At slightly over the half way mark of the 2013 GP2 Series, I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect on the first part of the season and tee up the four remaining races of the year.
It’s been a fascinating season so far, with some of the most exciting races I can remember in the life of the current GP2/11 Dallara chassis. The shift towards a higher degging tyre by Pirelli in line with F1 has made a huge difference to race strategy. Interestingly, while in the past we may have got used to Feature races being slightly dull affairs for the middle 15 or so laps with all the excitement stored up for Sunday’s Sprint races, in 2013 the opposite has often been true. Saturday’s contests have been thrilling, with a variety of strategies starting to be employed throughout the field. The flip side however is that, come Sunday, we pretty much know the competitive order and who has saved a fresh set of the harder compound boots, and thus the concept of a contest is perhaps not so high.
Some see this shift as a positive, and others as a negative, but tyres have not been the only source of controversy this season. I will deal with these later in the piece. But for now I thought I’d take a run down of the top 10 drivers and briefly assess their seasons thus far, pick out a few other drivers of note, and then deal with “any other business.”
So here goes.
1st Stefano Coletti, Rapax: 135 points
The Monegasque has been the man to beat this season. His pace was obvious from the first round, and after experiencing cripping tyre wear that denied him the opening victory in Malaysia’s feature race, he immediately got his head around what has ben a perennial issue and took the win on Sunday. In the opening four weekends he scored in every race, taking three wins and three additional podiums. His consistency was such that by the time we arrived at Silverstone he had a 24 point lead over Felipe Nasr in second, and a whopping 62 point lead over Sam Bird in third.
But at Silverstone his season started to come undone. Contact in the Feature meant his first no score of the year. He battled hard on Sunday but a 10th gave him his first pointless weekend since Hockenheim 2012. He repeated that feat in Hungary after taking a podium and a no-score in Germany.
With four rounds remaining, he remains the championship leader but his lead sits now at just six points. He must regain his confidence and his consistency in the remaining races if he is to not let a slip a championship which he could and perhaps should have already made a practical certainty.
2nd Felipe Nasr, Carlin: 129 points
If Coletti’s consistency has been impressive, then Felipe Nasr has been mighty in 2013. He has failed to score just once in 2013, and that was after picking up damage in first lap contact in Silverstone. He has taken five podiums, has finished fourth five times… but that first GP2 win still eludes him. It has become a big talking point, but there is very much the possibility that Felipe Nasr could become the first driver in GP2 history to win the title without recording a single victory.
The question, therefore, is whether that matters. To some degree, it does. I have felt for sometime that Nasr, while quick and smart, lacks that little bit of bite. We have seen flashes of it, but it’s more of a nibble than a confident gnashing of the jaw. He is a desperately impressive young man, both in and out of the car, but, for me, that spark that gets you excited about a racer just seems to be missing.
Trevor Carlin was only too aware of that fact, and at Silverstone called on his driver to man up a bit and start taking the fight to his rivals. It resulted in that first lap contact that ultimately caused his retirement. But on Sunday, Nasr fought from the back of the field to take two points in seventh. So the tenacity, in that moment, paid dividends.
Good on his tyres, intelligent, consistent, supremely fast… Felipe Nasr may not deliver fireworks. But my word, he delivers.
3rd Fabio Leimer, Racing Engineering: 110 points
On the subject of consistency… meet Fabio Leimer. For so long regarded as one of the out and out fastest racers in GP2, he now has the experience which many believed would see him run away to an easy title this year. After his victory in the opening race in Malaysia, I recall asking the question during commentary of whether he could overcome the inconsistencies of the past to set up a title challenge in 2013. He failed to score on Sunday. He won again in the Bahrain feature. But failed to score again on Sunday. In Spain he didn’t score. He came away empty handed in Monaco, too. So it is something of a surprise to see him so high up the championship order.
Leimer is, perhaps, fortunate that Felipe Nasr hasn’t started winning and that Stefano Coletti had a dent in form. The Swiss driver is just one feature race win off the championship lead, following two great weekends in Germany and Hungary in which he notched up two Feature race fourth places and two Sprint race thirds. Leimer has never been better prepared, mentally or physically, for an assault on the title. He is racing better than I’ve ever known him drive.
Leimer isn’t out of the championship yet, and his recent run of form should set him up high on confidence for the final four race run in.
4th Sam Bird, Russian Time: 92 points
The demise of iSport International was a huge blow for GP2. I genuinely shed a tear, for iSport represented everything I held dear about the championship. Real racing, real racers… replacing them seemed impossible.
But Russian Time have filled the void left by iSport in some style. With big backing, they were able to pick up two of the best drivers on the open market who had limited budget to buy a ride, and they duly set about making their mark.
