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F2 preview: Who will begin the new era on top?

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F2 preview: Who will begin the new era on top?
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Apr 13, 2017, 10:53 AM

The GP2 moniker might have been ditched in favour of all-new Formula 2 branding, but the challenge of coming out on top in the F1 feeder series remains much the same. Valentin Khorounzhiy previews the 2017 season.

The switch to the Formula 2 name for F1's premier feeder category - a much-anticipated change, yet a rather sudden one all the same - means the history of GP2 has been neatly wrapped up after 12 seasons and three generations of cars.

Yet until the series introduces its new chassis, scheduled for 2018, it will remain GP2 in all but name, with its ever-familiar Dallara GP2/11 car, its rather controversial weekend format that involves reverse-grid races and its particular tyre-dependent formula of racing.

Many will have been displeased by F2's decision to not yet follow F1's lead in switching to more durable, more consistent tyre compounds. But while its future direction isn't necessarily clear, its 2017 spec has a very potent defence in the fact GP2 racing has been absolutely top-drawer for years.

It should again be a brilliant show this time, helped by another stellar grid with a decent mix of experienced and up-and-coming talents.

Prema Racing

Charles Leclerc / Antonio Fuoco

Charles Leclerc, PREMA Powerteam
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Powerteam

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

Prema's remarkable streak of F3 titles meant it was no surprise when the team emerged as a major force in GP2 in just its first season. Still, the Italian team's campaign was not just good – it was as good as any other outfit in the series ever managed prior.

And as it found incredible success with rookie Antonio Giovinazzi in 2016, Prema looks to have been emboldened. This time it will run two Ferrari junior drivers with no prior race experience in the GP2/11.

But what drivers they are. Charles Leclerc has been the hot property of the junior single-seater ladder for a while now, and cemented his reputation by picking up the GP3 title last year. He seems on the brink of a F1 graduation already, and a strong debut year in F2 could be enough to seal a promotion.

His teammate Antonio Fuoco, meanwhile, has gone somewhat under the radar since taking a debut two-litre Formula Renault Alps title back in 2013. He has, however, done well enough to justify continued support from Ferrari - especially last year, when he was the most credible threat to GP3's dominant ART outfit.

A straight duel between two Ferrari youngsters is a stellar selling point for the first season of Formula 2. And given Prema's form last year, it could very well be a duel that plays out at the front of the pack.

Racing Engineering

Louis Deletraz / Gustav Malja

Louis Deletraz, Racing Engineering
Louis Deletraz, Racing Engineering

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

The final GP2 season featured another solid campaign from the reliable Racing Engineering outfit, but 2017 can be seen as a bit of a step into the unknown.

Known quantities Jordan King and Norman Nato, who won two races each for the Spanish team, are out, replaced by GP2/11 sophomore Gustav Malja and newcomer Louis Deletraz.

Malja showed well against the experienced Arthur Pic at Rapax last year, and really hit his stride in the second half of the year with podiums at Monza and Spa.

Deletraz, meanwhile, came up just short in his battle against Tom Dillmann for the Formula V8 3.5 title in 2016, although that did not prevent the former Formula Renault 2.0 NEC champion from exiting the Renault Academy.

Russian Time

Luca Ghiotto / Artem Markelov

Luca Ghiotto, RUSSIAN TIME
Luca Ghiotto, RUSSIAN TIME

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

The 2017 F2 campaign will be a big test for Russian Time's ever-present protege Artem Markelov, who has been making steady gains since being moved up to GP2 from German F3 three years ago.

There was a serious dash of luck to his career-first win in Monaco last year, but Markelov's clearly no slouch, especially when it comes to race pace.

A lot is expected of him – but just as much, if not more, is expected of teammate Luca Ghiotto, who was excellent as a GP2 rookie with Trident last year.

Both drivers can and probably should feature in the fight for the drivers' title, meaning the pressure to deliver is going to be as high as ever.

ART Grand Prix

Nobuharu Matsushita / Alexander Albon

Nobuharu Matsushita, ART Grand Prix
Nobuharu Matsushita, ART Grand Prix

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

Having been teammate to McLaren protege Stoffel Vandoorne when the latter tore through GP2 in 2015, Nobuharu Matsushita is now himself a junior of the Woking-based Formula 1 outfit.

A mixed 2016 campaign notwithstanding, the former Japanese F3 champion is certainly his country's best current chance at having a driver in Formula 1 in the short-term.

Matsushita has two GP2 sprint race wins under his belt, but if he's to warrant an F1 spot, he needs to mount a proper title challenge in 2017 and establish himself as the clear team leader at ART.

The latter might be no easier than the former. Rookie teammate Alex Albon produced an eye-catching run to runner-up in GP3 last year and has looked rock solid in testing.

DAMS

Oliver Rowland / Nicholas Latifi

Oliver Rowland, DAMS
Oliver Rowland, DAMS

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

The times of DAMS taking the likes of Romain Grosjean, Davide Valsecchi and Jolyon Palmer to the GP2 crown feel long ago now. Over the past two years, DAMS has had some big names, but the results, by the team's own lofty standards, haven't quite matched up to expectations.

