Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best of 2007

Writing, as I am, on a rather grey and dreich Sunday at the end of the year, I've found myself thinking back over the year just gone. More so even than last year, I found that the world of Formula 1 took up a lot of my energies here at Motorsports Ramblings. We did, after all, have a very intriguing four way fight for the driver's title this year, and if I personally found the political machinations going on in the background rather dull, there is no denying that they had a significant impact on the season and took up an awful lot of energy and attention.

Away from the F1 world, though, there was much else going on that was worthy of attention. Here are ten single seater drivers, in no particular order, whose performances stood out for me in the course of 2007. Some of them are possible future F1 stars - a couple of them are already confirmed on the F1 grid for 2008.
One or two are almost certainly past thinking about F1 and happy to plough their own furrow over in the US. The final name is perhaps best considered a wild shot in the dark...

Timo Glock

When the young Timo Glock deputised for Giorgio Pantano at Jordan back in 2004, he impressed me by immediately getting on with the job in hand - and even scoring points on his debut. I presumed we would be hearing a lot more from the German in the years ahead. At first, it didn't seem that way. He spent 2005 in the career black-hole that is Champ Car. He got rather more out of the Rocketsports car than anyone who drove it subsequently, but it seemed that the F1 paddock had lost interest. He moved to GP2 last year, and in the second half of the season, we got some indication of what he might be capable of. Lewis Hamilton may have captured the world's attention, but from the British races onwards, it was Glock who racked up the most points.

This year, he dominated the GP2 series. The statistics don't entirely bear this out because he was struck by truly awful luck. His 5 victories could easily have been 8 or even 10, had his ISport car been a little more reliable. Other drivers were intermittently quick, but only Timo Glock was on the pace pretty well everywhere that the circus went. I'm glad that he's found a seat in F1 next year, and only hope that Toyota is not the career graveyard for him that it has been for pretty well everyone else who has raced for them.

Luca Filippi

Aside from Timo Glock, it is fair to say that nobody really stood out above the pack in GP2. It might have been interesting to see what Adam Carroll could have done with a full season, and of the rookies, Kazuki Nakajima seemed to have more raw pace than the rest (though I can't help feeling that he has been promoted to F1 a year too early). The award for most improved driver, though, should surely go to former Euro F3000 champion Luca Filippi. After looking out of his depth for much of 2006, he made much more of a serious impression in 2007.

He opened his year with his only win - in dominant style at Bahrain. After that, there were no further victories, but when his car was running reliably, he racked up an awful lot of podiums. There were second place finishes in both the sprint and feature races in Italy, followed by an impressive run to second in the Belgian feature race. More impressive, though, is that Filippi emerged as something of a racer in a way that he had not until now. With an ART drive next year, he's got to be a serious bet for 2008 champion. And already Honda have shown interest in him as a tester.

Sebastien Bourdais

I can't help feeling that Sebastien's biggest enemy in his latter days in Champ Car must have been boredom. Against increasingly weak opposition, it seemed that all Bourdais had to do most weekends was turn up and ensure that he didn't fall asleep at the wheel. On the other hand, what made the opposition seem weak? After all, there were former F3000 champions (Junquiera, Wilson), former F1 drivers (Wilson again, Moreno and Doornbos), former GP2 race winners (Neel Jani) and former Macau GP winners (Gommendy). They were all in the same machinery, and if Newman Haas are a better equipped team than the rest, this was unlikely to have provided quite the sort of advantage, on its own, than Bourdais appeared to have this year.

Eight wins from 14 races is an impressive showing in itself, but the stats hide the fact that, but for a little misfortune, he might well have won another three or four races. More so than even in any of his other four Champ Car winning seasons, Bourdais dominated 2007. Now we shall see what he can do in the altogether more competitive world of F1.

Robert Doornbos

In the end, Sebastien Bourdais had it all his way this year in the Champ Car World Series. For much of the season, though, it wasn't quite that straightforward. Red Bull refugee, Robert Doornbos appeared to be no more than another out of work F1 driver casting around for work, and the Minardi Team USA berth did not look an especially promising one. After all, the team had won but a single race (in rather fortunate conditions) with Nelson Philippe in the past few years.

In his first races in Champ Car, though, Doornbos quietly got on with the job of racking up podium finishes, while poor luck, or foolhardiness, or some combination of the two, did for many of his rivals. This culminated with a fine win in the rain at Mont Tremblant (he passed Bourdais on the road). Thereafter, things began to go off the rails. There was another win at San Jose, but it seemed that while others had their bad luck at the beginning of the season, Doornbos' problems all came at the end. Still. with Bourdais off to Formula 1, who'd bet against Doornbos winning the Champ Car title in 2008 - if there is a Champ Car title to win....

