Every year I write a GP2 preview for Badger GP, and every year it sounds pretty much the same: complaints about the lack of talent, whining about a prevalence of pay drivers, and a few withering put-downs for effect.
But wait, what’s this you’re about to read – a positive GP2 season preview? Your weary eyes do not deceive you. In 2014 the series can boast its best crop of young talents in several years, with at least five drivers who appear capable of not just racing in F1, but actually cutting the Grand Prix mustard.
No small part of this is down to Ferrari and McLaren placing their top junior drivers in the series. The British squad’s protege is Stoffel Vandoorne, a 22-year-old Belgian who pushed Kevin Magnussen hard for last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 title. Prior to that Vandoorne beat Daniil Kvyat to the 2012 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup championship, so besides having a name that makes him sound like an enchanted elf he’s also bloody quick. He joins ART Grand Prix, who have racked up three GP2 championships thanks to Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg.
The Scuderia have placed 19-year-old Italian Raffaele Marciello with reigning drivers’ champions Racing Engineering. Marciello won last year’s European F3 title and is undoubtedly the most exciting motorsport talent to emerge from Italy since Mario and Luigi made their SNES debut at Boswer’s Castle some 20 years ago. It’s been that long.
In all seriousness, Vandoorne and Marciello are genuinely exciting prospects and the most likely to enjoy long-term F1 success. They have performed at every level thus far and, thanks to the support of their respective F1 teams, a promotion to the big league should come if they continue to shine in GP2.
That’s not to say we’re tipping them for championship glory. Such is the nature of the series, the title is more likely to be claimed by a veteran, with three in particular standing out as early favourites.
The smart money for 2014 is on Jolyon Palmer, who enters his fourth season in GP2 and switches to double champions DAMS. The son of former F1 driver Jonathan, young Palmer has slowly built a solid reputation in the category. That said he has failed to finish ahead of a team-mate in the standings for three successive years – not quite star of the future form.
Nevertheless, the combination of his experience and the DAMS team’s expertise (they took Romain Grosjean and Davide Valsecchi to their titles) should see him push for the championship, though winning it in year four tends not to be viewed as a significant achievement by F1 team bosses.
Palmer’s former team-mate Felipe Nasr returns for a third season of GP2 this year while also acting as a reserve driver at Williams (Felipe Nasr, meet Felipe Massa). This is Nasr’s last chance to claim the title while retaining his star-of-the-future tag. At 21 he is young for a third-year entrant, and with two seasons of experience and the excellent Carlin squad behind him success should follow. Last year he was a podium regular but didn’t grab a maiden win – that will be the minimum requirement for the early races of 2014.
Before 2013, Stefano Coletti’s chief claim to fame was that he was conceived aboard Keke Rosberg’s yacht; whether this was a spur of the moment decision by Mr. and Mrs. Coletti or part of a water-based human breeding programme carried out by the 1982 world champion we do not know.
It’s irrelevant anyway, because Stefano is now best known for delivering the biggest collapse in GP2 history. Leading the championship at half-distance, he failed to register a single point over the final 11 races of the season, slipping to fifth in the standings after looking a shoe-in to fight for the title. Coletti’s capitulation resembled a punch-drunk boxer staggering wildly about the ring throwing tame left hooks at thin air.
He’s now switched to reigning drivers’ champions Racing Engineering and should win races, but it’s hard to see F1 team bosses taking him seriously. Let’s put this in perspective: Coletti first raced a GP2 car in 2009, when Daniil Kvyat was still competing in karts.
Second year driver Mitch Evans will also be targeting wins and a title tilt this year. Mark Webber’s protege, who was GP3 champion in 2012, is a fast and ultra-professional kid. At 19 he’s still among the youngest drivers in the series, and with a solid rookie year behind him should push on in 2014.
