Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Romain Conquest

For the first time in the short history of the GP2 series, we have a champion before the final round. Romain Grosjean clinched the title after 8 of 10 rounds on Sunday, despite retiring from the lead of the sprint race. Of course, it was only the GP2 Asia series, and it seems fair to say that the new championship is of the same standing, relative to the GP2 series proper, as the sundry 'winter' junior single seater series are to their Summer equivalents.

Romain Grosjean may only have won 3 of the 8 rounds which have taken place so far, but in all honesty, he looked far and away the quickest man at every race save the chaotic Indonesian round held at the crumbling Sentul track. Even there, where he was inexplicably lacklustre, he picked up a pair of solid 4th places.

It would be easy to point out that he was with the best team, but it is worth remembering that his team mate, Stephen Jelley, has so far failed to score a single point in the other ART car. Contrary to what some cynics would have you believe, motorsport is still about the driver as well as the car.

The cynics would be on firmer ground, though, in asking whether Grosjean really faced much in the way of serious opposition. The major players in last year's GP2 series, itself not the strongest field the category has even seen, have either moved on as Glock, Di Grassi, Pantano and Carroll have done, or fallen to an almost surreal combination of bad luck and silly errors. Luca Filippi, for instance, was a regular frontrunner for Supernova last year, but driving for new team QI Meritus, he looked quick in Dubai only to go out with car failure, was disqualified for a tyre infringement after winning in Indonesia, got caught up in someone else's accident in Malaysia and then triggered his own accident in Bahrain.

Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, driving for reigning champions ISport looked to have the pace to run near the front, though not necessarily to take the fight to Grosjean, but Chandhok made too many silly errors and Senna was all too often the victim of mechanical problems.

All of this left Kamui Kobayashi, who had not covered himself in glory in his two previous seasons in the F3 Euroseries, the winner of two sprint races. Of course, sprint races, with their reverse grids don't mean as much as feature race wins, but all the same, one wonders if perhaps he's another driver who comes into his own when given a really powerful single seater to play with.

Perhaps more surprising still is that former GP2 backmarker Fairuz Fauzy returned to the series and began winning races. OK, like Kobayashi, it was only a sprint race win, but on the other hand, he was a regular points scorer, and picked up a second place in the feature race in his home race at Malaysia - far and away his best result in a GP2 car. Enough to establish him as a serious F1 prospect? No, but probably sufficient to earn him the title of the best driver to come out of Malaysia so far. It was all so disorienting that it was almost a relief to see that at least Jason Tahinci was as hopeless as ever

The last man to stand a chance of wresting the title from Grosjean was Russian Campos driver Vitaly Petrov. After initially looking rather out of his depth in GP2, he gradually emerged over the course of last year as a fairly serious single seater driver. If Alex Shnaider still owned an F1 team, he might have been in there... All joking aside, he was, along with Adrian Valles, the closest thing the series had to an unexpected success story this winter. Sebastien Buemi perhaps also deserves honourable mention for his win in difficult conditions in the Indonesian Feature race, though one can't help feeling he's yet another Red Bull Junior driver who doesn't quite have it.

Further down the grid, Armaan Ebrahim, Michael Herck, Harald Schegelmilch, Alberto Valerio and Yelmer Buurman were all unremarkable. One had the nagging suspicion that given a decent car, Milos Pavlovic might have shown a good deal better, but BCN Competicion increasingly look like GP2's own Super Aguri and he got nowhere. David Valsecchi showed odd flashes of form, as did Diego Nunes in the usually uncompetitive DPR machine. And that was about it.

Come the summer, Romain Grosjean may face a rather sterner test. Andy Soucek, who was quick in the opening round ar Dubai before giving up his place at DPR will be back with the rather more competitive Fisichella Motorsport Team. Luca Filippi will be in his third season, and will be competing in another ART machine, rather than a QI Meritus car. Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna are both proven race winners and will be driving for last year's champions. Giorgio Pantano, who almost uniquely has carved out a career as a paid GP2 driver, will be back yet again, this time with Racing Engineering, and might finally go from occasional race winner to genuine title protagonist. And crucially, while the circuits in the GP2 Asia series were new to almost everyone, all of those potential front runners will have at least a year's more GP2 experience on the circuits they will visit when the GP2 series proper starts in 3 weeks time. It'll be well worth watching.

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