Melbourne podium highlights the problem with GP2

There was a very new look to the podium for the first race of the new look Formula 1 for 2014.

There was no big surprise that Nico Rosberg took to the top step with his Mercedes car, clearly the best in the field at the moment. But he was joined by two fresh-faced youngsters.

Daniel Ricciardo is no F1 rookie. But in his first race for Red Bull Racing, he withstood tremendous pressure to take 2nd place in his home race. It was against all the odds — Red Bull could hardly have had a worse preparation for the race. Indeed, it was the first time the team had completed a race distance at all in 2014.

Ricciardo may have been subsequently disqualified for a fuel flow irregularity, an issue beyond his control. But that should take nothing away from his tremendous performance. He kept it cool and came home smiling.

Kevin Magnussen 2012-2

But more impressive than that was McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen. By all accounts, Kevin Magnussen is composed, confident and very, very fast.

Magnussen finished 3rd on the track. With his promotion to 2nd following Ricciardo’s disqualification, he has bettered Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren debut. He has also already comfortably achieved more than his father Jan did in a 25 race long F1 career.

Both Ricciardo and Magnussen cut their teeth in Formula Renault 3.5. For a long time, Formula Renault 3.5 has seemed like a better school for wannabe F1 stars than the Bernie Ecclestone-backed GP2 Series.

On paper, GP2 should have the advantage. They race at the same circuits — on the same weekends — as F1, under the watchful glare of all the team bosses. The cars are designed to give drivers experience in a similar car to an F1 car, and they race with similar Pirelli tyres.

GP2 was virtually invented in order to provide a reliable stream of talent to F1, something its predecessor, Formula 3000, had a patchy record on.

In the early years, the new series appeared to work. Indeed, the Australian Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg was the very first GP2 champion in 2005. Lewis Hamilton was the 2006 champion. But thereafter, GP2 ceased to be such a reliable predictor of F1 form.

Of the other seven champions GP2 has had in its history, only one — Nico Hülkenberg — could genuinely be said to have championship winning potential. You could also make an argument about the merits of Timo Glock, Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean. But the less said about the most recent two champions — Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer — the better.

If you look at the drivers that have graduated to F1 from GP2 in the past three years, it is almost a who’s who of flops: Charles Pic, Esteban Gutiérrez, Max Chilton and Giedo van der Garde. No-one is holding their breath for the latest, Marcus Ericsson, to impress.

Kevin Magnussen

Meanwhile, Formula Renault 3.5 has steadily been building up its reputation, and has been the school for some of the best drivers of recent years. Recent graduates include Jules Bianchi and Jean-Éric Vergne in addition to the Melbourne podium finishers.

Formula Renault 3.5 is where Sebastian Vettel earned his spurs as well. Indeed, all of Red Bull’s junior drivers go through Formula Renault 3.5 rather than GP2, and that has been the case for several years.

GP2-Belgium-2013-Sprint Race-Fabio Leimer

As GP2 has become more established, so it seems that GP2 experience, rather than raw talent, has become more important. 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer is not an exciting prospect. But with 97 GP2 races under his belt, it was probably about time he achieved something in the series. 2012 GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi had raced a staggering 129 times before clinching his title.

As talent schools go, GP2 makes slow work of it. The series is packed to the rafters with rich kids with fat wallets, and wishful thinkers whose ambition simply exceeds their talent.

That’s not to say that other racing series don’t have a similar problem. Motorsport is an expensive business, so every series has its fair share of pay drivers and no-hopers.

The problem is that GP2 sometimes feels like it is designed specifically to lure pay drivers, to help pay for its relatively expensive show. Nowadays, talented GP2 drivers are much too few and far between.

Even the GP3 Series, officially one level down from GP2, feels more relevant to F1. Valtteri Bottas, arguably the driver of the race in Melbourne, came back from a gearbox penalty and a mid-race crash to finish a highly impressive 5th. He skipped GP2 entirely, earning himself a contract with Williams after winning the GP3 Series in 2011.

