With the new GP2 season kicking off in support of the Turkish Grand Prix in just under two weeks time Badger has knuckled down to bring you a full preview of the support series’ seventh campaign. In part one we’ll be looking at the top dogs, from whom the champion is likely to emerge, with parts two and three completing our full field rundown tomorrow.

Lotus ART – Jules Bianchi & Esteban Gutierrez

Drivers’ Titles: 3 – Teams’ Titles: 3 – Race Wins: 23

Series powerhouse and F1-team-in-waiting ART should once again be right in the thick of the battle this year. Their former charges include Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg – all of whom won the title at the wheel of their cars – and in 2011 they continue to represent a driver’s best shot at the championship.

Second season racer Jules Bianchi should be a title contender, armed as he is with a year’s experience and a mega team. A Ferrari protegee and under the management of Nicolas Todt, Jules’ time in Formula One isn’t far off now. However he needs to win races off the bat, having failed to do so at all last year despite taking three pole positions. He broke his duck in GP2 Asia though, so should be quick out the gate in 2011.

Rookie Esteban Gutierrez meanwhile is the reigning GP3 champion, a series he won with ease for ART. He’s not been particularly impressive in GP2 Asia or testing, but the talent is there. 2011 will likely be a learning year for the Mexican, just as 2010 was for Bianchi. He also fills the role of reserve driver at Sauber this season.

Badger’s Prediction: Bianchi should be in the thick of the title battle and will have made a mess of things if he doesn’t finish in the top three. Gutierrez gets more leeway, but race wins should be the target by mid-season.

Badger Fact: ART have run three drivers to the GP2 title, all of whom were contesting their rookie campaign in the series.

Barwa Addax – Giedo van der Garde & Charles Pic

Drivers’ Titles: 0 – Teams’ Titles: 1 – Race Wins: 11

Spanish squad Barwa Addax, who have produced the runner-up in the drivers’ championship in the past two campaigns (Vitaly Petrov in 2009 and Sergio Perez in 2010), look likely to fight at the front again this season, with the experienced Giedo van der Garde returning to the team and promising 2010 rookie Charles Pic joining him. Both could be title contenders, though neither has yet shown the sort of consistency needed to bring home the GP2 bacon.

Giedo has won races but was outshone by Perez last year, and knows that this is his final crack at GP2 glory (having told Badger twelve months ago that 2010 would be his final season in the category). Pic meanwhile started 2010 brilliantly with a win in Spain but faded thereafter. However a season’s racing should stand him in good stead for the new year.

Badger prediction: Both should win races but the title may be a bit of a stretch. However van der Garde’s experience could come in very handy in adapting to the new car.

Badger Fact: Addax ran as Campos Grand Prix between 2005 and 2008, with one-time Hispania boss Adrian Campos at the helm.

DAMS – Romain Grosjean & Pal Varhaug

Drivers’ Titles: 0 – Teams’ Titles: 0 – Race Wins: 5

Romain Grosjean makes a full-time return to GP2 this year with French squad DAMS, for whom he captured last year’s Auto GP crown. He is joined by Norwegian rookie Pal Varhaug, who makes the leap from GP3. DAMS have run the likes of Kamui Kobayashi and Jerome d’Ambrosio in recent years but have never enjoyed much success in the main GP2 category.

Grosjean enters 2011 as slight championship favourite, having taken the shortened GP2 Asia title and coming as he does with bags of experience and proven race-winning credentials at this level. Now 25, Romain has matured significantly since his ill-fated Renault stint in 2009, something that came across pretty clearly when we spoke to him recently. Check here for the full lowdown on Grosjean’s 2011 aspirations.

Varhaug won’t be anywhere near him. The Norwegian (we thought they preferred rallying?) had a magic start to last year’s GP3 campaign by winning in Spain but then went the rest of the season without scoring a single point. He’s been some way off Romain in GP2 Asia and testing and the jump to the GP2 pressure cooker is likely to prove a big challenge. We’re not ruling him out in the long-term, but for now at least he’s not ready to compete at the front.

Badger Prediction: Grosjean to win races and fight for the title, Varhaug to do neither of those things.

Badger Fact: DAMS ran current F1 racers Kamui Kobayashi and Jerome d’Ambrosio as team-mates throughout the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Kamui finished 16th in both, Jerome 11th and ninth respectively.

iSport – Sam Bird & Marcus Ericsson

Drivers’ Titles: 1 – Teams’ Titles: 1 – Race Wins: 16

Always there or thereabouts, iSport’s 2011 line-up is their strongest in some years, with British hopeful Sam Bird and 2009 Japanese F3 champion Marcus Ericsson joining from ART and Super Nova respectively for their second seasons of GP2. Run by no-nonsense Brit Paul Jackson, iSport ran Timo Glock to the series title in 2007. They are serious competitors who don’t take losing terribly well and only a championship will fully satisfy them in 2011.

After an impressive debut season at French squad ART – in which he, and not Ferrari protegee Bianchi, took the team’s sole victory – Bird joins iSport for a pivotal year in his racing career.

He was beset by bad luck last season but on several ocassions used this to display seriously impressive pace: his rapid progress through the field at the Circuit de Catalunya is perhaps the best evidence of this. The Brit surprised many observers, with most expecting Bianchi to easily overcome him, but no longer enjoys the luxury of being an underdog – in 2011 people expect, and it’s up to him to deliver. If the car is up to it so is he, and having tested for Mercedes last winter he’s already begun to make inroads to the F1 paddock.

In Ericsson he has a team-mate who will keep him very honest. A single season in Japan was all the Swede needed to take their F3 crown back to Europe, where he joined Super Nova for his rookie GP2 campaign. Alongside fellow rookie Josef Kral results weren’t easy to come by. A win in the Valencia sprint race was his high point, but far more will be required this year. The evidence is that he has the talent to deliver and as a man who counts Ross Brawn among his fans you’d expect little else. Managed by former Indycar star Kenny Brack and with decent funding, a strong 2011 could see him in the hunt for an F1 drive next year.

Badger Prediction: Perhaps the strongest overall driver combination on the grid, iSport should be well in the teams’ championship battle. As for the drivers, both are capable but will need to show impressive consistency to beat the likes of Grosjean and Bianchi.

Badger Fact: Bird’s win at Monza last year ended Pastor Maldonado’s record-breaking six-race winning streak in GP2 feature events.