Monday, May 10, 2010

GP2 2010: Winning down to an ART?

Is GP2 beginning to suffer the same fate that eventually befell the old F3000 series it replaced? In its last years, the most promising young talents opted to give it a miss, leaving the road clear for one or two quick drivers signed to the one or two genuinely competitive teams to dominate a grid of also-rans.

Arguably, that is exactly what happened last year with Hulkenberg and ART. Yes, the young German's performance appeared impressive, but who exactly was he beating? Essentially a collection of middling junior racers with the deep pockets needed to pay for a year in the midfield of the most expensive sub-F1 single seater series there is. Meanwhile, a number of ostensibly more promising junior talents spent their time in the Renault World Series, or F2, or the F3 Euroseries, rather than spend silly money on a ride with a middling GP2 team which, no matter how quick the driver might be, could serve only to destroy a young star's reputation. I'm still of the view that such as Alvaro Parente and Andy Soucek were every bit as quick as Bruno Senna or Giorgio Pantano when they raced in GP2 a couple of years back and were held back only by the fact that SuperNova couldn't engineer a car that could consistently match those of ISport, Racing Engineering or ART. Of course, I might be completely wrong. Fathoming the ultimate pace and potential of racing drivers based on their junior series results has long felt more like predicting the movement of the stock exchange by looking at the entrails of rabbits than a science.

It's not quite like that. There is some correlation between a driver's junior formula record and his ultimate potential. Look at how Hamilton or Kubica stood out in GP2 and World Series by Renault respectively. But on the other hand, what on earth is one to make of the star performer in Barcelona last weekend, Sam Bird. Until now, there's been absolutely nothing about the youngster's performances in three years of Formula 3 to suggest he was anything more than a more-or-less competent deep-pocketed kid who, even with a seat at ART, would be unlikely to do any more than, say, Pastor Maldonado managed with the second-string ART seat last year.

But instead, we got a feisty, aggressive performance in which he single-handedly demolished the notion that it is impossible to overtake around the Circuit Di Catalunya in a current-iteration GP2 racer. He put in the kind of performance that we got used to seeing from Hamilton at his most inspired, back in 2006, passing car after car after losing his front wing at the beginning of the feature race, and coming through from 9th to finish 4th in the sprint race, despite damaging his steering in light contact with Dani Clos' car. Was it a one-off or will he be able to do it regularly? And how much of that performance was down to Bird's talent, as opposed to the legendary engineering nous of ART providing him with a car that could do things, find grip on parts of the track, that nobody else could?

We might get more of an idea when they get to Monaco tomorrow, a circuit where the input of the man holding the steering wheel counts a little more, and the work of the engineers and their lap tops matters a little less. Maybe Bird is better than we realised. He wouldn't be the first racing driver in the history of the sport to look underwhelming in over-gripped, under-powered Formula 3 cars, only to come into his own when given something with a lot more horsepower to play with. On the other hand, I can't help but remember than, before he went off at the first corner of the opening race, Jules Bianchi had gone half a second faster than his team mate in qualifying...

Of course, Sam Bird didn't win either race, with the first going to former Renault World Series front-runner, Charles Pic while Formula Master champion Fabio Leimer converted pole in the sprint race into victory on Sunday morning. While I expect that Leimer will not be a consistent front-runner (even if he's faster than I think, and wasn't simply the beneficiary of a clear run on a reverse-grid race, I'd be surprised if Ocean Racing Technology can provide him with the equipment to win regularly), Pic and Arden might be more of a threat. After some years in which Arden has appeared to drift, with team owner Christian Horner seemingly preoccupied with running the Red Bull F1 team, the former F3000 title-winners appear to have been getting themselves on a firm footing again. And Pic is probably the most promising driver they've had on the books since they ran Bruno Senna back in 2007.

