Jules Bianchi - championship favourite for 2010?
c/o GP2 Media Service

With the sixth season of GP2 set to kick off this weekend, I’m naturally very bloody excited as I’ll be doing the world feed commentary again. Love it! Anyway, here’s a little something I jotted down for this week’s issue of GPWeek… enjoy!

This year marks the sixth season for the GP2 Series and the final year of the championship’s second generation. It’s a last hurrah for the GP2/08 car and the last year for the championship on Bridgestone tyres before the changes are wrung for the launch of the GP2/11 next season. But the championship remains as relevant to F1 as ever, in 2010 providing all six rookies in the pinnacle of global single-seater competition.

For the final year of its second generation, GP2 is down to the 24 car starting grid which it ran in its inaugural season due to the very public financial issues suffered by the Durango team. Although GP2 Asia team Meritus looked ready and willing to take Durango’s space, GP2 thought it better to ride out one season with a slightly depleted field before opening the whole thing up to tender for the start of generation three in 2011.

But of those that remain there is real strength in depth. Reigning champions ART will be hoping for back-to-back titles as F3 EuroSeries champ Jules Bianchi hopes to follow in the footsteps of Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton and follow up his F3 success with immediate GP2 championship glory. But he won’t have it easy. iSport and their line-up of Valsecchi and Turvey look to be the team to beat after GP2 Asia. While Bianchi looked ragged and impetuous at times, Valsecchi seems to have matured well and Turvey appears to have a level head on his shoulders.

Van der Garde and Perez form a potent line-up at Addax, and the Mexican may well enter the title battle if he can get a decent run of results going. For Van der Garde, as for fellow elder statesman Pastor Maldonado at Rapax, it’s a return to the last chance saloon: championship or bust this season. Without the title it’s a season of GTs on the horizon. Even with the crown, F1 now looks a distant dream for them both.

Others to watch out for? Charles Pic was without doubt the unexpected stand out of the GP2 Asia season, and it will be interesting to see how the Renault F1 re-branded Dams team fares without its longtime leader Eric Boullier.

On the whole, it looks like it could be a classic season. Bianchi enters the fray as the drivers’ favourite, but the man under the most pressure to perform. How he handles that pressure, and how his rivals go about mounting a challenge to his assumed championship run, will form the making or breaking of GP2’s sixth season of competition.

ART Grand Prix
1. Jules Bianchi
2. Sam Bird

Five seasons down, and with three drivers champions and three team championships to their name it’s fair to say there hasn’t been another team to hold a candle to the consistency of ART in GP2 history. But this year, above perhaps all others, there is a feeling that the championship really is a must. The arrival of Jules Bianchi has ramped up the pressure on ART as he isn’t just the reigning F3 EuroSeries champ, but the favoured protégé of team boss Nicolas Todt. Bianchi is quick, no doubt, but his Asia performances were often wild and he will need to rise above his eagerness to impress. Sam Bird meanwhile is an odd one: quick in qualifying, but falls apart all too often in race trim. Both need to add consistency to speed.

Barwa Addax Team
3. Giedo van der Garde
4. Sergio Perez

The team formerly known as Campos had a rocking and rocky 2009 as first Romain Grosjean and then Vitaly Petrov took charge of the squad and pulled it into a well-fought championship battle against ART. Repeating that feat in 2010 and going one better to grab the crown is undoubtedly the order of the day, as is evidenced by the squad’s strong line-up of two experienced drivers. The team leader role however may fall to the younger Perez, who has been desperately impressive in his GP2 career to date and who gelled so well with Addax in his Asia campaigns. Van der Garde meanwhile made heavy work of his 2009 season with iSport in a clearly quick car. He took wins, but not as many as he should have done. He’ll need to up his game big time if he wants to fight for the title.

Super Nova Racing
5. Josef Kral
6. Marcus Ericsson

A massively risky move for Super Nova, who in 2010 take on two rookies after the decision to run two experienced drivers in 2009 gave the squad its highest placing since the very first GP2 season in 2005. Kral and Ericsson both had their moments in Asia, but rather than giving them time to gel, the team issued a statement mid-season to state it was replacing Ericsson with Jake Rosenzweig to try and improve its results. Although it later clarified that Ericsson was only ever intended to run in Abu Dhabi, Super Nova would have done better to have kept both rookies in the car for the full Asia season. Both drivers have potential, but top three in the teams championship may be an unrealistic expectation for drivers in their first year.

Fat Burner Racing Engineering
7. Dani Clos
8. Christian Vietoris

Racing Engineering struggled with tyre wear in 2009, which was odd given that the team’s lead driver, Lucas di Grassi, was not only one of the smoothest and most consistent drivers ever to race in GP2, but because he had also carried out a large majority of the GP2/08’s development work. That di Grassi couldn’t fight for the title will leave Racing Engineering wondering what chances it has in 2010, but it has brought Dani Clos back for a second season and that parity (one of only four drivers to stay put from 2009) could pay dividends. Vietoris looked quick in GP2 Asia, winning early on, but he also looked impulsive and took himself out of too many races in his eagerness to lap backmarkers.

iSport International
9. Oliver Turvey
10. Davide Valsecchi

As GP2 reaches the end of its second generation, could we be about to see a repeat of the final season of the first three-year generation when iSport made good on its solid first two seasons to dominate and take the double crown? Its GP2 Asia form marks it out as the definite favourite, but when one considers how competitive Dams looked in the 2009 Asia series only to be left behind in the main series, Asia should not be taken as the firmest indication of form. Valsecchi and Turvey however do form a strong partnership and iSport has reported one of the best working relationships since they ran Glock to the title. Valsecchi is now one of the most experienced drivers in the field, and the championship is his sole aim. Turvey meanwhile is a quick learner and will push his team-mate all season. Confidence is high within the team that this is iSport’s year.