Five wins from 2015-2016 – all courtesy of Alex Lynn – is nothing to scoff at, but Lynn's replacement Oliver Rowland will be hoping for a better overall result.

Rowland, a former Formula Renault 3.5 champion and the French manufacturer's new F1 development driver, is as talented as anybody in the field. His unlikely GP2 title challenge last year ran out of steam midway through the campaign, but if he's to become a Formula 1 race driver, he surely has to get the job done this time around, and quite convincingly, too.

His teammate Nicholas Latifi remains a 'wildcard' of sorts, often rather anonymous but occasionally properly quick – as evidenced by his Florida Winter series run, last year's GP2 season opener and recent off-season testing.

Campos Racing

Ralph Boschung / Stefano Coletti

Ralph Boschung, Campos Racing
Ralph Boschung, Campos Racing

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

Campos was looking to have Roberto Merhi in its #12 car for 2017, but the driver it got is perhaps even more of a surprise – long-time GP2 regular Stefano Coletti.

Not a bad driver by any means (bad drivers don't win seven GP2 races), Coletti could act as something of a welcome yardstick for the current F2 crop, although he has yet to be confirmed past Bahrain.

It'll be certainly fascinating to see how Coletti stacks up against rookie Ralph Boschung, who is a surprise addition to the grid, having struggled for budget during a solid but incomplete run in GP3.

MP Motorsport

Sergio Sette Camara / Jordan King

Jordan King, MP Motorsport
Jordan King, MP Motorsport

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

If Jordan King remained with Racing Engineering for a third season, he'd be an obvious title favourite, but his new team MP has yet to prove it can sustain a championship challenge.

This is unlikely to be the quickest package on the grid, but if King can produce the kind of results Oliver Rowland posted for MP early on last season, the former Manor development driver could be a factor.

Ex-Red Bull junior Sergio Sette Camara, meanwhile, can approach this as a learning year, having gone through two inconclusive years in European F3 but earning rave reviews for his superb Macau Grand Prix victory bid late last year.

Trident

Nabil Jeffri /  Sergio Canamasas

Nabil Jeffri, Trident
Nabil Jeffri, Trident

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

For a team that recently ran the likes of Raffaele Marciello, Trident's 2017 line-up is probably not one that would be described as 'world-beating'.

Nabil Jeffri, once a reasonably promising driver on the Formula BMW Pacific scene and in German F3, struggled to make an impact in GP2 with Arden last year, while Sergio Canamasas, while more or less reliable, seems to have a bit of a ceiling as far as GP2/11 performance is concerned.

Still, Canamasas' best GP2 season – 2014 – was with Trident, encouragingly enough, while Jeffri could very well make gains through a change of scenery.

Rapax

Nyck de Vries /  Johnny Cecotto

Nyck De Vries, Rapax
Nyck De Vries, Rapax

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

This has all the makings of a very good year for Rapax, a team that Renault reserve Sergey Sirotkin swears by after it helped him to third in his debut GP2 season back in 2015.

McLaren junior Nyck de Vries has buckets of talent, and, going by pre-season testing, could still rejuvenate a single-seater career that seemed in danger of running out of steam.

And Johnny Cecotto – the most experienced competitor in GP2 history, who has been in the series on and off since 2009 – is a quicker driver than his reputation suggests.

Pertamina Arden

Norman Nato /  Sean Gelael

Norman Nato, Pertamina Arden
Norman Nato, Pertamina Arden

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

Norman Nato's debut GP2 season with Arden two years ago did not go well at all, but the Frenchman is back, his Racing Engineering campaign last year a reminder that he's a properly good driver.

Arden had a tough time of it in 2016, but looks in its best shape in years, with Nato having looked a distinct threat for top positions on the evidence of pre-season testing.

Indonesian Sean Gelael arrives alongside him, bringing his customary KFC Indonesia backing, and should be aiming to transition to the midfield of the pack at the very least.

The champion's view

2016 GP2 Series champion Pierre Gasly, PREMA Racing
2016 GP2 Series champion Pierre Gasly, PREMA Racing

Photo by: GP2 Series Media Service

Prema is really motivated again this season with the two Ferrari drivers. I think they have a good line-up, two brilliant rookies.

It will be a nice battle with quite a few drivers, but I know Charles is really competitive – I’ve known him since karting, and he’s really talented. He will have some good results this season.

Hopefully, Oliver is going to get a good run, it’s always nice to watch him racing because he’s a really aggressive guy and a good driver. With DAMS, they will be a good combination.

Let’s see what Norman can do with Arden, he’s a quick driver, maybe not in the best team to fight for the championship but they might be able to use the experience of Norman.

Russian Time also has a good line-up with Markelov and Ghiotto, last year they were always consistent with Marciello but never on the top. I think they can fight for the championship.

