Saturday, April 19, 2008

GP2 2008 Preview - Winning down to an ART?

It struck me the other day that there probably really aren't going to be many seats available for young F1 aspirants come the end of the season. OK, so Rubens Barrichello might call it a day and create a vacancy at Honda, and his near-contemporary David Coulthard is tipped to vacate the Red Bull seat after 15 years in the sport - but nobody else really looks like they are coming up on retirement. Of course, it's more than possible that some of this year's grid will be given the heave-ho come season's end - Nakajima and Sutil might justifiably be feeling a little nervous right now - but certainly we are not looking at an awful lot of vacancies appearing. And certainly not at the business end of the grid.

All of which might well be weighing on the minds of this year's GP2 competitors. More and more of late, it is from the GP2 series that drivers have made the leap to Formula 1, and with the demise of Champ Car, not to mention the seemingly waning significance of the Renault World Series, that's the way we can expect it to stay. The odd F1 team might continue to take a chance on an F3 hotshot - as happened with Sebastien Vettel and Adrian Sutil, but for the most part, what opportunities do come up will go to the GP2 front runners.

All of which is one very good reason for F1 fans to keep close tabs on GP2 this year. Not the only good reason, though. The main reason to watch GP2 is that it has consistently provided the most exciting, close-fought single seater racing around. The cars have almost as much power as current Grand Prix cars, a touch less grip, and rely to a much greater extent on under-body aerodynamics to generate downforce, which enables the cars to run much closer together through corners than F1 cars can. The result is that overtaking is a much more regular occurrence than it is either F3 or Grand Prix racing.

Perhaps the most pertinent question, though, is whether there is anyone on this year's GP2 grid who might have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Rosberg, Kovalainen, Hamilton, Piquet Jr and Glock. On the evidence of the new GP2 Asia winter series, it just might be that ART man Romain Grosjean does have it. Without any previous GP2 experience, he went up against several second and third year drivers and dominated the championship.

In past years, there has always been at least the semblance of a title battle in GP2. Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen fought it out to the very last round in 2005. Lewis Hamilton always looked the favourite in 2006, but Nelson Piquet Jr. made sure he didn't have it all entirely his own way. Timo Glock was very much the frontrunner last year, but Lucas Di Grassi nonetheless took the title down to the wire - aided by a healthy dose of luck.

If somebody is going to take the fight to Grosjean, who will it be? My hunch is we may need look no further than his ART team mate Luca Filippi. Filippi endured a rather lacklustre start to his GP2 career with FMS in 2006, but began to look much more convincing last year with SuperNova. Now in his third year, and in one of the very top teams, it's very much make-or-break for the Italian, and the ART intra-team battle could be intriguing indeed.

It's easy to forget that last year, ART didn't actually win the title. ISport's new lineup doesn't really have anyone of Timo Glock's calibre, but Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok are both proven race winners. Senna remains something of an enigma: blindingly quick one weekend, and utterly hopeless and adrift the next. A season's experience and familiarity with the tracks may make the difference, or may not. Karun Chandhok came seemingly from nowhere to score some very impressive winners with the unfancied Durango team last year. If GP2 Asia is any guide, he has the pace, but will really need to work to iron out the errors which cost him a number of good results.

Who else might have it within them to make a challenge for the title? Well, it would seem foolish to write off Arden - they may not ever have won a GP2 title, but they have been consistent front-runners and were the team to beat in the last years of F3000. Lead driver Sebastien Buemi was the man who came closest to Romain Grosjean in the F3 Euroseries last year. In his sporadic GP2 outings last year, he seemed hindered by the fact he was constantly jumping from one single seater series to another, but that might work in his favour this year - as he'll at least know the tracks.

Italian veteran Giorgio Pantano will be back for a fourth year of GP2, and should provide a decent barometer for the overall quality of the field. It seems that the former Jordan Grand Prix driver has the pace to win races, but lacks what is required to challenge for the title. This year, he's paired up with Javier Villa at Racing Engineering. If the field really isn't as strong as in past years, perhaps he'll finally get another single seater title to add to his 2000 German F3 trophy.

I'd be surprised if anyone I haven't already mentioned wins the title this year, but there's plenty more drivers in the field who are worth watching, and might well win races. I've always reckoned Alvaro Parente to have been one of the more cruelly under-rated single seater drivers of the last few years, and the reigning Renault World Series champion finally gets a GP2 shot with SuperNova. The man who ran him close to the title last year, Ben Hanley, is also making the switch and is partnered with Vitaly Petrov, who is doing a fine job of dispelling the notion that Russian single seater drivers are always out of their depth on the world stage.

I was more convinced of Fisichella Motorsport's prospects when they add Andy Soucek on the books. News that his place is to be taken by Roldan Rodriguez doesn't exactly inspire optimism. On the other hand, Adrian Valles has shown well in the GP2 Asia series after a somewhat inconclusive initial period in GP2. Certainly the Force India driver's squad will benefit from the fact that they no longer need waste a seat on Jason Tahinci now that Petrol Ofisi money has been replaced by cash from Force India owner Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher brand.

After a year of anonymity with rather second-rate drivers, Piquet Minardi Sports have been flying in testing with the mercurial Pastor Maldonado and team mate Andreas Zuber, lest we forget, was really not all that far behind Timo Glock on outright pace when they were team mates at ISport last year. All the same, the Austrian driver must know that, going into his third year, he really has to get the job done this year if he is to stand a chance of progressing.

Others worth watching? Well Kamui Kobayashi does rather blow hot and cold, but he picked up two wins in the GP2 Asia series, so might be a good bet for a sprint race win or two. Team mate Jerome D'Ambrosio looked initially out of his depth in the Asia series, but he won the Formula Master championship against a very full field last year, and Former British F3 champion Mike Conway has switched to Trident Racing, and while his 2007 season yielded little in the way of results, he wasn't so very far off the pace of his old team mate Filippi in race conditions. Another man I wouldn't expect to be in the running for the title, but who might well win races. He was devastatingly quick at Silverstone last year - and this time round, he knows all the tracks.

In summary, while I can't help thinking the title race may not be as close as in past years, there's enough good, serious runners to ensure that the GP2 series will be worth watching. I'll certainly be tuning in to the racing this weekend. A final piece of news (at least for those of you in the UK) - good or bad, depending on how you look at it - is that ITV now have the rights to the GP2 series and will be broadcasting on ITV4. For those, like me, who came to love the commentary provided by Martin Haven and Gareth Rees on Eurosport, this is a shame in a way. But on the other hand, ITV has much greater potential reach, and it would be good to see the championship pick up the kind of audience that it really deserves to.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home