Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Racing As Testing

Musing on the Finn's rather lacklustre performances at Ferrari last year, one F1 journalist asked "where is Kimi Raikkonen? If he can't take this seriously, why should I?". Watching the latest round of the GP2 Asia series in Qatar last weekend, I found myself asking much the same question of it.

Is it really a championship in it's own right or is it merely a glorified series of test sessions for the GP2 series proper? Take the three leading teams in GP2 at the moment. Champions Racing Engineering aren't doing the championship at all. ART have run no less than four drivers in their cars this year, with Champ Car refugee Nelson Philippe sharing the second car with prospective European series drivers Pastor Maldonado and Nico Hulkenberg while former F1 pay-driver Sakon Yamamoto continues his unsuccessful bid to revive his career in the lead car. ISport, meanwhile, have kept the same two drivers throughout the season, but Giedo Van Der Garde's team mate, Hamad Al Fardan, a man whose previous greatest achievement was finishing 3rd in the hardly hotly contested B class of the British F3 championship frankly makes last year's ART makeweight Stephen Jelley appear qualified by comparison. If even the GP2's leading teams are struggling to attract two good quality drivers, it doesn't reflect well on the series' credibility.

Further down the grid, things get even worse. Trident have had no less than five different drivers in their cars this year of whom only Chris Van Der Drift has a worthwhile racing CV. Fisichella MotorSport's Kevin Nai Chia Chen has taken part in all four races but has been so embarrassingly slow that it is a wonder he has been given the requisite licence at all. In Qatar he was 7 seconds away from pole!

The fact that, in spite of missing the opening races, Hulkenberg is within striking distance of the title is down, in no small part to the lack of serious runners doing all the races. That he will not compete in the final two races but will instead hand the car over to Pastor Maldonado merely goes to show that even the drivers themselves don't much value the series save as a useful training ground for the 2009 European series.

Part of the problem is that GP2 Asia is to my mind a fundamentally flawed concept from the start. Dazzled by Middle Eastern oil wealth, those behind the championship ignore the fact that the only Asian country with a serious racing history and culture is Japan - a country that the series doesn't even visit. Name a Qatari racing driver of any consequence... Or one from Dubai... The championship is aimed at an audience that isn't listening.

I do think though that there is room for a major winter single seater series, and the vagaries of weather suggest that Europe really isn't the place for it. Whether there is space for both GP2 Asia and A1GP I'm not so certain. What I do think A1GP have got right, which GP2's winter series would do well to emulate, is not sticking solely to Asia, but adding races in South Africa, South America and Australasia. Unlike the UAE, Brazil, South Africa and Australia all have a history in the sport, a significant motorsports culture and at least one past F1 champion each. Unfortunately, there's enough wrong with A1GP, that it's far from clear to me that either series will survive. It has been suspected that GP2 Asia was set up in competition with A1GP, but the end result may be that the two championships cancel each other out and both might be gone within a year or two.

It doesn't help either that, unlike the GP2 series proper, most of the races do not dovetail with Grand Prix weekends, and so drivers do not get an opportunity either to impress watching F1 bosses, or to learn the tracks that they might race on if they were to make the jump up to F1. All this might not matter so much if the series visited really top rate race tracks, but the brutal truth is that it doesn't. Take away the novelty of racing under floodlights, and there's no getting away from the fact that Losail circuit really is horribly mickey mouse. In daylight, it would look very uninspired. About the best that can be said for the place is that it is no worse than Dubai, and that unlike the race at Sentul, Indonesia, that it replaced on the calendar, the circuit at least didn't break up.

Whatever my reservations and doubts, though, there was a race last weekend and there were some points of interest and positives to emerge. Sergio Perez might have been overshadowed last year by F3 rivals Turvey, Hartley and Alguesuari, but the Mexican impressed me in the Barwa Campos machine, picking up two podium finishes (including a win) and comprehensively overshadowing his more experienced team mate Vitaly Petrov in the process. His move to secure second place in the feature race stood out as one of the highlights of that race.

The race also served as a reminder that the old GP2 cars were much more amenable to overtaking than the 2008-vintage machines with their more sensitive aerodynamics. The track wasn't exactly ideal for passing, but nobody seemed to tell Alvaro Parente, or the increasingly impressive Davide Valsecchi, who continues to get his Durango machine far further up the order than it really has any right to be.