Sam Bird has been at the forefront of this, and his experience at this level has played a tremendous role in creating the foundation upon which the team’s success has been based. Russian Time did the sensible thing in the changeover, too, learning from iSport and using many staff members to help them understand the championship. That said, there are still some basic misunderstandings that are holding the team, and Bird, back.
Tyre strategy has never been the team’s strong point, and there appears to be far too much focus placed upon a big result in the Feature, to the detriment of the Sprint race. Three race victories for Bird, however, cannot be sniffed at. And when one considers that all of this has been achieved with a new team, you have to be impressed with Bird’s achievement. Unless the team shifts its focus away from the big headline race result and towards consistency, I don’t believe that Russian Time is yet capable of fighting for the title, but at any other team this season, driving as he is, Bird would have been a title contender.
5th James Calado, ART Grand Prix: 90 points
This should have been James Calado’s year. Given his knowledge of the championship, his acute feel for tyre wear and his general intelligence and racecraft, I had Calado down as a championship favourite coming into the season. But 2013 has been an horrific experience for ART in GP2.
It had started so well with a podium for second place in the season opener in Malaysia, but from that point on it started to go south, and fast. A silly mistake on the opening lap in Malaysia’s sprint saw him handed a grid penalty for Bahrain. He made another error at the start in Spain which saw him record no points for that weekend. But since Monaco, he has scored in every race.
Car troubles seem to have been rectified of late, with two podiums in Germany pointing the way towards an upturn for the second part of the season. But ART clearly has issues this year. One needs only look at the form of Daniel Abt, who last season finished as runner up in GP3 (just as Calado did in 2011) to have an idea of how times have changed for the once unbeatable GP2 powerhouse. Abt is no slouch, and he sits 22nd with 3 points to his name.
One hopes Calado and ART can turn their fortunes around in the final four races, but any hopes of the title are far slimmer than they should have been.
6th Jon Lancaster, Hilmer Motorsport: 65 points
Considering Lancaster didn’t even join the championship until the European season began in Spain, his championship position is truly astonishing. And all with a new team, in Hilmer. He began with a podium and then went on to record back to back Sprint race wins at Silverstone and the Nurburgring. Lancaster boils hot and cold however, one weekend in scintillating form, one weekend failing to score in both races. Both race wins have come following beautifully crafted races from the back on the grid in the Feature to secure a good grid position for the Sprint, a sign of Lancaster’s indefatigable coolness under pressure.
7th Marcus Ericsson, Dams: 64 points
Nobody will be more disappointed this season than Marcus Ericsson. Riding the #1 Dams that had taken Romain Grosjean and Davide Valsecchi to back to back titles, he was a favourite coming into the year. But until Silverstone, he failed to score a single point in a race situation. Some of it was his own fault (crashing in the Malaysia opener, indecision in passing backmarkers in Spain), some of it was out of his control, but it all combined to leave him with an insurmountable points deficit. He’s had pole’s, he’s had a win, podiums… this will go down as the one that got away.
8th Jolyon Palmer, Carlin: 64 points
Overtaker of the season. No two ways about it. Jolyon Palmer has pulled off, I believe, over 100 on track passes for position this season. That’s astonishing… and at the same time, sort of disappointing. Palmer has clearly got fabulous pace and beautiful racecraft, so why on earth is he having to pass so many people? Poor qualifying and poor luck are the two biggest contributing factors. If he’d had the qualifying consistency of his team-mate Felipe Nasr, I have no doubts Palmer might have been leading the championship right now.
9th Stephane Richelmi, Dams: 57 points
As his team-mate floundered, it fell to Stephane Richelmi to save some face for Dams in the early rounds of the year. This was no easy task for a driver often seen as a soft touch, particularly in the opening laps where he has traditionally dropped like a stone. He’s had his fair share of no scores, but Silverstone showed us a new side of the Monegasque. No longer the man being pushed aside, he drove a storming race of channeled aggression and intensity to record a brilliant second place. He has matured, but is still far from complete.
10th Mitch Evans, Arden: 56 points
It’s been a tough season for the GP3 champion, but for my money he is the most impressive rookie of 2013. To fight through food poisoning on the opening weekend of the year in Malaysia and take points and a podium showed the guy has guts. Two podiums in Monaco showed he’s got balls. It’s all starting to come together for the New Zealander and thus far he is leaving his vastly more experienced team-mate in the dust. One wonders what Evans could be achieving if he had a more level-headed driver on the opposite side of the garage from whom to learn about the championship.
Tom Dillmann has been exception at times this season. His race in Spain was one of the most incredible drives I’ve witnessed in the almost decade of GP2’s history, and even led to Fernando Alonso admitting he’d learned a few tricks from the Frenchman that he used in the F1 race. Praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
Robin Frijns is held up as having had an incredible, if short, GP2 career. If we’re honest though, it was really only Spain in which he excelled, taking those two amazing podiums. Other than that, one sixth place and a bunch of retirements wasn’t much to write home about. Saying that, a driver of his quality deserves a seat in the championship and it was a shame to see him lose out.
