Monday, August 04, 2008

Two 'til the end?

It has been an odd year for the GP2 series. The first year with the second generation GP2 machine has not provided quite so much of the close, wheel to wheel racing that made the championship's reputation in its first few years. One suspects that Dallara have simply got the trade-off between aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip wrong with this year's car and that the drivers are encountering the same problems running close together in "dirty air" that the big boys have long been used to in F1. Let's not get it out of proportion, though. There were overtaking manoeuvres at Hungary in the GP2 races last weekend, and that is more than can be said for the Grand Prix after the first 3 laps were in the book.

In each of the GP2 title race has boiled down to a 2-way fight. In 2005, it was Heikki Kovalainen fighting it out with eventual winner Nico Rosberg. A year later, Nelson Piquet was the Lewis Hamilton's sole serious opponent, and last year, it was Timo Glock and ART's Lucas Di Grassi who were still fighting it out as the series entered it's final rounds. After the Magny Cours race, at which all the other major title contenders self-destructed, I wondered if this year was going to prove an exception and Giorgio Pantano was going to have it all sewn up with several races in hand. Two further feature race wins, at Silverstone and in Hockenheim, appeared to confirm that the title was going to the Italian single-seater veteran.

However, a single disastrous weekend in Hungary, where Pantano fell victim to an over-aggressive piece of defending from Romain Grosjean in the feature race has been enough to enable ISport's Bruno Senna into contention. Bruno Senna appears to be adopting the same steady and consistent approach that wasn't quite enough to bring Di Grassi the title last year. He may have won just one feature race, set against Pantano's impressive four wins from seven, but he has been racking up podiums (not to mention a sprint race win) with such consistency that he is just seven points behind in the title race. Had the dogcatcher at Istanbul been doing his job properly, the gap might be even smaller.

Given that, for the last 3 years, the GP2 champion has ended up graduating to Formula 1, the question must be asked - what are Pantano and Senna's chances of making the step up? Pantano, I'm afraid, I simply can't see being picked up by an F1 team next year. He had his chance in F1 back in 2004, and to be brutally honest, he looked rather out of his depth. He's been racing in GP2 and it's predecessor, F3000, since 2001. His best result remains his second overall behind Sebastien Bourdais, all the way back in 2002. There's no doubt that he's matured into a very competent single seater racer, but after his messy year with Jordan, I doubt he'll get a second chance at F1.

In the case of Bruno Senna, the answer is more complicated. There have been rumours that Toro Rosso is taking a serious look at the Brazilian, not least because of his highly marketable name. To my mind, though, he has been good, rather than exceptional, thus far in GP2. He's been consistent, but on the other hand, he's hardly been the consistent race winner that such as Glock, Hamilton, Kovalainen and Rosberg were in GP2. In normal circumstances, I'd say we'd seen enough of Ayrton's nephew to say he wasn't quite F1 material. In his case, I'm not quite so sure though. Unlike almost all his rivals, he did not spend his teens in karts, and he only began racing in 2004. As such, there's a fair argument that he has more room for future improvement than anyone else at a similar level. Certainly, he has come a long way from the rather underwhelming driver I saw in a Formula BMW race at Knockhill four years back.

So that's the likely title contenders out of the way. What of the rest? At the start of the year, I had predicted that GP2 Asia champion, Romain Grosjean, would take the title. Oh well. Grosjean, to be fair, has looked as quick as anyone this year, especially in race conditions, but has shown this year that there are still a lot of rough edges to be smoothed away if he is to make the step up. In Spain, he qualified poorly but looked quicker in race trim than anyone else - and was the only driver who seemed to be able to overtake with the new higher downforce cars, but he threw away what should have been a sprint race win with a plain stupid move on Kamui Kobayashi. There have been mistakes, too, in Monaco, Magny Cours (though he really should have won the feature race) and the other weekend in Hungary. Lack of attention to yellow flags cost him what would have been a fine feature race win in the wet at Hockenheim. Perhaps, in the knowledge that he is with one of the best teams on the grid, the more he falls behind, the more desperate he gets, and the more he falls behind.

He can at least console himself with the thought that he is not Luca Filippi. The young Italian's lack of pace has been utterly baffling. This is, after all, a man who won races with Super Nova last year, looked quick in the GP2 Asia series with the inexperienced Meritus squad and was signed up in 2008 for ART - the most successful team in the series. Yet he has been nowhere all season - scoring just one point for ART before walking out and moving over to Arden after Silverstone - where he has been no more competitive. About the only comparable mystery has been the way British F3 champion Marko Asmer has looked so utterly out of his depth since he walked into the Fisichella Motorsport drive in France.

What, then, of the rest? It says something about the lack of stand-out drivers in this year's GP2 field that the man who lies 3rd in the title chase is Lucas di Grassi - despite the fact that he missed the first 3 rounds of the championship, only stepping in when Campos and Ben Hanley parted ways. He's done a good job this year - much more so than he did when he was fighting for the title last year with ART in my opinion - but the door to F1 probably shut on him when he didn't make the impact he really should have done last year. Though if Alonso walks out on Renault, their options might be limited...

Alvaro Parente, of course, won the first race, but has looked pretty anonymous since then. To be fair to him, it is not clear that SuperNova is capable of making a GP2 car run as quickly as some of their rivals, but his form has been rather erratic. That said, he is in his first season of GP2, and unlike Grosjean, he didn't have the luxury of doing the GP2 Asia series as a warm-up. Discounting those who raced in that series, he's done better than any of the championship's other freshmen. His credibility would, I think, be intact if he could come back and win the series next year.

The same cannot be said of a lot of other drivers having rather up and down seasons. Karun Chandhok has been intermittently fast, but has never really matched the pace of his ISport team mate Senna, suggesting that the world will have to wait a little while longer for a really first-rate Indian driver. Russia, too, would appear not yet to have found it's man. Vitaly Petrov has been decently quick, and had no problem disposin of Hanley, but it took the arrival of Di Grassi to mark Campos out as a race winning team. Javier Villa's progress appears to have reached an abrupt halt and gone into reverse. While his team mate Pantano has been racking up the feature race wins, Villa has not even been able to continue his Sunday sprint-race winning streak. Andreas Zuber has recovered, to a degree, from a massively disappointing and frustrating 2007 season, but hasn't really shown the kind of pace that marks him out as something special. The same can be said, to a considerable extent, of Mike Conway, who has been consistent over at Trident, but has never quite been on front-running pace.

Pastor Maldonado, on the other hand, has been as maddeningly inconsistent as ever. He could be accused of being a one-trick pony, but when that trick is lapping Monaco several tenths quicker than anyone else, it makes you stand up and pay attention. Sadly, he's also had more than his fair share of very silly mistakes, and there have been times when he has really been pretty anonymous. On the other hand, his drive through the field to 5th from the very back at Hungary was one of the stand-out performances of the year.

So not a classic GP2 season, by any means, but it does seem that we are once more set for an intriguing denouement to the championship. My money is on Pantano, but there is little doubting that ISport will be doing everything within their power to win a second driver's championship.

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