Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Young Pretenders

It can't have escaped the many young drivers aspiring to make the breakthrough into Formula 1 next year that there could be a number of seats available in the near future. Nelson Piquet Jr, Sebastien Bourdais and Kazuki Nakajima have all underperformed thus far this year and questions have to be asked as to whether they will last the season let alone retain their seats into next. One wonders, too, whether Giancarlo Fisichella and perhaps even Rubens Barrichello are now into their final season of racing now. If all of the above go, that's five seats opening up, compared to the one this year, and of course there is always the possibility that the FIA's efforts to bring new teams into the sport will come off and USGPE, or ISport or whoever, could be looking for drivers too.

In recent years, the vast majority of F1 debutants have come up through GP2. There have been exceptions - most notably Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica, but all the same, if you are looking to get a Grand Prix drive, then the FOM-owned feeder series appears to be the place to be. All of which begs the question, with the series kicking off in Barcelona last weekend, who might be near the top of the F1 bosses' shopping lists?

Even ahead of a dominant display at the weekend, Renault development driver Romain Grosjean, who won the previous year's GP2 Asia series, had to be one of the title favourites. A pole, an error-free victory in the feature race and a second place in the sprint which perhaps ought to have been a win (Edoardo Mortara on one occasion at least played very fast and loose with the 'one move' rule in defending his lead) - it was a marked contrast to his performance at the opening round last year, where he looked the fastest man on the track most of the time, but threw away a possible sprint race win in a moment of impetuousness.

I've said before that, for a driver to really stand out, he needs to win the GP2 series at his first attempt, especially if he's with one of the top teams as Grosjean was last year. But I wouldn't write him off just yet. Last year, he had the pace, but made too many errors - if he can demonstrate this year that this was down to youthful inexperience rather than a fundamental character flaw, he could yet be in for a race seat at Renault in 2010. Perhaps the one thing casting doubt on his performance was that the hitherto rather unremarkable Vitaly Petrov was able to finish second in the feature race in the sister-Barwa car, suggesting that, for all that GP2 is supposedly a spec-formula, the team may have played as big a part as the driver in their success last weekend.

For Lucas Di Grassi, it may already be too late. He's now going into his fourth season in GP2, and his failure to win the title for ART in 2007 was probably enough to lead many of F1's movers and shakers to write him off as not quite the real deal. That said, he's not quite in the same boat as Giorgio Pantano, who took nearly a decade to win the title (he first arrived in F3000 in 2000...) If there are enough seats available at the end of the year, then a good run at the title in his amusingly-named 'Fat Burner Racing Engineering' machine (and to think, last year, the Repsol liveried Racing Engineering cars were the prettiest on the grid...) just might be enough to secure him a drive.

In GP2, you can never write off Frederic Vasseur's ART squad and it will be interesting to see what the highly rated F3 Euroseries Champion Nico Hulkenberg can do with them this year. He had an oddly anonymous weekend in Barcelona, though he was hamstrung by his failure to get off the line on Saturday afternoon. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that in the Sunday morning sprint race, his team mate Pastor Maldonado looked a good deal more racy, climbing back up to 6th after falling to 10th away from the start, in spite of the fact that passing at the Circuit di Catalunya is notoriously difficult.

That though, may be a reflection as much of Maldonado's potential as any shortcomings on Hulkenberg's part. The Venezuelan driver has looked intermittently quick ever since arriving in GP2 in 2007 - he's particularly quick at Monaco and showed increasingly impressive pace through last year at Piquet Sports - his performance in the wet at Spa standing out in my mind. He's never been talked about before as an F1 prospect though, perhaps because of an erratic, wild side. If he can put all that behind him and win the title, it's possible the GP team principals will sit up and take notice, but now he's with ART and into his third season, he has no excuses.

What of the rest? Who else will be worth watching? The DAMS squad won the GP2 Asia series comfortably over the winter and while series champion Kamui Kobayashi looked rather anonymous all weekend, Belgian Jerome D'Ambrosio, the former Formula Master champion, looked a good deal more impressive. He may not quite have had the pace of the Barwa-Campos-Addax cars, but two podium finishes in the opening two races suggests that he could be a factor as the season goes on. Whether or not he's really quite F1 material I'm not sure, but he came on increasingly strong as the GP2 Asia series progressed earlier in the year...

What of 2007 Champions and rumoured F1 aspirants, ISport? For the second year running, I'm not entirely convinced by their driver line-up. Giedo Van Der Garde won last year's Renault World Series title, but has thus far looked all at sea in GP2, something I find hard to understand. Was last year's WSR field second rate? Were P1 Motorsport putting together a much quicker car than their rivals? Have ISport gone dramatically backwards since last year? Or is it simple a case of car and driver failing to gel? Sometimes it is hard to understand why a driver can be so quick in one series and so lost in another....