Romain Grosjean

Pre-season, the general assumption had been that Nico Hulkenberg would parlay his phenomenal pace in the A1GP series into a Euroseries win. Failing that, Red Bull favourite, Sebastien Buemi looked a good bet. As it was, a Swiss with little previous form went and beat them both. With six wins over the course of the season, he was clearly the quickest of the current bunch.

A seat at ART next year, especially when put together with a test drive at Renault ( the fact he races under a French licence can't hurt him there) mean that he is perhaps more likely to follow the path of Lewis Hamilton than that of other Euroseries winners who have subsequently fallen into relative obscurity, like Jamie Green and Paul Di Resta.

Nico Hulkenberg

Willi Weber's young prodigy might have been a touch disappointing in the F3 Euroseries this year (although he did win 3 races and wind up third in the final standings) but he deserves his place on this list thanks to his domination of the A1GP series at the beginning of the year.

OK, so there is little doubting that the A1 series is a mite strange, and that success in this formula hasn't always translated into other arenas, but all the same, there is little doubt than when given a powerful single seater, and put up against drivers with past F1 experience, the German teenager never looked less than assured. He's staying in the Euroseries, which I can't help feeling is a shame, because on the available evidence, it looks like he might do better with a more powerful car underneath him. Still, the Williams testing role won't do any harm.

Alvaro Parente

Some drivers seem to be inexplicably, and unfairly overlooked. In 2005, Alvaro Parente won the British F3 championship despite lacking the funds to do a whole season. Despite missing the opening round, he won the title with a race to spare, and didn't even bother turning up to the final round, in order to save cash. This year, he found himself again without backers, but on the eve of the new season, Tech1 Racing decided to take a chance on an unfunded driver, and used its own funds to race Parente in the Renault World Series.

He repaid the previously unremarkable French squad's faith in him handsomely, taking 3 race wins and the 2007 title against what was actually a rather strong driver line-up. Whether this leads to greater things, as it did for Robert Kubica, or to obscurity as it did a year later for Alx Danielsson, remains to be seen. As yet, it would seem there are no GP2 teams yet knocking at his door. It looks as if he'll have to really impress when he gets his Renault test next year.

Marko Asmer

The Estonian son of a former racing hero of the old Soviet Union appears to have been kicking aroun in F3 for a long time without ever having really achieved much. Beneath the surface, things are a little more complicated than that. In truth, he has never really had the funding to do the job properly, and when a driver is worried about how they will pay the bills, they will inevitably find it hard to focus fully on the day job.

This time, that weight was taken off Asmer's shoulders when Walter Grubmuller Sr put up the money to run Asmer alongside his son at Hitech Despite not being a team in the same league as Raikkonen-Robertson or Carlin, they were able to do enough to allow Asmer not merely to win the F3 championship, but to dominate it, and to make most of the series other young guns look decidedly second-rate in the process. One can only hope that he will find a worthwhile ride next year.

Dario Franchitti

I have to confess that I have never much cared for the Indy Racing League. These days, it's hard to ignore the fact that it looks rather healthier than Champ Car does, but that, to be honest, is not saying a great deal. Dario Franchitti once looked every bit as much an F1 prospect as near-contemporary, David Coulthard. Somehow, the opportunities never quite presented themselves, and he ended up leaving for what was then called the Indycar World Series back in 1997. After ten year, there were odd race wins, but he had never really established himself as one of tyhe true stars of the series.

Until this year. First came the Indy 500 victory, helped by a fuel strategy that just paid off as the race was rained off in the final laps. Then, as the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that Dario had finally arrived as a front line driver in the IRL. In his five previous seasons, he had won a total of 4 races. This year, he doubled that total, and when Scott Dixon ran out of fuel on the final lap of the final round, he sealed the title. A shame he's off to drive stock cars round and round in circles.

Marcus Ericsson

An eccentric choice, I will grant you, and a name which fits oddly with the others on this list. He's there because unlike the others, I saw him race in person at Knockhill last year, in the final round of the Formula BMW championship, and he stood out head and shoulders above anyone else in the field. Given that several of the other runners - including Henrys Surtees and Arundel, are considered to be serious prospects in themselves, this was no mean feat. Where the others all looked a shade scrappy, Ericsson seemed able to carry speed which nobody else could find around the tiny Fife circuit.

More interesting still, is that Ericsson really was a chance discovery - not a kid hot-housed by ambitious parents from the earliest age, but someone who walked in to a kart circuit in his native Kumla at the age of 9, and nearly broke the lap record the first time he ever drove. Without family money behind him, he's been reliant on the management of Kenny Brack and British single seater team boss Richard Dutton. It will be interesting to see just how far he goes - but I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that he will bring Fortec back into contention in F3 next year.

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