Sunday, February 07, 2010

Up and Coming...

The motor racing season never really ends these days. Time was, not so long ago, when between early November and mid-March, there was a four month dead period in which there was only the Monte Carlo and Swedish rallies and the Daytona 24 Hours to keep race fans distracted. Then along came the GP2 Asia and A1GP series and ensured for a time that the single seater calendar was a 12 month affair.

I was never too sure quite where the money for A1GP was coming from, and with the series hitting the financial skids at the end of last year, it seems perhaps that the money was never really coming from anywhere. The GP2 Asia series, though, is just about keeping its head above the water and the second round of that championship at Abu Dhabi last weekend was the first major event of the single seater racing year. Regular readers will know that I'm somewhat sceptical about the merits of the GP2Asia series as a championship, and that the vast majority of the serious runners appear to treat it as an extended test for the GP2 championship proper, which will get underway later in the year but feeling starved of on-track action, I tuned in all the same.

Thanks to Eurosport's innovative EurosportPlayer software (which has a very reasonable subscription cost of £4/month, worth it for their fantastic coverage of the Monte Carlo Rally on its own!) I was able to follow the event online. The racing was reasonably entertaining, with ISport team mates Oliver Turvey and Davide Valsecchi duking it out for victory in the first race and Charles Pic and Jules Bianchi putting in aggressive drives from the back in race two, showing that overtaking in a modern powerful single seater may be difficult, but its not impossible. On the other hand, with the benefit of reflection I'm not any keener on the new Abu Dhabi circuit than I was when it first appeared on our screens at the end of last year. There are worse race circuits in the world, but given the sheer amount of money spent on the place, it would have been good to have some more elevation change, rather than a glow in the dark hotel that reminds me of nothing so much as the Bullring in Birmingham city centre. That said, it is at least a circuit on which passing is just about possible, and the mile long main straight followed by a very slow slightly more than 90 degree left provided its fair share of action.

Really, though, the main reason to follow GP2 Asia is that it just might give us some hints as to what to expect in the GP2 series proper, and by extension, who might be appearing on the F1 team bosses' radar over the next year or two. Where F3000 ended up being a bit of a dead end for aspiring young racing drivers, GP2's record has been much more promising on this score. Of the series' champions, only Giorgio Pantano, who it could be argued had already been given his chance, did not go on to drive in F1, and other frontrunners, including the two GP2Asia champions, Romain Grosjean and Kamui Kobayashi and series runners up Kovalainen, Piquet and now (with the help of Daddy's millions, admittedly) Vitaly Petrov have secured Grand Prix drives, albeit with varying degrees of subsequent success. And if Campos Meta make it to the grid, one can add 2008 runner-up Bruno Senna to this list to complete the set.

So, on the basis of last weekend, who might be in the running for the 2010 Championship? Despite putting in the best performance of his career to finish second in the Sunday sprint race, I expect that Romanian/Belgian Michael Herck and his family-run team will be more than minor point scorers. Sunday's winner, Davide Valsecchi, on the other hand, is a more intriguing prospect. He's been around in GP2 for a couple of years now, and hadn't exactly stood out prior to the races in Abu Dhabi, but the Durango team for which he drove were hardly front-runners, so his two wins for the team (one in GP2 proper, and on in GP2 Asia) perhaps suggest a driver punching above his weight. With ISport for 2010, he'll have no excuses now.

One thing he'll have to do is beat his team mate and Saturday Feature Race winner, Oliver Turvey. Turvey was narrowly beaten to the British F3 championship a couple of years back by Jaime Alguersuari, but his form improved notably once he'd got his University finals out of the way and by the end of the year he looked quicker than the man who did win the title. He was generally a shade quicker than Alguersuari when they were paired up in the Renault World Series, come to that. With top level motorsport an immensely technical discipline, having a good engineering degree won't do him any harm either. Against Valsecchi, he'll be at a disadvantage in that this will be his first year in GP2 and he won't necessarily know all the circuits or be as familiar with the car. On the other hand, Nico Hulkenberg this year demonstrated that if you're quick enough, that shouldn't matter and Valsecchi aside, most of the other potential front-runners will be in their first year too.

One of those, on the basis of his previous record, the fact he'll be driving for 3 time champion team ART, and the fighting drive he put in last weekend, is F3 Euroseries winner, Jules Bianchi. Bianchi, like Hulkenberg and Hamilton before him, arrives in GP2 with ART, having won the Euroseries the year before and must therefore be considered one of the favourites to win the series. Last weekend, in his first GP2 drive, he picked up a podium in race one and then, perhaps even more impressive, drove through the field after starting dead last, having stalled on the dummy grid, to finish seventh, passing people left, right and centre as he did so.

If Bianchi goes in as an obvious favourite, his compatriot, Charles Pic was not a man who had much impinged upon my consciousness prior to this weekend. All I knew of him was that he had won the odd Renault World Series race, though he had been around there for a couple of years. He didn't stand out in the first round of the series, last year, but this time round, he grabbed pole in the hitherto unfancied Arden car and would probably have finished in the top three or four had he not been punted off the road by Luca Filippi at around half distance. In the second race, he was again impressive in the way he cut through the field from the back, if not to quite the same extent as Jules Bianchi. Whether this was a one-off weekend from Pic, or whether he's going to be a future star, only time will tell.

Anyone else? Well American Formula BMW graduate Alexander Rossi looked pretty handy in the second Meritus car, though he didn't appear to be quite able to live with the very fastest drivers in the field. I'd not heard of Vladimir Arabdazhiev before last weekend, but the Bulgarian looked pretty racey with the new Rapax team, and certainly when set against his countryman, Plamen Kralev who keeps up Trident Racing's reputation for being willing to take on anyone prepared to offer them cash to play at being a racing driver for a few weekends. Marcus Ericsson (previously championed here, some 2 years back) has shown flashes of pace, though whether his SuperNova team will be in a position to threaten the front runners remains to be seen.

So, will these drivers all make their way to the F1 grid? At the first race of 2012, in Bahrain, or Australia, or who knows where, will Valsecchi, Turvey, Bianchi, Pic, Ericsson and Rossi all be there? Almost certainly not. There will be others, in the more junior formulae right now, most likely, who will emerge and have a stronger claim on a shot at Grand Prix superstardom than some of these. And some will disappoint. Remember how quick Asmer looked until he got to GP2? Or how Pastor Maldonado showed early promise only to be comprehensively destroyed by the less experienced Hulkenberg when they were paired up at ART last year? All the same, I'd be very surprised if one or two of the above didn't make it to F1 over the next couple of years. Most likely? Forced to choose, Jules Bianchi looks the most promising of the bunch. With the champion team, if he proves as quick as he looked to be in F3, and with a Ferrari testing contract already in his pocket, I'd be surprised if he's not going places...

Endnote - 144 characters? Can you really say anything worthwhile in 144 characters? As someone with a tendency towards the verbose, Twitter is probably not for me. But I've decided to succumb, all the same, and Motorsports Ramblings now has its very own twitter feed...

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