Diego Nunes looks a shade quicker thus far.He sometimes impressed last year in the unfancied DPR entry and was in a points-scoring position before becoming an innocent victim of the Di Grassi/Parente collision in the feature race. He looks like someone who can win races, but I wonder if a title might be beyond him....

Arden were once the kings of F3000, and with Heikki Kovalainen, they had a serious run at the very first GP2 title in 2005. Since then, the team appear to have fallen from their perch. Perhaps it's because owner Christian Horner has other things on his mind these days. Perhaps they've just not had the drivers to get the job done - although that Sebastien Buemi has looked pretty handy in an F1 car. This year, they've got Euroseries runner-up Edoardo Mortara and British F3 front-runner Sergio Perezat the wheel. And while Perez had a torrid time last weekend, Mortara was able to hold off Grosjean and win the reverse grid event in his first GP2 weekend (if you discount the GP2 Asia series anyway). I'd be surprised if he mounts a serious title bid, but he might just get the best of his old F3 rival, Hulkenberg.

Of the rest? There are a fair few race winners in the field. Andi Zuber is back for yet another year, but after failing to make a serious impression with Piquet Sports last year and never quite matching Timo Glock at ISport the year before I can't now see his career going anywhere. Luca Filippi was back on form at SuperNova last weekend, running near the front after a miserable and lacklustre year spent at ART and Arden in 2008, and he's teamed up with Javier Villa, who seems to have been around forever despite only being 21 years old. Karun Chanhok, having failed to get the measure of Bruno Senna last year at ISport, is unlikely to do any better teamed up with Alvaro Parente at Ocean Racing, the team that as BCN generally brought up the rear last year. Parente I once had a higher opinion of - British F3 Champion, Renault World Series Champion and winner of his first race in GP2. Since then, though, he hasn't really made an impression and his SuperNova team mate Andy Soucek usually got the better of him as the season wore on.

The bottom half of the GP2 series seems to me to be made up of those with few qualifications to race at this level beyond the connections or family wealth to pay for the drive. What Ricardo Texeira, Nelson Panciatici, Alberto Valerio or Michael Herck have done to suggest they have a future as professional racing drivers is beyond me. Come to that, even some of the aforementioned former race winners are probably still on the grid only because they have money and connections - does anyone really still believe Javier Villa is the next Fernando Alonso? Or that Andi Zuber will be picked up by an F1 team?

The shame of it is that while the bottom half of the GP2 grid is made up of makeweights, a number of potentially seriously quick drivers can't, or have chosen not to, join GP2 at all. Jaime Alguesuari, Oliver Turvey and Brendon Hartley, the three stand out drivers from British F3 last year, have all gone to WSR instead. And when one looks at the sheer cost of GP2, it's hardly any surprise. Why would Red Bull or Racing Steps Foundation (who pay the bills for the above three) pay perhaps three quarters of a million to place their driver in one of the weaker teams in the GP2 field? How much could any of them really do with a seat at DPR or Durango? How serious a measure of future up and coming talents is GP2 if it is restricted to the very best-funded young single seater racers?

To go back to the question I started the article with, I wouldn't be surprised to see Romain Grosjean make the move up to F1, and if Nico Hulkenberg lives up to the promise he has shown in F3, he too might find an F1 berth. But it wouldn't surprise me if, after a few years in which GP2 has been de rigeuer for would-be F1 drivers, we revert once more to the situation which had prevailed in the dying years of F3000, where the best drivers skip the category altogether and are plucked straight from F3, from the Renault World Series, and perhaps even from the new Formula 2 category.

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Anonymous Keith Collantine said...

H├╝lkenberg looked pretty handy in his two GP2 Asia starts as well. From what little I've seen of last weekend's GP2 races (the UK coverage has been farmed out to lousy Setanta who don't even show the races live) it seems he was a little bit lucky and was bundled out of one race by a particularly careless rival. He looks promising though.

Looks like Grosjean's got his act together a bit after last year. I expect di Grassi will run him close for the title though.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I ended up watching the Finnish coverage with the sound off. If I remember rightly, Hulkenberg was punted out of the second race towards the end, but he'd already been passed by a very quick looking Maldonado.

I have a hunch that Grosjean just *might* run away with it this year in the same way Liuzzi did in F3000 a few years back, but perhaps the field is too strong for that sort of domination - and of course F3000 didn't have reverse grids

1:33 PM  

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