GP2’s end of season press release dropped into my inbox this week, and the words from the page filled my heart with a genuine moment of warmth. Because they put to bed a fear I had been toiling with for quite a few months.
In the current world of single seater racing, there is something of a rivalry between GP2 and the Renault World Series (WSR). It goes back years, all the way to the birth of GP2 and the fact that GP2 was never considered a “Renault” championship. Its cars never featured on Renault stands. It was spoken of in hushed terms by the big execs. Despite its huge success in providing future stars for F1, GP2 even lost its official Renault backing with its engine units now no longer branded by the French manufacturer. It was always the half brother. The bastard son. The black sheep.
And so it has been that in recent years there’s been this underlying tension between the championships. WSR took great delight in the fact that two of the inaugural GP3 season’s stand out drivers Wickens and Rossi opted to race there rather than in GP2 in 2011, even though GP2 got the champion Gutierrez.
Both claim to be the best preparation for F1. Both claim lineage, having both seen drivers promoted to F1 directly from their championship. Both can claim a graduate Formula 1 World Champion. GP2 has Hamilton. WSR has Vettel.
And yet the sniping continues. The one-upmanship.
Earlier this year, WSR unveiled its new car for 2012 complete with a DRS style rear wing. No other feeder series can claim to have such a system, and in this essence it is unique as a preparation for Formula 1.
But what had worried me, and I mean genuinely worried me, is that GP2 would react. That with an update to the GP2/11 or with the new 2014 car, GP2 would do the same. They’d rise to the bait, and in so doing they’d make what I thought would be a terrible, misguided mistake.
And that’s why the press release actually made me smile.
Here’s what GP2 organiser Bruno Michel had to say.
“The first year of the GP2/11 car has been a great success, as anyone who watched the racing this year will have seen. We considered many new options during the design period of the car, including movable wings or KERS, but decided against them as we felt it was not in keeping with the spirit of our series. Although they could have enhanced the power of our car it could have been an issue safety-wise. The philosophy of our car is not about how powerful it can be. Our aim is to design the car that will be as close as a F1 car in terms of behaviour and thus give the drivers the opportunity to learn how to handle an incredibly complex machine.
“GP2 has always been about finding the best drivers, period. Our racing car is an extremely challenging car to drive at the limit, and it is meant to be: when you are one step away from the pinnacle of motor racing, you should be able to race and overtake without assistance from the car. You need a selective car and strong drivers more than you need KERS or any other gimmicks, and I believe that fans and experts appreciate GP2 because it is pure racing and the best driver always wins.
“The F1 teams also appreciate this: they are watching the best young drivers in the world prove themselves in a car as close as possible to the challenge of an F1 car, and this is what we’ve always set out to achieve. By focusing on our cars, and optimising them for the same Pirelli tyres as used in the F1 races, we aim to give them what they are looking for.”
Common sense, then, seems to have prevailed. GP2 won’t react. WSR keeps its USP with DRS, and we can all move on.
Good news all round, it seems. But perhaps not for WSR. Many pundits already believe that DRS is proving itself to be superfluous in Formula 1 and are questioning its long term validity for the sport. Few expected Pirelli’s tyres to play such a dominant role in determining race result, and in Formula 1 the speed differentials caused by degrading tyres is creating enough of a spectacle without the need for DRS. As such, knowledge of the Pirelli tyres is perhaps the most important aspect of racing in Formula 1, and at the moment only GP2 can offer the same specification tyre as F1. GP3 also runs Pirellis, but a slightly different specification.
Tyres are one of the areas in which GP2 has always had its head screwed on. When it launched in 2005 it ran on grooved Bridgestone tyres, just as F1. But when F1 announced it would return to slicks in 2007 GP2 moved to slicks for 2006, in order to prepare its ’06 crop for F1 the next season. Champion Lewis Hamilton certainly showed he was more than ready when he then made his F1 debut in 2007.
