The 2011 GP3 season was little short of epic. The first ten races saw ten different winners, the last of which was Valtteri Bottas. The Finn took charge from that point with a brilliant display of form with a race win from each of the remaining three race weekends to lift the title. He was pushed all the way to the final weekend at Monza however by his Lotus ART teammate James Calado.
While last season was a super-competitive affair, 2012 could be a little less open. Nonetheless, the sharp end of the grid still features a number of exciting drivers and potential stars of the future.
Here The Checkered Flag takes a look through the runners and riders for the third season of the category ahead of the opening races of the campaign at Barcelona this weekend.
Formerly ART, the French outfit will aim to continue its unbeaten record in GP3 having claimed both the drivers' and teams' titles in the previous two editions. And they stand a great chance of doing so with arguably the strongest driver trio the series has ever seen.
Leading the entry list in the #1 car is German Daniel Abt. The son of Audi DTM team boss Hans-Jurgen, the 19-year-old migrates from the F3 Euro Series where he finished seventh overall last year in a slightly disappointing campaign. He debuted in GP3 in the post-season tests with the Lotus team, where he topped the timesheets on three of the six days. While it remains to be seen whether he can carry that display that kind of form, he should certainly be one to watch.
Abt is joined by two second-year drivers, the first of which is American Conor Daly. The son of Irish former F1 driver Derek enjoyed a promising switch from the States last year with Carlin, becoming a regular fixture in the top eight by the end of the season. The switch to Lotus should now see him become a regular podium finisher and fighting for race wins.
Completing Lotus' talented trio is Finland's Aaro Vainio. Potentially the next Bottas, the 18-year-old is part of team co-owner Nicolas Todt's All-Road management stable, alongside the likes of Massa, Maladonado and Bianchi. After a highly successful karting career he took to GP3 with Tech 1 last year for his second year in cars and scored a podium in just his third race before finishing the year 15th overall. He's looked quick in testing, even if it was interrupted for a day by exams.
While the depth of talent in Lotus' lineup makes them a good bet for another teams' title, there's an overwhelming favourite for the drivers' title and he's in the garage next door.
Brought to Europe last year under the wing of Mark Webber (the man who gives his initials to the team's name), Kiwi Mitch Evans stunned the paddock when he took pole and victory at just his second race weekend in Barcelona, aged 16. One round later and he was leading the points. Things didn't work out for him during the rest of the year and he was eased down to ninth by the close, but he was always quick. Back for a second season and title assault, for a man with nothing to prove in testing he's been frightfully fast.
Evans has two new teammates for 2012, who were both signed by the team off the back of strong pace in post-season testing. Italy's David Fumanelli steps up after three years in the European F3 Open, and while his record doesn't suggest anything special, he seemed to find another gear in the second half of 2011 where he won four races from as many weekends to end up just five points shy of the title. It was pace that he carried into GP3's winter testing.
Matias Laine is another with a less-than-stellar record, the 22-year-old Finn only managing a paltry best result of 14th with Marussia Manor last year – the worst record of any full-season entry. He's been regularly at the sharp end of the timesheets since the flag dropped in Monza though, and could be a bit of a dark-horse.
Marussia Manor Racing
Funny thing that the top three teams from last year should get their new driver trios completed first, but that's exactly what happened with Marussia Manor joining Lotus and Arden in finalising their lineups before anyone else. Marussia Manor could be in for a tougher year this time though, having signed three rookies.
The first of the Russian-backed outfit's drivers is Russian Dmitry Suranovich, who the owners will no doubt hope has what it takes to race for their F1 team before too long. 17 in June, 2012 is his first full season in cars. After dipping his toes in Formula Abarth last year, he was a podium finisher in the Toyota Racing Series held in New Zealand earlier this year. Testing results suggest this will be little more than a learning year for him at this level though.
Tipping the age scales at the other end and born a whole nine years earlier is Fabiano Machado. What he has over Suranovich in birthdays he doesn't really make up for in experience though, with only one full year of car racing under his belt. He debuted in South American F3 in late 2010, but still won four of the 12 races he started. 2011 saw an unchallenged run to the title. Will likely take him a year to adapt in Europe.