Alexander Rossi is having a tough break at Caterham. It is obvious that Rossi has skill and pace, as a podium in his first race proved, but the team needs to get its engineering sorted quickly. Again, a better team-mate would help the whole squad move forward, for while Canamasas can be quick on occasion he is far from a team player.
Kevin Ceccon and Nat Berthon have impressed me this year and I hope we see the Italian back at Trident, who have struggled this season. He is a fine young prospect and would be a big loss to GP2. Conor Daly was impressive to get points in his first GP2 outing, and Julian Leal has had some bright moments this season, too.
Any Other Business…
The tyre situation has come in for much debate this season. The two compound concept is great fun, and makes race strategy fascinating. The issue, however, is that some drivers and teams are now placing all their eggs in the Feature race basket. Take Hungary for example. Ericsson and Nasr played the game running option to begin and prime for the main stint. Palmer went prime, prime. Now, although this gave us a great race, was it a fair race? Afterall, in doing what they did, Carlin and Palmer sacrificed the Sunday result. From a team perspective, they also cost Nasr a few more points in his battle with Coletti… but that’s for them to answer to themselves, and the Brazilian.
One suggestion has been that we increase the tyre allowance and mandate two compulsory stops in the Feature and one compulsory stop in the Sprint. Of course that has a cost implication. The other, far simpler and cheaper shift would be to mandate that, just as in F1, the Feature race needs to see drivers use both the prime and option Pirelli tyre. This would make the Saturday result a more accurate reflection of the trueness of the championship.
Idiocy and Indecision
Qualifying, Malaysia… Sam Bird holds up Johnny Cecotto on a qualifying lap. The Venezuelan responds by using his car as a weapon and forcing Bird off the track. It wasn’t just stupid, it wasn’t just dangerous. At this, or in fact any level of racing it was downright unacceptable. In my book, there is only one course of action for the stewards to take in cases like this, and that is to send the driver home to think about his actions. But in Malaysia, Cecotto was simply excluded from qualifying. He went on to score points in the Sprint race.
We arrived in Bahrain and Sergio Canamasas, after believing he had been baulked by Kevin Ceccon waited not once, but twice, to force the Italian off track. Again, the Spaniard was simply excluded from qualifying and allowed to race.
Spain, Cecotto forces Canamasas off track. The incident is not investigated. Sources informed me that Arden was so convinced Cecotto would be banned for Monaco that they had put feelers out to Luiz Razia about returning to the team for the blue ribband event.
Monaco, Cecotto makes a silly error at Turn 1 and is banned.
The insanity of all this is that the stewards had an opportunity to define what was and was not acceptable at the first round and they fluffed it. By being weak in the first instance they left the door open for this lunacy to become commonplace. Cecotto’s ban in Monaco was ridiculous. He should have been banned in Malaysia. He shouldn’t even have been on the grid in Monaco, and in both instances it should have been because he used his car as a weapon. But for a silly mistake, he gets a ban? Ludicrous.
Cecotto and Canamasas are nice enough chaps out of the car. And they are both very fast when they need to be. But the wild streak of red mist that descends upon them both should have been stamped out immediately. The stewards have only themselves to blame that this despicable trait of unacceptable racecraft has been allowed to fester and grow within these two drivers.
Speak to any driver in GP2, speak to any team boss… they are at the end of their tethers. The stewards are penalising drivers for racing, and are letting intentional reckless endangerment pass with a slap on the wrist. It is turning a championship I love into a joke.
GP2 this season has two new permanent stewards, who rotate throughout the year. Sources from within race control have informed me that, from what they have seen, the permanent GP2 steward is not getting the support they need to make the right calls. My question is therefore whether this lack of support is the cause of so many bad decisions, or the result of so many bad decisions.
Perhaps it is time that a former driver is placed on the stewarding panel. Someone with some clout. Someone who will speak their mind. Someone who raced hard in GP2. Maybe someone like 2008 GP2 champion Giorgio Pantano, who on more than one occasion stepped in for Charlie Whiting when he was late to chair drivers briefings, albeit mildly in jest.
The thing is, the whole racing world can see that the decisions being made in GP2 and GP3 this season are wrong. To many, however, they go beyond being simply wrong to being inexcusable, indefensible and in some cases downright appalling.
If the permanent steward doesn’t have enough of a grasp of the rights and wrongs of racing to make the right decisions, they are the wrong person for the job. If the permanent steward is so unsure of themselves and of their grasp of the sport that they rely on non forthcoming support, and in so doing repeatedly make the same mistakes, again it can only be argued they are the wrong person for the job.
Weakness flows from indecision. Indecision flows from weakness. And upon such calamitous foundations can only a road to ruin be built.