Early in November, Martin Whitmarsh commented that the Renault Formula 3.5 World Series was a “much higher quality championship than GP2″. McLaren then pulled Magnussen from an arranged GP2 test in Abu Dhabi and have since promoted him to the F1 team as a race driver for 2014.
GP2 was conceived by Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore to replace the defunct Formula 3000 as the feeder series for Formula One. It was designed to make racing affordable for the teams and to deliver the right training ground for a life in Formula One.
The specification of the racing series sees all the entrants use the same chassis, engine and tyre supplier in an attempt to reflect true driver ability and all but 3 races have been held as support events for the Formula One circus.
For those F1 fans who get withdrawal symptoms from the F1 V8 engines, they can still hear one of their cousins powering the GP2 cars with 610bhp, though they are restricted to 10,000rpm.
Again with an eye to restrict costs, most of the GP2 events are in Europe, though in 2012 there were events in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. This year the flyaways grew to four events including Bahrain and Singapore.
GP2 has indeed done one of the things it set out to do – delivering drivers into F1. The 2005 Champion Nico Rosberg was hired by the Williams team for the 2006 F1 campaign, 2006 GP2 winner Lewis Hamilton made the transition to F1 the following year with McLaren and the 2007 Champion Timo Glock went to Toyota for the 2008 F1 season.
2009 GP2 champion Nico Hulkenberg became a Williams F1 race driver in the 2010 as did Pastor Maldonado having won 2010 GP2 series,
Following an unsuccessful debut season as Renault’s F1 driver in 2009, Romain Grosjean returned to GP2 and became the 2011 champion – moving up to Lotus in 2012.
Prior to 2012, the only GP2 champion who failed to get a drive in F1 was 2009 series winner, Gorgio Pantano. Yet he was the most successful driver in the history of F1 feeder series with 14 wins. This record eclipsed the 13 F2/F3000 championship wins of Mike Thackwell and the 12 European championship F2 wins of Jochen Rindt.
Of course GP2 2012 series winner Davide Valsecchi has now joined him having been part of the Lotus F1 team’s PR beauty parade this year.
It could be the judgement on GP2 is that the series is a great success because all in all from the 2005 to 2012 GP2 seasons, 24 drivers have made it into Formula One race seats, some with greater success than others.
Why then is Martin Whitmarsh down on the series?
One of the other tenets of the GP2 series was to offer affordable racing, and on this criteria the series has failed miserably. The cost of competing for a year in F3000 was around $750,000 a year, but even by the end of the inaugural 2005 GP2 championship, teams were reporting that their budgets were rising to $1.3m per car.
Helmut Marko recently highlighted the inflation in cost for an entrant to the series for a year. “GP2 is far too expensive. It costs €5 million per driver, while in GP3 [the cost] is €600,000.” Clearly this implies that it is not the best drivers in GP2, but those with the ability to raise the most cash. It’s no coincidence that Red Bull like McLaren have promoted Daniil Kvyat – one of their junior programme drivers from a series other than GP2 – to drive in F1 for 2014.
Martin Whitmarsh last weekend was critical of the way the GP2 series has developed. “The danger with GP2 is that you have a lot of drivers there with financial backing who stay for four or five years — and that is the wrong signal. After two years, kick them out,”
Of course the GP2 cars are far closer to F1 cars than any other series so this should be a great stepping stone into F1 from a driving skills vantage point.
Yet the step being taken is of a different kind. From raising €5 million a year to race in GP2 to the €7-8m which may get a driver an F1 seat – is not such a big step. This should ensure a regular stream of potential pay F1 drivers coming on line for some time to come.
However, with McLaren and Red Bull refusing to play this game and even Williams latest recruit, Valtteri Bottas coming from GP3, GP2 drivers have a closing window of opportunity to make it into F1.
Ferrari and Mercedes have their own young driver programmes and Force India don’t recruit this way either. Lotus need a lot more than the cash a GP2 champion can raise which leaves Sauber, Marussia and Caterham as possible destinations for the brightest and best and richest that GP2 has to offer.
So what of the future for GP2? By pricing out genuine talent it appears GP2 will fail to deliver the average of 3 drivers a year to F1 that has been achieved in its first 8 years. Though for rich kids who want to race in cars which are the closest to an F1 car in terms of performance – this is as good as it gets.
Then again, GP2’s owners may even spin the series off someday as a competitor to F1 should the ownership of the F1 commercial rights be legitimately challenged. This may seem far fetched, though recently Enrico Scalabroni, a well-known ex technical chief at both Williams and Ferrari, suggested the 2014 F1 cars may not be much quicker than their GP2 brothers.
“I hate to be alarmist,” Scalabroni tells El Mundo Deportivo newspaper of the 2014 models, “but I would not be surprised if a GP2 car is as fast as an F1 car. You only have to make simple calculations to see that this could occur”.
The times between the F1 cars in qualifying this year in Abu Dhabi and the GP2 cars during their end of season test on the same circuit were about 10 seconds a lap different. Though the 2014 F1 cars will be heavier, have less downforce and run on Pirelli tyres that will most likely be more conservative.
Even so, it is unlikely the 10 second a lap gap will be bridged – just yet eh Bernie?