Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Awaking from a winter slumber

Time was, not so very long ago, when there really wasn't a whole lot to keep us race fans amused during the winter months. The Monte Carlo and Swedish rallies were about all there was happening in the racing world, besides the Daytona 24 Hour Race, at least until mid-March. The racing season, though, spluttered into life early last weekend. In addition to the Daytona enduro, and the Monte we had the opening rounds of the Speedcar and Asian GP2 series over in Dubai.

The catalyst for much of this has been the emergence of Asia as a significant player in the world of motor racing. Even the most cursory glance at the news helps to illustrate why this is happening. While banks in Britain and France totter, and the US heads towards recession, the Middle and Far East is doing really rather well (and buying up a lot of those troubled Western businesses at knock-down rates). Motor racing being an expensive business, it's no surprise that the sport is following the money.

The weather may be far from ideal for racing in Europe at this time of year, but in the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia and China conditions are considerably better. Or at least they are meant to be. Qualifying for the inaugural round of the GP2 Asia series had to take place on the short course at the Dubai Autodrome after heavy rain left part of the long course underwater. If this had been Silverstone we might not have been so surprised. As the rules don't allow for the racing to be held on a different circuit configuration from that used for qualifying, we were stuck with the race on the short track as well.

It didn't do wonders for the quality of the racing. The short track perhaps has more in the way of passing places than, say, Valencia, but that is about the best that can be said for it. In fact, the greater problem is that the Dubai Autodrome is fundamentally a dull, soulless venue where the endless acres of tarmac runoff areas and total absence of gradient change lend the impression that the circuit has been hurriedly laid out in an empty car park. One can't help feeling that if the racing world is going to flirt with authoritarian dictatorships and corrupt third world regimes, they could at least ensure that the circuits are interesting. Say what you will about the money that the Malaysian government has poured into hosting a Grand Prix at Sepang, but at least the track's good.

What then, of this new series? It's evident that the overall quality of the field is rather lower than we are used to seeing in the GP2 series proper, even in comparison with the slightly second-rate field we had last year. A few of the big names are present - Romain Grosjean is getting up to speed with ART; Bruno Senna is accustoming himself to changed surroundings at ISport, and Luca Filippi is out on secondment at Meritus, prior to joining ART for the GP2 series proper. Vitaly Petrov is continuing to learn his trade with Campos, after showing unexpectedly well towards the end of last year, and even winning a race. Andy Soucek struggled last year with a DPR team that were fighting to keep their heads above water, but on his junior-series form, he ought to be up to the job if Dave Price has sorted out his end of things. Senna's team mate, Karun Chandhok can't be entirely discounted, and I've always thought that Hiroki Yoshimoto has greater potential than BCN ever allowed him to show. The last two have the added cachet of actually being Asian - and are probably the only two Asian drivers in the series with any realistic hope of winning races in the GP2 Asia series.

Behind these men, it has to be said, the field seems to be made up of journeymen and rich kids wanting to play at being serious racing drivers over the winter, before the heavy-hitters come off their holidays. Armaan Ebrahim and Adam Khan have never done anything to suggest that they belong at this level, having looked hopelessly outclassed in A1GP. Stephen Jelley needed three years in the best team in the field to win one solitary race in British F3. Now his father's construction fortune at least provides us with an illustration of how ART's success isn't all down to the car. With Jelley at the wheel, they were right at the back of the field. Grosjean lapped him in race one! That Jason Tahinci is back for another year is another disappointment. This time, he drew attention to himself only for severely delaying Luca Filippi by aggressively defending his position as the Meritus driver came up to lap him. Michael Herck, Alberto Valerio, Davide Valsecchi and Harald Schlegelmilch are all drivers of whom I know little. On the evidence of last weekend, it is unlikely we will ever come to hear much more of them either - although Valsecchi did a decent job in the sprint race. All in all, it might be for the best that the GP2 Asia series runs with more severely rev-restricted engines than it's big brother. One can't help but suspect that some of the drivers further down the order would be a liability to themselves if they had full throttle to play with...

The first pair of races went to Romain Grosjean, who got off to the ideal start to his GP2 career at ART. It is fair to say that, while his domination of the feature race was impressive (albeit helped by the fact that Bruno Senna lost a lot of time behind Soucek, before finishing second) his second win owed something to luck, as well as ability. He did well to find a way past Yoshimoto and surprise second-place man Fairuz Fauzy, but one can't help but feel that Luca Filippi might have offered a rather sterner challenge had he not fallen out early on with gearbox problems. Whether this promising introduction to the world of GP2 works in the Swiss/French man's favour, or merely lures him into a false sense of security before the season proper gets underway remains to be seen.

Perhaps the most important thing for him is that he had the upper hand over Bruno Senna throughout. I've yet to be entirely convinced by this latest scion of the Senna family. I first cae across him on a cold day at Knockhill in a Formula BMW race a few years back, and he didn't really stand out there. He's done a reasonable job since, but he was soundly beaten by Mike Conway when they raced together in F3 in 2006, and after an early win in GP2 last year, he faded considerably towards the end of the year. Either way, though, he has a seat at ISport, and alongside ART, they have got to be the team of the moment in GP2. One can't help but feel that if ISport are to retain their crown, it is going to have to be Senna, rather than Chandhok, who brings home the bacon.

Beating Luca Filippi won't do him any harm either. Filippi will be joining him at ART come April, and it could be argued that the fact that Grosjean has got his feet under the table first at the French squad will work to his advantage. Against that, though, one must factor in Filippi's two previous seasons of GP2. After a rather underwhelming debut season, he came on in leaps and bounds during 2007, and came closer to putting Super Nova right back at the top than anyone has since the days when they took Montoya and Bourdais to F3000 titles. That said, Filippi is with a brand new team who have no previous experience of the car, and so he too can take positives from the opening round.

They're off to Sentul, in Indonesia next. The track is another rather narrow, twisty affair and like the short Dubai circuit, is perhaps not the best place to take big powerful single seaters to. On the other hand, judging by the A1GP race, at least the locals are a bit more interested in what is going on than was the case at the deserted Middle East venue last weekend. There's grass, rather than oceans of tarmac, at the side of the track, and who knows, maybe they'll have a monsoon to enliven proceedings. I'm in two minds about the GP2 Asia series, but at the least, it's something to keep us amused over the winter

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