Another rookie coming from another different background for the team's third car. Launched into single-seaters by a talent contest in 2009, Cypriot Tio Ellinas has shone in Formula Ford and Formula Renault in the UK in the past two seasons. He's looked lightning fast since jumping into the GP3 car in late 2011 and could defy his total lack of experience at this level to become one of Evans' biggest challengers.
Status Grand Prix
After Robert Wickens in 2010 and Alexander Sims and Antonio Felix da Costa in 2011, Irish-owned and Silverstone-based Status had a bit of reputation for hiring big-name talents. Rather disappointingly that's not the case this year and it will be interesting to see whether that has an impact on their results.
The clear leader of their lineup is second-year driver Marlon Stockinger. (Probably) the world's only Filipino-Swiss racing driver, he endured a point-less rookie season after graduating from Formula Renault UK with just one top ten place. Having moved up the grid from Atech CRS to Status he's become a regular in the top ten during testing.
Japanese driver Kotaro Sakurai finally races in GP3 after numerous tests with Status and with Carlin since late 2010. Last year he won the National class in British F3, but only after the class leader had left his only rival Sakurai on his own and stepped up to the main category. Testing suggests he'll be found at the back of the midfield runners.
Alice Powell steps up to GP3 after three years racing Formula Renault machinery in the UK, with a run to the BARC series title sandwiched by two somewhat less successful seasons in the main UK championship. With her deal only coming together in time for the very last pre-season test at Silverstone she'll still be learning the ropes during the early rounds, but still showed that she could be mixing it in the midfield once she gets up to speed.
Ocean Racing Technology
The Tech 1 team decided to pack up and leave the series earlier in the year as they concentrate on their more successful Formula Renault operations. Tiago Monteiro's Ocean team acquired their entry, but could struggle in their first season with just two tests under their belt and a driver lineup full of drivers lacking experience in one way or another.
18-year-old Kevin Ceccon is probably the most experienced of the trio, despite his age. Last year the Italian driver rose to prominence by winning the Auto GP title at the first attempt, and joins GP3 after failing to secure a graduation to GP2. GP3 presents a definite backwards step in car performance terms from Auto GP, but also provides a more competitive field against which to test himself. The lack of experience in the team could seriously hamper his chances.
Spanish female driver Carmen Jorda joins the GP3 grid after sitting out 2011, having previously raced Indy Lights in 2010 and done four years of Spanish/European Open F3 before that. She's generally been bottom of the pile in testing, despite considerably more car racing experience than the team's third and final driver, who like Jorda is also aged 23.
Irishman Robert Cregan takes the previously untried route into GP3 from the V8 Supercar Development Series. Having also raced GTs in the UAE (his father is one-time Toyota F1 chief Richard, who now heads up the Yas Marina Circuit) and Porsches in recent years, his only previous single-seater experience seems to consist of some Formula Ford several years ago. Despite that, he has seemed able to mix it with a few more seasoned open-wheel racers in testing.
Swiss outfit Jenzer have been present at the sharp end of the grid in the previous two seasons thanks to Nico Muller. Their 2012 lineup only boasts four years of car racing between the three drivers, but the two drivers that have been with them in testing have shown good speed. And their presence is much better than that of the 48-year-old they ran at last-year's Monza finale.
Romania's Robert Visoiu steps up to GP3 after a debut season in Formula Abarth in 2011 that saw him score two race victories and finish fourth in the European classification. Having looked good during GP3 testing, he's also contesting Italian F3 this year and scored a pair of podium finishes at the Hungaroring last weekend.
Jenzer's second car is filled by another Formula Abarth graduate, Patric Niederhauser of Switzerland, who won the championship's Italian classification last year after finishing runner-up the year before. Like Visoiu he's shown strong pace in GP3 testing and is also racing in Italian F3, but went one better than his teammate with victory at the season-opening round at Valencia.
