The profile of the GP2 Series continues to increase year on year, with it having now produced half of the drivers on this year's Formula 1 grid.
Furthermore, five of its seven champions made it to Q3 in Melbourne last week – proof that this is the series to watch if you want to see the F1 stars of tomorrow, today.
There are two significant changes for the 2012 season. Firstly, the merger of the Asia Series into the main championship sees the calendar expanded to include flyaway races to Malaysia and Singapore to book-end the season, as well as a double-header in Bahrain before the European season gets underway.
Secondly, the series adopts Formula 1-style prime and option tyres, with drivers being allocated three sets of prime tyres and one set of options. One of the prime sets must be left for the Sunday sprint race, with the teams then free to choose between the remaining sets for use through practice, qualifying and the feature race.
Another change to mention is that points will now to go down to tenth and eighth places in the two races respectively, with 25 and 15 points on offer to the two winners. Pole position now carries a bonus of four points, with the driver who took the fastest lap getting two.
A combination of ever-increasing budgets and the series' regulations increasingly making GP2 a multi-year programme for even the best drivers has meant that the grid doesn't necessarily feature all of the most exciting drivers below F1, with Formula Renault 3.5 becoming an increasingly popular alternative. However, a mix of experienced drivers and future stars leaves the battle for the title wide open and, as ever, a large number of drivers with the ability to fight for race wins.
Here's a look through the teams and drivers.
Barwa Addax Team
Alejandro Agag's squad has been ever-present at the sharp end of the grid for the past few seasons, winning the teams' title last year. They've run Vitaly Petrov, Sergio Perez and Charles Pic in their final seasons before graduation to F1. However, there are serious doubts over whether their driver lineup this year is up to the job, and their pre-season pace hasn't done anything to dispel those fears.
Johnny Cecotto Jr brings Venezuelan cash, but has only once finished in the points in 37 starts over the past two and bit years. There's little doubt that being with a better team will move him up the grid, but he's certainly not amongst the pre-season favourites like Addax drivers usually are.
The same goes, to a lesser extent, to teammate Josef Kral of the Czech Republic. After promise in Formula BMW and Formula Master, his GP2 career has been a little disappointing – although the injury he sustained in a duplication of Mark Webber's Valencia crash in 2010 didn't help in his rookie season. Last year he picked up sprint race podiums in Monaco and Spa largely thanks to the reverse grid, but the switch from Arden to Addax means he must now show he can fight at the front on a regular basis.
French squad took their first main series GP2 title with Romain Grosjean last year, and will hope for the same again from series veteran Davide Valsecchi, who is now entering his fifth year in the championship, and for whom only the title will do. The 2010 Asia Series champion showed very promisingly in the first of the two pre-season tests at Jerez, where he topped the timesheets on all three days.
For the other car they've hired rookie Felipe Nasr. A lack of backing seemed to put the promising Brazilian's progress in doubt, despite a commanding run to the British F3 title last year. However, he's managed to secure the support of two of his nation's biggest companies. The step up will initially be a difficult one, so anything more than podiums would be highly impressive indeed.
Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon would have anticipated that sticking with the same drivers from 2010 into 2011 would have delivered more for his team than it actually did last year. Their prospects look good again, if not better, this year with the signing of Fabio Leimer – who dominated the post-season testing for them and then scored victory in the non-championship race at Abu Dhabi. He hasn't replicated that form pre-season, but perhaps his previous pace prompted them to just focus entirely on long runs.
His teammate is Nathanael Berthon, who joins GP2 full-time after previous appearances with Racing Engineering in the Asia Series and the Abu Dhabi Final last year. The switch comes after a couple of on-off years in FR3.5, where he enjoyed a promising rookie season but then a tough 2011.
Another team who would have wanted more from their 2011 campaign, the Norfolk outfit have retained Marcus Ericsson to lead their effort this season. Tenth in the final standings was not what the Swede would have wanted, so this year being in contention for the title all season long will be the minimum aim. He too had a quiet pre-season, but it's hard to see him not topping the podium on multiple occasions.
Jolyon Palmer joins the team after a point-less debut season with Arden. He showed improved pace in the Abu Dhabi races with Addax, so expect the combination of a year's experience and a move to a team higher up the grid to turn him into a regular frontrunner.
French powerhouse ART completes its rebrand to Lotus, as they chase their fourth GP2 title and first since 2009. Esteban Gutierrez is the man they hope can achieve that. After winning the Formula BMW and GP3 titles in 2008 and 2010, the Mexican is due another crown. He had a fairly steady learning year last season, but with that year under his belt he will be amongst the title contenders this time around.
Joining Gutierrez is another graduate from ART's GP3 squad in the form of James Calado, runner up in that series last year. The Brit made a stunning GP2 debut in Abu Dhabi in November, and has looked competitive since then. Unlikely to be a title contender from the off, but he could certainly have a more successful rookie year than Gutierrez did.
Tony Fernandes-owned team completes its rebrand from AirAsia to Caterham, and its driver lineup again reflects its link to the F1 team of the same name. Giedo van der Garde returns for a fourth season of GP2 after becoming Caterham F1's reserve driver. The 2008 Formula Renault 3.5 champion has been a perennial underachiever at this level, and although his experience would mark him out as a title favourite, the inexperience of the team could lower expectations.
