GP2 becomes Formula 2 for 2017, but very little else changes until a new car arrives as expected next season.
In the meantime, expect more close racing and perhaps another close title fight too, because things appear fairly wide open on the eve of the season. The only driver who has the ability and the package underneath him to completely run away with things, Stoffel Vandoorne-style, would also be a first rookie champion this decade, so there’s plenty to look forward to.
A drop to 20 cars, with three of them filled in Bahrain at least by veteran drivers who should have long since moved on, is just a symptom of the challenges facing junior single-seater racing at present, up against increasingly viable alternatives for drivers seeking a proper racing career. Still, the vast majority of drivers that are here are at a high level – perhaps a higher proportion than for many, many years.
And while the only change the series has made this year is its name, it’s one that immediately puts the championship in a stronger position than before, and one that signals the beginning of a potential revolution under the stewardship of new Formula 1 owner Liberty Media and a new era of collaboration with the FIA.
Leclerc: A rookie champion?
No rookie driver has claimed the title at GP2 level since 2009, when GP3 didn’t even exist. But there’s a real feeling that Charles Leclerc could achieve that this year, and the reasons are two-fold.
Firstly, he’s a top-drawer talent. His well-measured run to the GP3 title – his first in cars – last year was just confirmation of the huge potential he’d displayed before that in Formula 3, Formula Renault and even karting. It was achieved under the combined pressure of having the tag of favourite and his new Ferrari affiliation, and against drivers with more experience.
Secondly, he’s with Prema. Even taking its strong record in F3 and other categories into account, the way the Italian team turned up and blew away the competition in the premier junior single-seater series last year was staggering. There’s little reason to believe it won’t have the quickest package again in season two.
Leclerc himself has shown a knack for producing unbeatably rapid laps when it matters in qualifying sessions, and pairing that talent with a Prema-entered car engineered by Guillaume Capietto – the man who’s aided Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly to the last two titles – is going to make him pretty hard to beat on his day. Whether he’s champion at the end of the year will probably come down to consistency – how good he’ll be when things aren’t going to plan – and how strong the opposition can be.
Rowland: Another DAMS champion?
Many of those not betting on Leclerc probably have their money on Rowland. Which, if you look solely at 2016, wouldn’t necessarily seem very wise.
Rowland didn’t win a race in his rookie season last year, and finished ninth in the standings after an initially-promising campaign with MP Motorsport quickly went south as soon as he briefly took leadership of the title race at Silverstone.
DAMS meanwhile had a very off-colour season by its previous high standards, with lead driver Alex Lynn restricted to taking sprint race wins with the French squad nowhere near a match for Prema on pace.
Both driver and team have still got very strong reputations, though, hence their status as favourites for many. Rowland’s performances in Formula Renault 3.5 (as it was then) that led to the title in 2015 are not distant memories, and nor are DAMS’ title-winning efforts with Jolyon Palmer, or with Davide Valsecchi and Romain Grosjean before that.
Both parties have the skills to match anyone in the series, if they can perform to their best. That’s something DAMS has done in the past, and it would be a surprise if a team of its calibre couldn’t make some recovery strides this year.
As for Rowland, he’s undoubtedly very talented behind the wheel, but he hasn’t always shown that over his career thus far. At 24 though he ought to be at a level of maturity where this comes to him easier, and he’s shown he can do it before, in 2015, even though this is at another level.
The returning race-winners
While Rowland doesn’t have a GP2 win to his name, there will be seven drivers lining up in Bahrain who do. Nobuharu Matsushita is perhaps best-placed at ART Grand Prix, since it offered the best challenge to Prema’s pace last year with Sergey Sirotkin, but the Honda protege will need to step up and show similar levels of performance after a difficult second year at this level in 2016.