Jenzer's third car has been a last-minute affair, despite a number of promising drivers testing it during the winter. 18-year-old Czech driver Jakub Klasterka will be in at the deep end as he drives a GP3 car for the first time in Friday practice in Barcelona, and it will be his first time racing anything (at least at international level) since 2009 when he came 11th in the Formul'Academy Euro Series for Formula Renault 1.6 cars.
Another GP2 team expanding into GP3 for the first time, Trident have taken over Addax's entry. With teams no longer required to enter three cars, it seems as though Trident will only be entering two drivers having only run two at the Silverstone test. In which case they could struggle like Ocean for experience, and also for pace with neither driver yet proving to have what it takes to run at the front.
Both their drivers step up from Formula Abarth. 18-year-old Vicky Piria claimed a best result of eighth place from two years in the series. In testing she's often been off the back of the midfield pace, but only the competitive action will give a true representation of her pace, and whether she can live up to some the hype surrounding her appearance in the series.
Her 17-year-old fellow Italian teammate Antonio Spavone only mustered a few more points than her in Abarths last year, but it was his first full season in the series. Spavone is also racing in Auto GP this year, and he is yet to show anything particularly special. That experience in a more powerful car could aid him in GP3 though. Another who should be scrapping at the back of the midfield.
Best known for their results in British F3 as well as successes in other championships, Carlin have yet to really hit the ground running in GP3 and finished one from bottom in the teams' points race last year, not helped by the peculiar decision to drop Tom Dillmann after one round last year where he'd taken pole and finished on the podium. If weak driver lineups have held them back before, that should be no excuse this year.
The first name in their 2012 trio is Alex Brundle, son of commentator and former driver Martin. He switches from the more powerful Formula Two, where he finished seventh last year in a campaign that failed to live up to expectations. For most of GP3's winter testing he's looked off the pace but that all changed on home soil at Silverstone where he was much nearer the sharp end.
Another who had a difficult 2011 was Antonio Felix da Costa, albeit in GP3. Although budget constraints stopped him from graduating to GP2 as planned, he had finished last season on a high with victory at Monza and he'll hope to carry that form into the new campaign. On paper he could be one of Evans' nearest challengers.
Completing Carlin's trio is William Buller. The Northern Irishman joins the championship after two years in British F3, where he came fourth overall in 2011, ironically as the top non-Carlin runner. He's combining GP3 with a European F3 campaign this year, and was amongst the leading contenders at the Hockenheim season opener with a pair of fourth places. In the midfield for most of GP3 testing, like Brundle he upped his game at Silverstone and was inside the top five or so.
Atech CRS GP
David Hayle's outfit finished up bottom of the pile last year, well adrift of the rest. They only scored points at one weekend thanks to Nick Yelloly at a rain-hit Silverstone. Whether that's made it hard to attract quality drivers we can't say, but two-thirds of their lineup is considerably lacking in experience.
They do have one proven driver on their books though – Tamas Pal Kiss. The Hungarian driver is the fourth highest-placed driver from 2011 who returns, behind Evans, Felix da Costa and Vainio. Driving for Tech 1, he scored a sprint race win at Barcelona in his fourth race out of Formula Renault UK. A year's experience should make him more of a regular inside the top ten, but his chances could be restrained by the move to Atech.
The first of his teammates will be making their single-seater racing debut this weekend. 21-year-old Belgian driver John Wartique has previously only raced Peugeot 207s and Renault Clios but considering that his pace has been pretty reasonable in testing.
Set to be racing together with Wartique towards the back of the field is 17-year-old American Ethan Ringel. His car racing experience consists only of some limited appearances in F2000 and Formula Enterprise 4 in his homeland last year. Despite being the first driver confirmed for the new season and having therefore done all of the tests, he remains adrift of the main pack on the timesheets.
- Free Practice in Barcelona takes place at 07:30 BST on Friday, with Qualifying at 08:45 BST on Saturday. Race 1 takes place at 16:20 BST on Saturday, with the Sprint Race at 08:25 BST on Sunday.
- Qualifying and races will be shown live throughout the season on Sky Sports F1 HD in the UK.
- TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk. will continue to bring the latest news and reports all season long.