Back in 2004 European Grand Prix weekends were bleak affairs. The main event itself was frequently a Ferrari benefit with little else of note happening further down the field. And on Saturday afternoons the F3000 Championship was in the process of dying a slow death.
The last year of F3000 was characterised by grids numbering in the low teens and ultra-tedious races due to the domination of Vitantonio Liuzzi and the Arden racing team. While in 2000-era F1 it is too much to expect a string of consistently exciting races, the decline of F3000 was sad to see as from the late 1990s until 2001/2 it was a cracking series with oversubscribed grids, close racing and plenty of incident.
The new-for-2005 GP2 series could have turned out well or flopped – thankfully, it is as if 2003/4 had never happened to F3000. The racing is uniformly excellent with every race being a ‘must watch’ event. However, for the championship to succeed, good racing on its own is not enough.
GP2′sstrength is in the cars and the drivers. The cars are praiseworthy for being ‘mini F1′ slicks-and-wings racers, yet aerodynamically designed to allow groups to run at close quarters. GP2 has gone a long way to prove that slicks-and-wings need not necessarily be a synonym for processional racing.
But great cars alone do not create a great series, it is who drives them that is important. In recent years the traditional motor sport ‘career ladder’ has become severely fragmented with any number of series open to the aspiring – and funded – racer. If you want to do F3 there are several series in Europe alone vying for attention. F3000 was affected in its latter days by the Euro F3000 series for old-spec cars, and that’s not forgetting the Dallara-Nissan World Series and the now (thankfully) defunct Renault V6 series.
This fragmentation had the effect of ensuring that the top talent did not compete together. There was no way to ascertain just how good a certain driver was. Vitantonio Liuzzi may have dominated the 2004 F3000 series but I doubt that even he would argue he had beaten the best on the European circuit.
GP2 has served to answer these questions. It is arguable that the GP2 grid has greater strength in depth and overall driving talent than in F1, with probably 15 of the 22 drivers in the series capable of winning a race. Many of the current F1 grid would sink without trace in the 2005 GP2 series.
Over the course of the season it has been fascinating to see which talents have emerged and which have disappointed. Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg and Adam Carroll have emerged as the star drivers, yet with the exception of Kovalainen none had really been considered as title contenders. Hotly tipped runners such as Nelson Piquet Jnr have disappeared into midfield obscurity while neither Gianmaria Bruni (who has, in fairness, had a lot of misfortune), nor Giorgio Pantano have delivered performances reflecting their F1 experience.
As the championship moves towards its climax expect the racing to become even more frantic as Rosberg and Kovolainen go head-to-head. Although the latter currently enjoys a substantial series lead it is Rosberg who is the form driver and together with the ART team he has found a way to get a strong set-up for every race, controversies aside.
Further down the grid there are numerous drivers with much to prove and little time in which to do it. Many F3 Euroseries stars such as Olivier Pla and Nicholas Lapierre have been underwhelming as have many of those arriving from the Dallara Nissan Series.
Let’s hope the success of GP2 holds in the long-term. It remains to be seen if the closeness and variety of the inaugural season are because none of the teams have held much prior know track and car data. It is crucial that the series remains as level as possible avoiding what happened in F3000 as Arden came to dominate. Already ART are coming to the fore as a dominant force, but there is no guarantee that their cars will win the race.
Furthermore the championship is not cheap – a good seat will cost anything between Â£600,000 and Â£1,000,000, but ways must be found to allow promising drivers to continue their upwards career trajectory. I hope that for next season Lewis Hamilton is able to make the step up, along with the promising American Charlie Kimball. If this happens the series will continue to be the proving ground for F3 and other junior formulae stars.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the closing stages of the season and title chase. With upcoming rounds at both Spa and Monza fireworks (and extensive repair bills) are guaranteed. 2005 has been a fantastic first season for GP2 that has thrilled industry insiders and fans alike. Yet there is still room for growth and improvement. A full capacity grid would be great to see in 2006, as would extensive terrestrial television coverage, potentially showing the Saturday race live after F1 qualifying. Likewise, car reliability has got to be improved, but following a full season of racing this is likely.
GP2 has been a marvellous success in 2005 – the challenge now is to sustain and build on it. Long may it continue.