GP3-Belgium-2013-Sprint Race-Daniil Kvyat

Meanwhile, 2013 GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat proved the doubters wrong by finishing an impressive 9th in his debut F1 race, just a few seconds behind his more experienced team mate. Kvyat has now become the youngest ever driver to score a point.

So if the best young drivers can make the leap straight from GP3, and the others cut their teeth in Formula Renault 3.5, what is the point of GP2? It is in danger of becoming an expensive irrelevance.

6 comments

  1. Hello!

    I agree with your point about GP2 against Formula Renault 3.5. I think it’s not only about rich kids versus quality drivers. It is more ample. I mean, GP2’s seat time is awful. A whole season of free practices (300 minutes in 2013) is the same as three Renault weekends.

    However, I think you went a little too far at one point. I agree when you said Ericsson, Gutierrez, Chilton, Pic and Van der Garde are not spectacular. But, neither Vergne or Bianchi. Actually, before Melbourne, JEV had too many turbulent weekends and Bianchi was outperformed by VDG in almost second half of last season.

    You may argue that Marussia had trouble with latest Pirelli tyres. It is true. But it is also true that Bianchi raced two season on GP2, where he learned a lot.

    About Sebastian Vettel. He raced just half season at Formula Renault 3.5 and won only once. He was a class apart, true, but I think it is too little time to say how important the series was for him.

    Do not understand me bad. I agree with you. But GP2 had so many bad seasons sthat we do not need to overstate (sorry if it is not the best word here) the points.

  2. Daniil Kyvat’s smooth transition into F1, despite needing 5 years to do anything worthwhile in the GP3/F3 level, indicates a deeper problem. Admittedly Daniil’s fifth year was very worthwhile, but he spent as long at that level as Fabio Leimer did in GP2, and nobody thought of Fabio as ready for the top flight despite his GP2 title. The net implication is that the back half of F1 is less difficult than the back half of GP2, as far as driver skill is concerned.

    GP2 was designed to meet F1’s needs. Bluntly, most of F1 no longer needs drivers to be particularly talented. It just needs them to be rich. A driver who can prove generous backing for several years in a row is a distinct asset to a F1 team at the back half of the grid.

    A driver who is merely earth-shatteringly good is only of use to six teams right now. Two (the Red Bull ones) don’t take currently GP2 drivers, partly because it clashes with simulator duties that are simultaneous with the F1 weekend. That is to say, the development drivers are more use to Red Bull helping the factory with testing stuff in the simulator during the weekend than they are learning the driving craft on track. Ferrari and Mercedes don’t take rookies, expecting them to prove themselves at another strong team (or have strong performance despite their team) before letting them anywhere near the cars. McLaren only takes rookies in its own driver scheme, which currently advises people to do F3.5, apparently for similar reasons to those described by Stephen. Only Force India has any interest in GP2, but don’t be fooled by the fact it has a development team there – it still looks to overlooked talents first before thinking about rookies in expected development series.

    Until F1 needs GP2 to produce talented drivers instead of merely rich ones, GP2 won’t waste its time trying to produce talented drivers. This is why a development series with its own idea of where it needs to be is always likely to produce more interesting talents – and more interesting talents are often the most skilful and successful ones. As it stands, GP2 is highly relevant – in helping to sate F1’s power-drunken, money-starved state.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    @Felipe, Thanks for your point. I understand what you mean, although I personally thought that Jean-Éric Vergne was very impressive at times in Formula Renault 3.5, and although he has been outshone by Daniel Ricciardo so far in F1, he may still be able to prove his worth. His results have not been poor as such, while I think you can say the list of recent GP2 graduates has been universally disappointing.

    @Alianora, A very interesting point. I think you are right that GP2 is doing a good job for F1 in that sense. It speaks to a wider malaise affecting F1.

  4. Excellent well written and argued stuff. Read a few other items of similar good knowledge and background.. Other more prominent sites could learn a lot – or get you to write for them.

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