Who else might be worth watching? Well despite his failure to score, and despite his race performances being overshadowed by those of his team mate, it would be a fool who wrote off Jules Bianchi. He did, after all, secure pole position by a margin of three tenths of a second last Friday and while he struggled to pick up results in the GP2Asia series over the winter, he did look quick, especially under race conditions. Moreover, he absolutely dominated the F3 Euroseries last year, more so even than Hulkenberg, and with an ART seat, he at least arguably remains championship favourite, in spite of his failure to score last weekend.

The stars of the GP2Asia series, of course, were ISport, and, particularly, Davide Valsecchi. ISport and, particularly, Valsecchi, looked a shade underwhelming at Barcelona last weekend, and it is possible that neither driver nor team is as on top of the newer car as it is at home with the older Dallara GP2 machine used in the winter series. That said, they've shown that they can get the job done, and Oliver Turvey, while never looking super-quick, picked up a decent haul of points and deserves credit for picking up points for 5th in the sprint race in a car which looked decidedly out of sorts. He's a smart guy, and it wouldn't entirely surprise me if he, rather than Valsecchi, emerges as ISport's best prospect over the season.

Dani Clos' inability to pass him in a seemingly much faster Racing Engineering machine in Race 2 was rather disappointing, but he at least had a better time of it than his team mate, Christian Vietoris. After picking up a second-row slot for the feature race, he fell victim to the chaos at the first corner and was eliminated from the opening race. From a lowly starting slot in the sprint race he too seemed unable to pull off much in the way of overtaking, and he could finish only 18th. Nonetheless, that first qualifying performance suggests he might be a name to watch as the season progresses.

Giacomo Ricci seems intent on demonstrating that his late-season GP2 Asia form reflects genuine pace. DPR haven't looked like front-runners in the main series for years, but a combination of Ricci's turn of speed and Andre Herck's millions appear to have effected a genuine change of fortunes for the erstwhile tail-enders.

Regular readers may remember that I have long reckoned Swedish teenager Marcus Ericsson to be a bit special, ever since I saw him making everyone else look amateurish at a Formula BMW race at Knockhill some three years ago. He didn't really show it last weekend, though he did pick up 8th on the grid in a SuperNova car that is probably some way from the class of the field, and he was around a second faster than his team-mate, Josef Kral. I'd be surprised if he didn't threaten the regular front-runners on occasion later in the year.

Sergio Perez was one of a talented crop of drivers in British F3 a couple of years back. He didn't really distinguish himself in GP2 last year alongside Edoardo Mortara but, back for a second season and with the benefit of knowing the tracks (British F3 stars have a relative disadvantage in comparison with Euroseries F3 drivers in that the Euroseries visits many more of the tracks the GP2 series takes in over the year) he may do rather better now, driving for the Barwa Addax team which, with Vitaly Petrov at the wheel, provided the closest thing to real opposition to Hulkenberg last year, and he might even be a good outside bet for the title himself.

It is noticeable that many of the drivers who have appeared semi-permanent features of the GP2 grid in recent years have moved on. Gone are Spaniard Javier Villa, Italian Luca Filippi Austrian Andreas Zuber. Each showed flashes of pace during their time in GP2, but none ever looked like mounting a serious title challenge and I doubt any of them will be much missed. Lucas Di Grassi and Karun Chandhok have moved on to better(?) things at last, with Virgin and HRT. The exception is Pastor Maldonado. At 25, and having been comprehensively overshadowed by Hulkenberg at ART last year, I can't help thinking that this ship has already sailed, and that the F1 paddock has already made up its mind about the mercurial Venezuelan. Even if he were to win the title, he might find that, like Giorgio Pantano before him, he is left with nowhere else to go. Having been outpaced by Luis Razia at Rapax last weekend, this may in any case be a moot point.

So, who's going to win it? Hard to say for sure. At this stage, I see no standout performers likely to stamp their authority over the series in the manner of Hamilton in 06 or Hulkenberg last year. If he's as good as the hype suggests though, the field looks reasonably clear for Jules Bianchi to follow in the footsteps of his ART predecessor Hulkenberg and win the title at his first attempt. And with a Ferrari test contract in his pocket, he's not badly placed if he can get the job done.

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