The top two drivers in GP2 last year – Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez – jumped straight into F1 this year.
Now former Renault driver Romain Grosjean has returned to the series in a bid to win the championship and propel himself back into the top flight.
But he faces strong opposition in the form of Ferrari test driver Jules Bianchi.
Drivers to watch
Nationality: French (Swiss-born)
Career: F1 with Renault in 2009, 2007 F3 Euro Series champion, 2008 and 2010 GP2 Asia champion, 2010 Auto GP champion, GP2 with ART in 2008, Addax in 2009 (partial season), DAMS in 2010 (partial season)
Nothing less than the title will do for Grosjean. He was second, 12 points behind Nico Hülkenberg, when he abandoned his 2009 campaign to join Renault.
He’s started off in the best way possible by winning the GP2 Asia series for the second time, though this year’s championship was reduced to just four races due to the impossibility of racing in Bahrain.
Career: 2009 F3 Euro Series champion, GP2 with ART in 2010
Bianchi is fast and well-connected. He’s on Ferrari’s driver development scheme and drove for them in the young drivers’ tests at the end of last year.
He drives for ART who have taken three out of six GP2 champions for the title. The team is co-owned by Jean Todt’s son Nicolas.
The first race of the GP2 Asia series, where Bianchi prevailed in a closely-fought battle with Grosjean, raised the prospect of a fascinating season’s racing between the two.
Career: GP2 with ART in 2010
Bird had some poor luck in his first season of GP2 last year with ART, but ended the year four points behind team mate and fellow rookie Bianchi.
He’s moved to iSport, the team which took Timo Glock to the title in 2007.
Career: 2009 Formula Master champion, GP2 with Ocean Racing in 2010
Leimer’s unusual career path has avoided Formula Three entirely.
But he scored his maiden GP2 win with Ocean in 2010 and has joined Rapax, who took Pastor Maldonado to the championship last year.
Giedo van der Garde
Career: 2008 Formula Renault 3.5 champion, GP2 with iSport in 2009, Addax in 2010.
Giedo van der Garde heads into his third season of GP2 and his second with Addax.
But although he has experience on his side he’s placed seventh in both his previous seasons and was soundly beaten by team mate Sergio Perez last year. And that experience may count for less following the change of chassis this year.
Team: Air Asia
Career: 2009 GP2 Asia champion
This is Valsecchi’s fourth season in GP2 and there’s only so long a driver can spend in the feeder series before being dubbed the next Giorgio Pantano.
But F1 teams have shown interest: he drove in the young drivers’ test at the end of last year and was signed by Lotus as a reserve driver.
He drove in first practice at Sepang for the team and races for their new GP2 outfit Air Asia this year.
Career: 2008 Formula BMW Europe champion, 2010 GP3 champion
The champion of the inaugural GP3 championship makes the step up to GP2 with the team he won his title for last year.
Gutierrez is Sauber’s test driver and the opportunity of an excellent learning environment alongside Bianchi.
2011 GP2 driver line-up
At the time of writing there are two places left on the GP2 grid for 2011.
Russian Mikhail Aleshin was originally supposed to drive the second Carlin entry but dropped out after his funding fell through. There are reports he may have secured backing to do the first round this weekend.
|Rapax||1. Fabio Leimer||2. Julian Leal|
|Addax||3. Charles Pic||4. Giedo van der Garde|
|ART||5. Jules Bianchi||6. Esteban Gutierrez|
|Racing Engineering||7. Dani Clos||8. Christian Vietoris|
|iSport||9. Sam Bird||10. Marcus Ericsson|
|DAMS||11. Romain Grosjean||12. Pal Varhaug|
|Arden International||14. Josef Kral||15. Jolyon Palmer|
|Super Nova Racing||16. Fairuz Fauzy||17. TBA|
|Scuderia Coloni||18. Michael Herck||19. Davide Rigon|
|Trident Racing||20. Rodolfo Gonzalez||21. Stefano Coletti|
|Ocean Racing Technology||22. Kevin Mirocha||23. Jonny Cecotto Jnr|
|Carlin||24. Max Chilton||25. TBA|
|Team Air Asia||26. Luiz Razia||27. Davide Valsecchi|
New cars, new tyres, same tracks
The departure of DPR and the arrival of new teams Carlin and Air Asia mean the championship is back to a full grid of 26 cars.
GP2 has switched to its third generation of chassis and it’s an ugly beast, with wide front wings and narrow rear wings apeing the clumsy, disproportionate look of modern F1 cars.
But the tweaked aerodynamics and the arrival of Pirelli as tyre supplier should make for some interesting racing. The cars will use the same tyres raced in F1.
The calendar remains unchanged with a pair of races supporting all nine European F1 rounds.
There are some significant livery changes, including one where a new front has opened up in the Lotus-vs-Lotus battle. Group Lotus are sponsoring ART, whose cars now race in green and yellow, similar to the Lotus F1 cars.
But the Tony Fernandes-run team also have their own GP2 outfit, Team Air Asia. They race in white and red, much as ART did last year.
GP2 champions and runners-up
GP2 has an excellent record of propelling new drivers into Formula 1. Of the 12 drivers to finish first or second in its first six years, 11 have progressed to F1.
Giorgio Pantano is the only one of these not to have moved into F1 after winning the title, but he had previously driven in F1 for Jordan in 2004.
|2005||Nico Rosberg||Heikki Kovalainen|
|2006||Lewis Hamilton||Nelson Piquet Jnr|
|2007||Timo Glock||Lucas di Grassi|
|2008||Giorgio Pantano||Bruno Senna|
|2009||Nico Hülkenberg||Vitaly Petrov|
|2010||Pastor Maldonado||Sergio Perez|
Who’s your tip for this year’s GP2 title? Which of these drivers will be racing in F1 next year? Have your say in the comments.
Images © GP2 Media Service