As if any extra incentive was required for the field of GP2 hopefuls getting ready to start their campaign's in Barcelona this weekend, one statistic will that will be at the forefront of each of their minds is that all of the five rookie Formula 1 drivers this season are former GP2 race winners, as were two of the mid season replacements in last year's championship. Added incentive or added pressure? Both, probably.
The new season is the last of the current GP2 car which has been in service since 2008 and will be decommissioned later in the year ready for the new 2011 charger.
It is difficult to see a clear favourite for the new season, although reigning F3 Euroseries champion Jules Bianchi must be right up there. The Frenchman tested for Ferrari over the winter and his place at the ART team who have won three of the five GP2 titles to date, including last year with Williams new boy Nico Hulkenberg, and previously with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, should ensure he is there or thereabouts come Abu Dhabi in November. Bianchi dominated Euroseries last year, but found GP2 a harder nut to crack, scoring one points finish from six races in the Asia series this winter.
Someone who did impress in the Asia series was Davide Valsecchi, the Italian claimed three wins and three second places from the series eight races to comfortably win the title, he stays with iSport for the main series and although GP2 Asia form doesn't always translate into the main series (ask Kamui Kobayashi), Valsecchi will be expected to challenge. Another man who will carry the weight of expectation on his shoulders will be 2008 World Series by Renault champion Giedo van der Garde of Holland, piloting a Barwa Addax car and already a race winner at this level.
Further challengers can be split into two groups, first of all there are the series veterans, the men who will probably not get another crack at F1 should they not perform this term (and may not anyway). Falling into this bracket would be Pastor Maldonado, the well backed Venezualan was linked to a drive in F1 over the close season, but was pipped to drives at Sauber and HRT and will have to convert his rapid pre season form into regular victories to kick start his stagnating career. Joining him in what could be the last chance saloon is Rapax team-mate Luiz Razia, involved at Virgin Racing, but still no closer to a regular Grand Prix seat.
Then you have a group of GP2 rookies who need to hit the ground running in order to make the grade in the highly competitive feeder series, two of the most fancied of this group are German Christian Vietoris, a winner in the Asia series at Abu Dhabi, who moves to Racing Engineering for the main series and will challenge for podiums if he can keep the car on the track, and Frenchman Charles Pic, who was hugely impressive for his Arden squad in Asia.
Britain will have three drivers in the championship who will all hope to be running at the front, Sam Bird (ART) and Oliver Turvey (iSport) will both be hoping to upstage their more illustrious team-mates but could both fight for victories, and with luck, the title. Meanwhile, Ocean's Max Chilton was lightening fast in F3 qualifying last season but will need to improve his race starts in order to chase regular points and keep pace with the sister car of Fabio Leimer, who makes a big step up having dominated the International Formula Master series last year.
Elsewhere DPR and their drivers, Michael Herck and Giacomo Ricci, will look to build on their unexpected GP2 Asia pace; only a no score at the first round stopped Ricci from claiming the series runner up spot, while Adrian Zaugg, Sergio Perez and Marcus Ericsson have all shown enough in their early careers to suggest that they could figure in the shake up. Add to that the DAMS entry being rebranded the Renault F1 Junior Team and running F1 testers Jerome D'Ambrosio and Ho Pin Tung and we are well set for a competition where the prize of the championship is only secondary to the benefits that should follow.
For those having trouble making sense of the last sentence, here are the final 2009 GP2 standings: 1st Hulkenberg, 2nd Petrov, 3rd Di Grassi, 4th Grosjean, and some of the winners since the series began: 2005 Rosberg, 2006 Hamilton and 2007 Glock. There is a pattern developing here.
Photo credit: Malcolm Griffiths/GP2 Media Service