Basically, I think it’s going to be quite tight between many drivers, I think Charles can have a good run, Oliver as well, Jordan King. It will be quite an exciting season.”

Predicted top three: 1. Oliver Rowland, 2. Norman Nato, 3. Charles Leclerc

Motorsport.com Predictions

The panel:

 Valentin Khorounzhiy, News editor (VK)

 Jamie Klein, UK editor (JK)

 David Gruz, Editorial assistant (DG)

 Marcus Simmons, Deputy editor, Autosport Magazine (MS)

 Benjamin Vinel, Head of junior formulae content, France (BV)

5. Norman Nato

MS: As fast as anyone on his day, Nato will benefit from an Arden team that has enjoyed a bolstering on the technical side. I reckon he'll just edge it for a top-five spot.

VK: Nato, who was consistently up there in 2016 and was certainly not the luckiest on the grid, looks ready for a title run. Arden is no Racing Engineering, but it's clearly made gains.

4.  Nobuharu Matsushita

JK: He went backwards in 2016, but now he’s clear team leader at ART, Honda protege Matsushita should be eyeing consistent big results in his third year at F1 feeder level. An out-and-out title bid may prove just beyond him, though.

DG: 2017 will be his last chance to keep his rather slim F1 hopes, and there will no excuse not to perform in his third year with ART. With no star teammate to overshadow him this time, Matsushita needs to fight for wins and podiums consistently.

3. Luca Ghiotto

BV: He might have been overshadowed by fellow countryman Antonio Giovinazzi in 2016, but Luca Ghiotto nevertheless had a very solid rookie season in GP2 last year - and should be able to build on this with Russian Time, arguably a stronger team than Trident.

MS: An underrated driver who looked very impressive at times last year. I'm not convinced he'll win many races but the Russian Time car seems very consistent and he'll rack up a stack of points.

VK: Ghiotto has had a rather unorthodox career path, but there's no arguing with his brilliant form of the past two years.

JK: It was easy to overlook Ghiotto last season in the face of Giovinazzi’s rather more impressive rookie achievements, but a switch to Russian Time should see the former GP3 runner-up blossom into a regular contender for wins and podiums.

2. Charles Leclerc

MS: He is ultra-fast while remaining an elegant and classy driver, and he's with the undoubted top team in the form of Prema. He's title favourite, as long as he can sharpen up his aggression in reversed-grid races.

VK: The current GP2/F2 formula requires a fair bit of tyre management, and that did not look like one of Leclerc's stronger suits in GP3. Still, he is so very quick.

JK: As the heir to Gasly’s Prema throne, Leclerc is a logical contender for title glory. But the Italian squad’s domination of 2016 will have led to a thorough bout of soul-searching by F2’s other leading teams, so don’t expect it to be so straightforward for the prodigious young Monegasque.

BV: A truly impressive driver and has shown the extent of his potential when he won the GP3 championship as a rookie. The thing is, no rookie has won the the championship since Nico Hulkenberg in 2009, so repeating the feat might be a tough ask. Anyway, he'll certainly fight for wins.

DG: Leclerc had no trouble conquering GP3 last year whatsoever, and he could easily end up doing the same a step higher. However, even though he is with Prema, having another rookie as a teammate could make things tough at times - the title might be too much to ask for.

1.  Oliver Rowland

JK: DAMS may have suffered something of an off-year in 2016, but both Rowland and teammate Nicholas Latifi were near the top of the timesheets in testing in both Barcelona and Bahrain. Was remarkably consistent for a rookie last year, and has the talent to capitalise if his team delivers.

MS: He absolutely has to perform this year, and so does the DAMS team. Its old tech director is back from a sojourn with the DS Virgin Formula E squad and all parties have a lot to prove.

BV: Arguably the best champion in the history of Formula Renault 3.5, Rowland has struggled a little bit in his maiden GP2 campaign. However, a switch from MP Motorsport to DAMS means he's got everything he needs to be crowned as a sophomore.

DG: He has the best mixture of natural talent and experience in the field, and has matured a lot in recent years. At MP, he punched way above the team's weight - and at DAMS, it should only get better. And who knows what Renault might think if he won the category, as it's something that its reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin couldn't manage last year...

VK: Rowland has fewer junior titles that his obvious talent merits and now ought to be a prime opportunity to rectify that, even despite the DAMS team's rather disappointing 2016.

Full top-five predictions:

Pos. Driver VK JK MS DG BV Pts.
1 Oliver Rowland 1st 1st 2nd 1st 1st 24
2 Charles Leclerc 4th 2nd 1st 2nd 2nd 19
3 Luca Ghiotto 5th 3rd 3rd 5th 3rd 11
4 Nobuharu Matsushita 3rd 4th   3rd   8
5 Norman Nato 2nd   5th 4th   7
6 Jordan King   5th 4th     3
7 Antonio Fuoco         4th 2
8 Louis Deletraz         5th 1
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