marginally the quicker of the two new Japanese drivers (his testing contract is with Toyota...) but one can't help thinking that he hung around for a long while in Euro F3000 without achieving much.

A couple of potentially very quick drivers are making the jump over from the Renault World Series. Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado may be best known for receiving a multi-race ban after running down a marshal at Monaco, but he is quite possibly a much better prospect than Ernesto Viso ever was. Former Spanish F3 champion Andy Soucek is also a driver very much worth watching. Either of these two, who have much greater experience of racing powerful single seaters than most of the debutants, might make a good each way bet for this year's title.

What is perhaps most striking though, is the list of drivers not in this year's championship. There's no place for Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta, nor for his close rival, teenage prodigy Sebastien Vettel. While, for Vettel, a World Series driver and a BMW testing contract doubtless softens that blow, one suspects that Di Resta's drive in a 2 year old Mercedes DTM car alongside fellow Scot, Susan Stoddart might justifiably leave him feeling a little hard done by.

Renault World Series champion Alx Danielsson was talked about as a candidate for the BCN drive, but that never materialised (the seat has now gone to Sino-Dutch driver Ho Pin Tung, who deserves his place more than many on the grid) and Alvaro Parene remains stuck in career limbo. British F3 championship runner-up Oliver Jarvis has had to go off and ply his trade in Japanese F3, and will have to console himself with the thought that this did Adrian Sutil no harm and Spanish F3 championship winner Ricardo Risatti is yet another driver who didn't get the second BCN drive.

The upshot is that the field of promising young talent is neither as promising nor as talented as it should be, or as it was in the first two years of the category. This might just open the door for one of three drivers I haven't mentioned yet to take the title.

Ex F1 drivers Antonio Pizzonia, Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano have borken the mould by getting paid drives from teams with corporate sponsors who are keen to wrest the title away from ART. Some have suggested that it is unfair to allow ex-F1 drivers to compete against the up and coming drivers. Personally, I think this is nonsense. Ivan Capelli and Roberto Moreno both won the F3000 series with prior F1 experience, and their presence provides a very useful barometer of the overall talent level of the series. Suffice to say that if the young guns can't beat the likes of Pantano and Pizzonia, they probably don't deserve to be too far up the F1 team bosses' wish lists.

The contrasting motivations of the 3 ex F1 drivers are intriguing in themselves. Pantano has been around seemingly forever, and must surely be keen to win a title of some significance. For him, F1 can surely no longer be a realistic possibility - he was was mediocre in his single season with Jordan, and left that team under something of a cloud.

Pizzonia, by contrast, probably does still harbour F1 ambitions but he is very much in the last chance saloon in this regard. He showed pace on occasion both in his drive at Jaguar and in his one-off races with Williams, but he was far too inconsistent to merit a full time frontline drive. Only a serious show of dominance in GP2 is likely to revive interest among the F1 team bosses, but its just possible that he is capable of it.

Timo Glock, by contrast, is still very much a young hopeful. He showed a fair amount of promise in his one-off drives at Jordan despite being seriously inexperienced at the time, and was pretty quick in the unfancied Rocketsports Champ Car in 2005. Most importantly, though, he was capable of giving the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nelson Piquet Jr a fright in the ISport GP2 car last year, and he remains with Paul Jackson's team for his second full season of GP2. At the risk of looking very foolish at season's end, he's my tip to become the third GP2 champion. Its just a shame he's not up against the sort of opposition he should be.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

Great preview Patrick. I've not watched GP2 thus far but I plan on taking a look this year, and your post will help me get my head around the grid.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous HBoss said...

Nice preview. I'm putting my money (even though I have none) on Pizzonia. I followed some 4 or 5 races last hyear, hoprefully I'll follow more this time.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well you predicted right about Timo Glock. Well done

5:13 AM  

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