An erratic Sirotkin was almost beaten to third in the standings last year (behind the Prema pair) by Raffaele Marciello, who had a consistent but winless season with Russian Time. He’s been replaced there by fellow Italian Luca Ghiotto (pictured), just as was the case at Trident 12 months beforehand, and Ghiotto arguably showed more flair there last year and did stand on the top step of the podium. Whether or not the Russian Time car can win many races, he will rag the most out of it. Team-mate Artem Markelov meanwhile needs to turn his evident skills behind the wheel into more podium finishes in his fourth year in the series.
On his day, Norman Nato was quicker than Gasly last season with Racing Engineering. Now he’s back at Arden, which has struggled over recent seasons, but the Frenchman already appears to have helped it to progress, judging by testing. Any off-weekends that remain will hamper a title bid, though.
Nato’s former team-mate Jordan King was better last year at winning reverse-grid races than he was at finding pace in qualifying. He too joins a relatively ‘unfashionable’ team in MP Motorsport for his third season, but should feel at home with his old Formula Renault squad.
Johnny Cecotto is back with Rapax, which has looked as quick as anybody in testing. Rapax can go very well when it clicks with the right driver (like Pastor Maldonado or Sergey Sirotkin) and Cecotto’s best season came when he got on well with another Italian team, Trident.
Fellow veteran Stefano Coletti also returns, for now, with Campos. The Spanish squad had a poor 2016, which has probably contributed to a disrupted pre-season (in which ex-F1 racer Roberto Merhi appeared but then disappeared). Coletti will have been brought in to help fix its issues, but it remains to be seen whether he can, particularly after more than two years out of the car.
The ‘other’ GP3 graduates
There are other strong contenders from the rookie contingent, too, in the form of three of the drivers that were closest to Leclerc in GP3 last year.
Alex Albon is getting better by the season and growing in confidence as a result. Stepping up with ART, where he ran Leclerc closer to the GP3 title than anyone expected, can only be a positive thing and he’s looked quick in the car from the get-go.
Antonio Fuoco may not be in for an easy year alongside Ferrari academy stable-mate Leclerc at Prema, but then again, he’s got a Prema car underneath him, which can’t be bad. He’s got the talent to be the Giovinazzi to Leclerc’s Gasly, but scoring at the same rate seems unlikely based on the evidence of his past few seasons.
There was a point in the winter where it looked like Nyck de Vries was most likely going to be a Ferrari GT driver this season, but he’s ended up in F2 with McLaren certainly more vocal in its support than at any previous points. That’s only going to improve his confidence – which seemed knocked when he was moved ‘down’ to GP3 and put up against Leclerc last year – and he’s getting on very well at Rapax, an Italian team like the Chiesa Corse operation with which he won two world karting titles. This upturn has shown in testing.
Ralph Boschung has gone from running out of funds to complete a race-winning GP3 campaign last year to having the backing to now step up to F2, but it won’t be easy with Campos. Don’t rule the under-rated Swiss youngster out from some eye-catching results when circumstances allow though.
Nicholas Latifi was quickest in the Bahrain test ahead of his second season with DAMS, but although the Canadian is capable of great speed, he needs to make a big step forward from 16th in the standings.
One rookie who did do well last year was Gustav Malja, twice a podium finisher with Rapax. Now he’s at Racing Engineering, paired with Formula V8 3.5 runner-up Louis Deletraz (pictured). This pairing looked promising when the Spanish squad locked it in before the end of last year (opting to secure two of the only drivers who had the funding in place at that stage) but it’s lacking the race-winning pedigree that many of its rivals now have.
Despite a quicker rise through the ranks than his results have earned, Sean Gelael didn’t disgrace himself alongside Mitch Evans at Campos last year, and should only continue his progress with Nato at Arden.
Sergio Sette Camara makes a surprising and big step up to F2, when he doesn’t yet have a car racing win to his name. Of course, he did nearly break that duck in the Macau Grand Prix of all races, but despite that clear talent, it would take a significant fluke for him to notch up a victory this year with MP.
With Nabil Jeffri and Sergio Canamasas, Trident is unlikely to be repeating its form with Ghiotto from last year, although the Spanish veteran should always be watched closely in Monaco.