Valsecchi is now Kobayashi's closest rival in the championship battle. Kobayashi's done his reputation no harm either. He's started picking up feature race wins (he was always something of a Sunday morning reverse grid star until now) and while he doesn't appear to be from the very top drawer, he's Japanese, part of the Toyota Driver Development Programme, and must surely have a covetous eye on the second Williams seat, which current occupant Kazuki Nakajima hasn't exactly done a great deal with.

Have we seen any pointers as to the form book for the season proper? Well perhaps. Remember, after all, that Romain Grosjean dominated the GP2 Asia Series last year, but proved rather less impressive in the European season. That said, though, there are ominous signs that Willi Weber's latest protege, Hulkenberg, could dominate next year in the manner of Hamilton a couple of years back. If anyone's to stop him, it certainly doesn't look like it will be Renault World Series champion Giedo Van Der Garde, on current form. I'd expected him to win races, driving for ISport, but as it has turned out, he has struggled even to score points, and lies a distant 12th in the title race.

It appears too that Campos might have made that last step forward to become genuine title contenders. Last year, had Lucas Di Grassi been there from the start of the year, they might have been able to give ISport and Racing Engineering more of a challenge. Last weekend, they looked very much the strongest team - with both Petrov and Perez finishing in the top 3 in both races. With Grosjean back for a second bash, and driving for them this summer, this might be the year for the former Minardi driver's team. With the creation of the rival F2 championship, and with leading lights from British F3 electing instead to race in the Renault World Series, GP2 might not be as strong as it has been, but I'm still looking forward to when the real action starts in Spain in May.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

GP2 Asia is really a marketing tool, the biggest clue being the hefty restrictions placed on who the teams may take. It is forbidden for any team to race with two drivers carrying a passport from Europe, North America or South America (Russia and Turkey excluded) unless one of the drivers is discounted from the championship contest and the prize money. Such a driver races purely to do... ...well, what? To amuse themselves? To keep in trim? Whichever it is, it doesn't help the reputation of the series much!

Piquet GP and Super Nova Racing are in that situation, with one driver having been out of the championship and prize money from the start simply because of passport compatibility.

This is probably why ART (and Arden) felt it could interchange the drivers in the car alongside Nelson Phillipe - because none of the drivers in that car could help it, or even themselves, to the championship.

There simply aren't enough independent quality drivers in Asia to fill the seats - the good ones generally find their way into the Toyota programme and therefore are limited to where Toyota allows them to go (which in practise means they rarely compete against one another in case they damage each other's reputations). The lack of consideration of Africa or Australasia means that drivers from those countries are that much less likely to enter, especially given the high price of any form of GP2.

This may be why Durango, David Price Racing, BCN/Ocean Racing Technology, Trident and new team Qi-Meritus Mahara started with one Asian and one non-Asian and then switched to a fully non-Asian line-up, despite the consequences.

This one simple but daft rule has basically ruined what could have been a good championship.

4:51 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Alianora

Thanks for your note - I hadn't realised there were disincentives for teams to run non-Asian drivers. Really not clear what the purpose of this series is - beyond that if Bernie wants to keep persuading authoritarian Asian countries to stump up cash to host Grands Prix, a few asian drivers wouldn't go amiss.

Trouble is, Japan aside, there aren't really any of note right now, and almost certainly they would be best served by racing in Europe if they were.

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Christian Miller said...

If you only knew Kevin Nai Chia Chen has started his single seater career in less than two years you'll be impressed.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Christian Miller said...

If you only knew Kevin Nai Chia Chen has started his single seater career in less than two years you'll be impressed.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Christian - That's as may be, but if he's so inexperienced, what on earth is he doing in GP2? He's 7 seconds a lap off the pace and a liability. He might have good reason for being 7 seconds off the pace, but he really ought to be in Formula BMW or something in that case - he just looks out of his depth in GP2. And as an aside, Felipe Guimaires seems to have made the leap straight from karts to big single seaters without looking nearly so lost...

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Christian said...

I don't think a formula BMW driver would have the abiliy to be even close to 7 seconds off from the pole position in the GP2 series, not to mention Chen did not went to the practice, but straight to the qualifying. If compared to his time to the rest during practice, he was actually within the range of 4 secons.

1:02 AM  

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