Rodolfo Gonzalez drives the other car, having twice tested F1 machinery for the Hingham squad. His record in GP2 is similarly uninspiring to that of fellow Venezuelan Cecotto, with just two points finishes from 40 starts.
Italian outfit carried Luca Filippi to his late-season surge to the runner-up spot last year. This year their lineup is led by Stefano Coletti, who shone in his first full campaign last year by taking three sprint race wins during the year for the less Trident team. Coloni will give him the tools to be a consistent frontrunner, and he could just be a title outsider.
The other car is driven by 24-year-old Italian Fabio Onidi, who has driven in Auto GP and its predecessor Euroseries 3000 for the past four years, coming second, third, eighth and fifth overall in each season. Plenty of experience of high-powered cars then, and he showed promising pace in post-season testing, but scrapping for the lower points places seems most likely.
After their wins with Coletti last year, Trident have opted to hire another Monegasque driver in Stephane Richelmi. The 2010 Italian F3 runner-up had a lowly season in FR3.5 last year, but he has showed plenty of promise in pre-season and could be another fighting for points on occasions.
Julian Leal makes the switch from fellow Italian outfit Rapax, where he had a debut season that brought a best result of ninth. He too showed good pace in testing, and with greater experience should take a step further up the grid this year.
Venezuela GP Lazarus
The demise of category stalwarts Super Nova sees this Italian team join the field with funding from, yes you guessed it, Venezuela. They were race winners in Auto GP, and with them they bring Fabrizio Crestani, who like fellow 24-year-old Onidi was a veteran of the series. Despite the team being unfamiliar with the car, he showed good pace in testing.
It would have been strange for the team to get Venezuelan cash without running a driver from the country, and so with Cecotto and Gonzalez already signed elsewhere, the team have brought in 30-year-old Giancarlo Serenelli (though at the time of writing this is yet to be formally confirmed). A triple champion in the LATAM Challenge, a Mexico-based series for the Tatuus Formula Renault chassis, he is also racing in Auto GP this year. Well off the pace in testing.
For the team that took Pastor Maldonado to the title in 2010, last year was something of a disaster despite Fabio Leimer's sole victory. This year, they seemed to miss the boat a little on the driver front.
After a superbly-impressive performance on his debut in Abu Dhabi with iSport, GP3 graduate Tom Dillmann was strong again with Rapax at the final test. He has overcome budget issues to secure a place on the grid in time for Sepang, and could again rival Calado for best rookie honours.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of talent to funding ratio, Angola's Ricardo Teixeira returns to GP2 after a previous attempt in 2009 where he only managed a best result of 14th. A year in F2 and another as a reserve driver for Lotus in F1 will have improved him as a driver, and he did managed to trouble the top ten in some sessions in Barcelona testing. But the 27-year-old should still be found towards the back of the field.
The team at which Christian Horner cut his teeth as a team boss has continually declined since his graduation to F1. Upon signing fourth year driver Luiz Razia the team blamed a lack of experienced drivers for its troubles, and they'll hope the ex-Virgin and Lotus tester can clinch his first victory in the series since 2009.
Razia has a rookie teammate in Simon Trummer, who steps up from the team's GP3 squad. His second year in the category was looking like a very underwhelming one, until he scored three top five finishes in the final three races. He's seemed fairly competent behind the wheel of GP2 car since then too.
Ocean Racing Technology
Tiago Monteiro's team have been towards the back of the grid all-too-often since arriving in GP2, but last year this could have been down to their drivers – they went pointless all season until they brought Brendon Hartley in at Spa who promptly finished fifth.
This year they've brought in two promising rookies, with the first being Dutchman Nigel Melker, who came third in GP3 and fourth in the F3 Euro Series last year. This year will be a learning year at this level for him, but he'll hope to trouble the points regularly.
Something of a surprise signing for the second car, Jon Lancaster has put funding issues behind him to secure a place in the most expensive feeder series of all. He's had a few tough years, but showed promise in Formula Renault and F3 and won in Auto GP last year. Having just three days of testing in the car could make life tricky though.
British junior series superteam joins forces with Marussia for its second season in GP2. Max Chilton remains for his third season in the series, and that experience should make the Brit a regular sight in the points-paying positions. He showed decent pace on many occasions last year, but failed to convert that into solid results.
Joining him is Marussia protÃ©gÃ© Rio Haryanto of Indonesia, who has driven for the F1 team's GP3 division for the past two years. He picked up three wins in that time, and proved himself to be a demon in wet weather. He'll be very much in at the deep end in his GP2 debut, with a team still learning their way in the series.
- Free Practice takes place at 04:00 GMT on Friday, with Qualifying at 07:55 GMT. The Feature Race takes place at 03:00 GMT on Saturday, with the Sprint Race at 06:15 BST on Sunday.
- All sessions will be shown live on Sky Sports F1 HD in the UK.
- TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk. will continue to bring the latest news and reports all season long.