There are questions over whether his Russian Time team will have the funds to excel as they did last year; founder Igor Mazepa died suddenly over the winter, leaving their future in disarray, and though they’ll be run by the excellent iSport operation budgets are sure to be squeezed.
If Badger did bets our money would be squarely on one of the drivers mentioned above, but if anyone can spring a surprise this year it’s Caterham’s Alexander Rossi. While their F1 effort looks like the product of a cross-breeding experiment between an anteater and an ugly frog, the team’s GP2 machine looks great and has every chance of success. Rossi may not be a world champion in waiting but he’s a fast, smart driver. If he can score consistent results the American could become a factor as the season progresses.
There are a few more names we should mention. Regularly derided by GP2 veteran-turned-commentator Jerome d’Ambrosio for being too easy to overtake, Stephane Richelmi returns to DAMS for a second year. Given that the team is among the best in the business the title should be his minimum target, but a couple of race wins and a top-six championship finish seems a more realistic prediction.
Daniel Abt suffered a nightmare rookie season in 2013. Having pushed Mitch Evans very hard for the 2012 GP3 crown he suddenly seemed to lose a fair chunk of ability, and went on to record the worst season for a full-time ART driver ever. Clearly there was something amiss, as Abt’s prior form was always very good. He’s shown better in testing for the Hilmer squad, and if he’s escaped his 2013 woes should be a podium finisher at the very least this year.
Elsewhere Formula Renault 3.5 veteran Arthur Pic switches to GP2 with former champions Campos, who return to their original name after several years competing as Barwa Addax. Pic is joined by 2014 AutoGP runner-up Kimya Sato, who has shown well in testing.
Yorkshireman Jon Lancaster gets another crack at the series following an impressive part-season with Hilmer in 2013. He’ll drive for MP Motorsport, and should cause upsets at the unfancied Dutch squad. Fellow countryman Adrian Quaife-Hobbs joins Italian outfit Rapax, and though it’ll be tough to fight at the front he should at least have the better of team-mate Simon Trummer.
Oh, and Johnny Cecotto is back for a fifth season of GP2. Renowned for his erratic on-track behaviour, the Venezuelan will look to finally prove that he’s matured enough for Formula 1 at Trident, the same team for whom he drove during his first full campaign in 2010. We just can’t see it happening.
GP2 has always produced exciting racing, but after a pair of uninspiring title-winners in Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer it’s now in need of a genuinely talented young champion. The series has fallen behind Formula Renault 3.5 as the finishing school for F1 stars, but title glory for Vandoorne, Marciello or Evans could buck that trend. GP2 may just have got its groove back.
FULL 2014 GP2 SERIES FIELD
- RUSSIAN TIME: Mitch Evans & Artem
- CARLIN: Felipe Nasr & Julian Leal
- RACING ENGINEERING: Raffaele Marciello & Stefano Coletti
- DAMS: Jolyon Palmer & Stephane Richelmi
- ART GRAND PRIX: Stoffel Vandoorne & Takuya Izawa
- HILMER: Daniel Abt & Facu Regalia
- RAPAX: Adrian Quaife-Hobbs & Simon Trummer
- ARDEN: Rene Binder & Andre Negrao
- CATERHAM: Alexander Rossi & Rio Haryanto
- MP MOTORSPORT: Daniel de Jong & Jon Lancaster
- TRIDENT: Axcil Jeffries & Johnny Cecotto
- VENEZUELA GP LAZARUS: Nathanael Berthon & Conor Daly
- CAMPOS: Arthur Pic & Kimya Sato
- 1. Bahrain – 5/6 April
- 2. Spain – 10/11 May
- 3. Monaco – 23/24 May
- 4. Austria – 21/22 June
- 5. Britain – 5/6 July
- 6. Germany – 19/20 July
- 7. Hungary – 26/27 July
- 8. Belgium – 23/24 August
- 9. Italy – 6/7 September
- 10. Russia – 11/12 October
- 11. Abu Dhabi – 22/23 November