The war of words between WSR and GP2 needs to end. Because, the thing is, there isn’t a comparison. I mean, sure, World Series boasts it has put drivers into F1. On the current grid, three rose directly from WSR to F1; Vettel, Ricciardo and Alguersuari. But compare that with the 11 that rose from GP2. If Chandhok gets the ride for India, that’ll be 12. Half the grid.
It’s interesting to note that the three WSR graduates are all Red Bull drivers. Also of note is how many full-time GP2 drivers there were this year that were fully backed by Red Bull. None. This all falls back to the early years of the championship in which Red Bull sent its drivers to GP2 expecting a mega result. And watched them get smashed. Speed, Ammermuller, Zaugg… even Buemi didn’t fare all that well. He recorded two wins in 2008 but only finished sixth in the championship, becoming the lowest placed championship driver to gain promotion to Formula 1 from GP2, thanks to his patronage from Red Bull.
I don’t think Red Bull has ever really taken kindly to GP2 since then, and it is interesting to see the likes of Ricciardo, Vergne etc also being put through the WSR route. But is it worthwhile for other drivers?
Yes it is, on face value, more affordable than GP2. But what comes next? For most, the answer is… GP2. And with Pirelli tyres, GP2 is now a two year programme. The years of rookie champions are, I feel, over. The tyres take too long to learn. So if a driver tries to save money by racing in World Series for a year, with the only real shot at F1 being if he’s a Red Bull driver, then the logical progression is to GP2… and that means the year in WSR wasn’t saving him money but actually costing money and time because it’s put him a year back against those who stepped straight into GP2 and a year behind in terms of knowledge of the Pirelli tyre.
One need only look at the likes of Alexander Rossi or Robert Wickens. Would they have done GP2 in 2011 if they’d had the budget? I don’t think there’s a question. But with Rossi having recently tied up a sponsorship deal with Tony Fernandes, you can bet your bottom dollar he’s hoping to also land a seat with Tony’s GP2 team for 2012.
So why is it that GP2 is the best feeder category for F1? Apart from the simple statistics (45 drivers promoted to race, test or development seats in F1 direct from GP2 in the 7 years of its existence), I think Michel hits the nail on the head in his recent statement that what F1 teams want to see is a driver who can prove himself to be the best without gimmicks. GP2 has always prided itself on its rawness and purity. It always said it would never introduce driver aids and that it will stick to its core principles in the face of KERS and DRS being used in F1 is, I believe, hugely to its credit.
By keeping things simple, you remove much of the doubt. Those who rise to the top in GP2 do so not because they’ve had a hand, not because they’ve had a boost, but because they have taken on the best drivers at their level in equal machinery and beaten them. With no gimmicks.
And with GP2 finally merging the Asia and Main series, in 2012 there will finally be an International GP2 Series, taking in new venues and new circuits for the championship. Bruno Michel is already on the record as stating that GP2 will visit tracks it has never raced on before, and with a rich and vibrant F1 calendar to chose from, the 2012 calendar is sure to provide by far the best preparation for Formula 1 of any championship in the world. Because, if you look at its 2011 calendar for instance, it wasn’t a case of running on a few F1 tracks… every race was held on an F1 track. On an F1 weekend. In front of the F1 press, teams and fans.
You could argue I’m a bit biased. I used to run PR for GP2 and I now provide commentary on GP2 and GP3. But I’ll level with you. I wouldn’t say GP2 was the finest one make championship on earth if I didn’t truly believe it. And I’m not saying World Series isn’t a fine championship in its own right. The quality of the field is superb, and the racing is good. But GP2 it is not.
Reading that press release only reaffirmed why I love the championship so much. In this day and age, its only too easy to react quickly and emotionally and in so doing make the wrong choice, a costly choice not just financially but also for one’s reputation. In sticking to its core beliefs and principles, and holding firm to the foundations that have created its success, GP2 has shown once again why it is the only serious consideration for the Formula 1 drivers of the future.