The new GP2 season is less than a week away, kicking-off in support of the Spanish Grand Prix and, as ever, Badger’s got you covered, with a guide to the drivers who’ll be fighting tooth and nail for a place on next year’s F1 grid.

In recent years it’s become almost essential to prove yourself in the GP2 series before graduating to Formula One. Want some evidence of that? How about this: all five of the new drivers who’ve joined F1 this year have raced in the series. You’ve got a champion in Nico Hulkenberg; three series runners-up in Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov and Lucas di Grassi; and a double racewinner in Karun Chandhok. These guys didn’t just drive a GP2 car, they all seriously impressed in one. Add to that the F1 success of past champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton and you’ve got a series which has real respect for its ability to prepare a driver for Formula One.

So who are the next batch of youngsters looking to send their star in to the F1 orbit? In part one of Badger’s GP2 season preview we look at four of GP2’s more experienced drivers who we’ve got high hopes for this season- and who could have a bright F1 future.

Quick but crazy, Maldonado's testing pace suggests he'll be right up there in 2010. LAT/Autosport

First up there’s one man who stands out as this year’s GP2 title favourite: Venezuelan racer Pastor Maldonado.

A GP2 driver since 2007- making him the most experienced man in the field- Maldonado joins the newly named Rapax team for 2010, having been walloped by rookie teammate Nico Hulkenberg at ART Grand Prix last season. He was strongly linked with both Hispania and the abortive Stefan GP team during the winter, but now finds himself back in the feeder series- and the title is a must.

And, fair play to the lad, he’s looking good value, having emerged as the quickest, most consistent driver in pre-season testing. We should also point out that Maldonado is an absolute genius at Monaco. He’s won there 3 times in the last 4 years, and on a track that values driving skills above all others that’s something.

But it’s not all praise for Pastor. There are lingering doubts over his ability to convert his pace in to victories. One fellow GP2 driver described him to Badger as “a bit of a kamikaze”, and that’s not unfair; quick he certainly is, but Maldonado has also had his share of shunts, and even received a 4-race ban a few years back for causing an accident that injured a track marshal.

With that in mind we can’t call him the favourite, but he’s definitely going to be right in the mix this year. Add to that the fact that he’s well funded by businesses in his homeland and you’ve got a driver who may well be in F1 next season- if not before. Has Badger heard a rumour that an F1 team is already considering replacing one of their current drivers with Maldonado? Maybe we have…

One thing Maldonado doesn’t have on his C.V is a major junior series championship, but our next featured driver ain’t lacking in that department: Dutchman Giedo van der Garde was the 2008 World Series by Renault champion, and is a definite GP2 title contender in 2010. Badger had a chat with him recently- read that one here– and we reckon he’s looking good for a strong season.

After his 2008 success van der Garde switched to GP2 Last year, hooking up with former champions iSport, but endured a tough start to the season. However a breakthrough win in Hungary gave way to 2 more race victories, and now he’s got his sights on the championship. He’s switched teams, replacing Vitaly Petrov at Barwa Addax, and with a year’s experience under his belt should be a real threat.

A former Renault and McLaren young driver, and with testing experience for both the French team and countrymen Spyker, van der Garde rivals Maldonado as GP2’s most experienced man. He’s also got decent financial backing, so he’s another one we wouldn’t be surprised to see in F1 soon.

The only thing to wonder about is van der Garde’s struggle to get up to speed last season. Okay, it came good in the end, but in F1 you don’t necessarily get that long to put things right.

But if he makes a success of 2010 that’ll be very quickly forgotten. Dutch racing fans have been crying out for a real F1 star for years now, and Giedo could well be the man to answer their calls. Definite title material.

The third name on our list is Davide Valsecchi. Winner of the 2009-10 GP2 Asia Series, Valsecchi enters his third year of GP2, and, like the previous two drivers, knows that he needs to contend the title if he’s to progress to F1.

Interestingly the drivers we spoke to have left Vasecchi out when picking their title threats, but we reckon he’s got a shot. He looked good in his maiden campaign in 2008, picking up a win at the season closer at Monza, but stuck with the same, less-than-competitive team for 2009, where things didn’t progress the way he might have liked. Late in the season he joined frontrunners Barwa Addax, replacing the F1-bound Romain Grosjean, but never got near teammate Vitaly Petrov’s pace.

Then it all changed. He joined iSport for the Asian series and was suddenly a Prost-like tactical driving genius. Perhaps he just gelled with the new team better, but it looked like Valsecchi was a whole new man. 3 wins and 3 second places gave him a comfortable title victory, with double the points of his nearest rival. Can he claim the main championship?

He’s in with a shout. iSport are proven winners (Timo Glock took the title for them in 2007) , and Valsecchi looked so at home with them over the winter, so high in confidence, that he’ll enter the European season feeling like a million bucks. Italy needs some fresh blood in F1 and Valsecchi could well be the man to provide it.

Our final featured racer, Jerome d’Ambrosio, drives a car all F1 fans will recognise: The Renault Junior Team machine, run by French squad DAMS, will compete in the Renault’s distinctive yellow and black livery this year.

Now in his third year with this team- the longest anyone’s ever remained in the same GP2 seat- d’Ambrosio had Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi as a teammate in 2008 and ’09 and scored double the points of the Japanese F1 racer in both. We like the name (possible pun: d’Ambrosio- Devon knows how they make him so speedy) and he’s certainly shown himself to be a talented racer, but is he really in with a shot at the title?

Of the four we’ve covered d’Ambrosio probably has the longest odds. He’s yet to win a race in his 2 years in the series and while he has shown flashes of genuine pace he’s yet to string together a run of solid results.

But being with the same team for 3 years should give him an advantage. The familiarity he now has in his surroundings and the fact that he’s Renault Junior’s clear number one driver means he’ll go to the first race fully prepared and ready to fight for victory. Don’t rule him out.

So those are just four drivers to watch in GP2 this year. We’re not guaranteeing that one of these guys will be champion- GP2 is far to competitive to make that call- but we do think they’ll be up there, fighting for victories and quite possibly the championship come November.

And we also think they’ll be joined at the sharp end by some very hungry rookies. Badger will be taking a look at some of them in part two of our preview- be sure to check back soon for that.