As the GP2 season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain, Jamie Klein looks at the main contenders who could challenge the overwhelming title favourite, McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne.
In recent years, the emphasis placed on tyre preservation and the number of experienced drivers lingering in the category have made it difficult for rookie drivers to make a big impact in their first season of GP2.
But last year, McLaren-backed Stoffel Vandoorne, driving for ART Grand Prix, put in the best performance by a newcomer seen since Nico Hulkenberg brought the French outfit home the title back in 2009, winning four races and beating Sauber signing Felipe Nasr to the runner-up spot in the points.
In normal circumstances, that may have been enough for the Belgian to progress to F1 given his McLaren links, but the arrival of Fernando Alonso to the Honda-powered team last year ensured that there was no room in a very crowded Woking inn.
And so Vandoorne instead enters his sophomore GP2 campaign with ART, arguably as heavy favourite – but the opposition he faces will be much stiffer this time around, with the series having amassed its strongest field for years.
Perhaps the sternest challenge will come from DAMS, which has taken three of the last four champions to the title, including Lotus test driver Jolyon Palmer last year and boasts two rapid rising stars in its 2015 line-up.
Formula Renault 3.5 graduate and Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly ought to be a regular victory threat, the Frenchman having already got some of the learning process out of the way in his late-season appearances with Caterham last year.
GP3 champion Alex Lynn, now affiliated with Williams, will also be one to watch, and it will be fascinating to see whether the Brit can adapt to GP2 with the same ease as Vandoorne, who won his very first race in the category this time a year ago at Bahrain.
Sauber reserve driver Raffaele Marciello moves across from Racing Engineering to the unfancied Trident team for his second season, but the Ferrari-backed Italian could prove something of a dark horse if he is able to combine the obvious speed he demonstrated in 2014 with a touch more consistency.
Elsewhere, Mitch Evans and Alexander Rossi, driving for Russian Time and Racing Engineering respectively, both enter their third GP2 seasons arguably with a point to prove as the younger generation threatens to eclipse them.
Throw into the mix 2014 race winners Marco Sorenson (Carlin) and Arthur Pic (Campos), as well as high quality rookies like former F3 frontrunner Jordan King (Racing Engineering), Formula Renault 3.5 graduates Sergey Sirotkin (Rapax) and Norman Nato (Arden) and Aston Martin WEC regular Richie Stanaway (Status), and the result ought to be an extremely closely fought championship.
But, such was Vandoorne’s virtuosity last year that the rest of the field will have their work cut out to match him – and anything less than a convincing title victory for the McLaren-backed Belgian will have to be regarded as failure.