Renault F1 Junior Team
11. Jerome d’Ambrosio
12. Ho Pin Tung

Dams gets a new name and a new lease of life after what turned out to be a hugely disappointing season in 2009. After dominating the preceding Asia series, neither Kobayashi nor d’Ambrosio could mount a championship challenge last year and the team slipped off the radar. The Belgian remains with the team this season, as Dams is renamed the “Renault F1 Junior Team” and runs in the famous yellow and black of the F1 team. D’Ambrosio, like team-mate Tung, is part of the Gravity driver line-up, and are Renault F1 reserve drivers. Ironically though, while all this looks very positive, Renault has taken one of Dams’ strongest assets in Eric Boullier. Dams’ former team manager now fills that role at Renault and as F1 witnesses his handiwork in RF1’s competitive turnaround, one wonders the negative effects his departure might have on the GP2 team.

Rapax Team
14. Luiz Razia
15. Pastor Maldonado

The team formerly known as PiquetGP aims to get its GP2 aspirations back on track by signing up one of the out and out fastest drivers on the GP2 open market. Pastor Maldonado may have his detractors and he may still cut a controversial figure for his, shall we say, questionable racecraft, but on his day there are few out there who can drive as fast, particularly in Monaco. Razia scored a win last year and has been snapped up by Virgin F1 as their third driver. Both drivers are experienced, but there’s a nagging doubt that either has the consistency to mount a title run.

Arden International
16. Charles Pic
17. TBA (Rodolfo Gonzales likely)

After yet another season in which early promise ultimately came to naught, Arden International’s ultimate boss Christian Horner bit the bullet at the end of 2009 and parted company with his long time technical chief Mick Cook. The results were instant. Charles Pic’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was Arden’s first since 2005. With a young team of engineers led by Campbell Hobson, Arden has a new direction and a new feeling of confidence in itself and its new driver. Pic could yet be the dark horse of the season. He impressed hugely in Asia, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in the big league. With Arden back in its traditional F3000 livery, there’s a real feeling that 2010 could see a return to the old days of regular race wins and fighting for championships.

Ocean Racing Technology
18. Max Chilton
19. Fabio Leimer

Ocean hit the ground running in 2009, as the replacement for the disappointing BCN squad which currently resides in history as the only GP2 team to never have won a race. Chandhok so nearly won for Ocean in Monaco, but it was in Spa last year that things really turned around when Parente took the team’s first pole and followed it up with a dominant race win. For a team in its first season, getting a victory was a huge effort and the Portuguese outfit under the leadership of former F1 driver Tiago Monteiro quickly established itself as a team to watch. For 2010 they’ve opted for the risky two-rookie line-up. Both are young and will be on a steep learning curve but Leimer has form. Don’t underestimate these boys. They won’t win the title but could grab some podiums later in the year.

PPR.com Scuderia Coloni
20. Alberto Valerio
21. Vladimir Arabadziev

Every year you want to say something good about this team, but every year you end up struggling. The component parts have been there for some time, but the constant changes that have affected team management have always seemed to affect ultimate competitiveness. With Zanarini and Fisichella now firmly out of the picture, the return of the Coloni name to the squad for a full season should give the team its core pride back, and Paolo Coloni and Dino Luisso will want to get back to the successful F3000 and GP2 days of old. With Valerio as lead driver that won’t be easy. He’s a lovely bloke but an accident waiting to happen on track. Yes he got a win last year, but his errors are far too frequent. His team-mate however is the promising Bulgarian Vlado Arabadziev. Already a race winner in AutoGP in 2010, keep an eye on this kid.

Trident Racing
22. Johnny Cecotto Jr.
23. TBA (Adrian Zaugg likely)

Second from bottom was not in the game plan for Trident Racing in 2009, especially as the position gave them the unenviable place at the bottom of the pile of pride for Italian teams (with the obvious exception of Durango which failed to make the end of the season and will not race in 2010.) The Asia series this year was notable not for any major success, but more for the team’s choice to run 39-year old Plamen Kralev who was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. One hopes the money he ploughed into the team will allow it to take on more worthy drivers with slightly smaller wallets in 2010, and the team’s choice of Johnny Cecotto Jr is a sound one. He’s young, hungry and has promise but he will need a more experienced team-mate to show him the way and help Trident regain its form.

24. Michael Herck
25. Giacomo Ricci

Never thought we’d be saying this but DPR was one of the stand out teams of this winter’s GP2 Asia Series. There were those within the paddock who cruelly likened their success to filling a room with monkeys and typewriters. Give them long enough, so their detractors said, and they’d write Shakespeare. Others said there simply wasn’t the quality in the Asia field this winter. But in the cold light of day, it now seems clear that all it boils down to DPR actually doing a pretty good job. That the team is still called DPR grates many, as there is nothing about the team that has anything in common with Dave Price’s outfit, and one hopes that if the team survives the selection process for 2011 it will be renamed. For 2010, Herck is still error prone but improving with every race, while Ricci really came of age over the winter. Championship contenders? No. Race winners? Incredibly, DPR might just be.