The GP2 Series drivers laid their cards on the table at the season opener in Malaysia last weekend, and it was Luiz Razia who streaked into an early points lead.
The Brazilian had largely failed to make progress in his three previous GP2 seasons, failing to win a race since his maiden campaign in 2009 and finishing outside of the top ten in the final standings on each occasion. And a move this year to Arden International, a team who have struggled for success in recent seasons, didn't particularly mark him out as a title favourite.
I was perhaps with a little surprise then that he qualified on the front row in Malaysia, just 0.06 seconds behind expected frontrunner Davide Valsecchi – who had replaced Romain Grosjean at DAMS.
A good start allowed him to jump into the lead at the beginning of the feature race, and he streaked away to record what looked like a pretty comfortable victory in the searing Malaysian heat. In the sprint race he fought his way through from eighth on the reverse grid to fifth. That result secured him an early seven point lead in the standings.
Arden have a bit of a habit of starting the season well and then failing to convert that into season-long form. But Razia's pace across the weekend suggested that he will be able to maintain a title challenge. And having previously used his strong backing to secure F1 reserve roles at Virgin and Lotus (as they were both then known) without good results on-track, expect him to become a tempting proposition to the F1 teams later in the year.
Valsecchi's poor start to the feature race threatened to ruin his race, but he clawed his way back to finish second, and securing the fastest lap bonus point meant that combined with the four points he gained for pole, he had lost just one point to Razia.
He would fail to score in the sprint race though – his race coming to a dramatic end when his car rolled after contact from Marcus Ericsson. He had done enough earlier in the weekend though to maintain second in the standings. He showed strong pace all weekend, and should finally be able to make a title attack in what is his fifth year in the category.
Ericsson had also been expected to be amongst the contenders in pre-season, but he would endure a pretty torrid weekend in which he failed to get off the mark for the season. A nightmare in qualifying left him down on 20th on the grid, and although he made progress in both races his weekend would end in disaster with the Valsecchi contact. The stewards placed the blame firmly at his door, and handed him a ten place grid penalty. So he can't expect a decent starting place next time out either. It's a bad start to the season for the Swede who has failed to deliver recently on the great promise he showed in his early career.
Someone who is delivering more and more as their career progresses is James Calado. Runner-up in Formula Renault UK, British F3 and GP3 over the past three seasons, his lack of experience at this level meant that you wouldn't have expected him maintain that run into GP2.
But after a race win on a stunning GP2 debut in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year, the Brit was at it again in Sepang. He qualified sixth on the grid, behind drivers who were all entering at least their third GP2 campaign. Slipping to eighth in the feature may not have sounded like much of an achievement, until you consider that he was without a working radio or drinks bottle.
Starting from pole he kept his highly-rated and more experience Lotus GP teammate Esteban Gutierrez behind him to win the sprint race, and move into third place in the drivers' standings. That runners-up spot, or maybe even the title, doesn't seem too far out of reach at all.
Putting in a perhaps even more impressive performance though was Felipe Nasr. The British F3 champion managed to secure backing from two large Brazilian firms over the off-season to secure a GP2 drive with top team DAMS, but again a lack of experience looked as though it was going to make his rookie year a struggle.
But he defied those expectations to put in an amazing performance across the weekend. First he beat both Calado and Gutierrez across the line to finish the first race in sixth place, and then he followed the Lotus pair to the checkered flag to record a podium finish in his first race weekend.
Both Calado and Nasr look set to have considerably stronger rookie campaigns than Gutierrez, who in relative terms was struggling as he entered GP2 less than 12 months ago and could only finish the standings in 13th place. Expected to up his game considerably this year and mount a title challenge, his season could have got off to a better start. Although it could have been much worse, too.
A collision in free practice with Johnny Cecotto and resultant lack of track time meant that he went into the 30 minute qualifying session still making himself at home on the Sepang circuit. As a result he ended up seven tenths shy of pole, which meant that in the ultra-close session he could only manage 15th on the grid.
It was something of an achievement then that the Mexican ended up fourth in the standings at the end of the weekend. It's not what he would have wanted going into the event, but as an exercise in damage limitation it wasn't bad at all.
Finally, a word to Max Chilton, who has received his critics in the past two seasons for a lack of results. But with the Carlin team now seemingly having found their way around the GP2 car, he recorded a maiden podium on Saturday and lies sixth in the standings. With his team's new found ties to Marussia and his father's millions, expect him to be knocking on the door of F1 should he keep this form up during the season.
Up next for the GP2 field should be two back-to-back weekends in Bahrain.
Drivers' standings after round 1 of 12:
|1||Luiz Razia||Arden International||31|
|3||James Calado||Lotus GP||19|
|4||Esteban Gutierrez||Lotus GP||18|
|7||Fabio Leimer||Racing Engineering||16|
|8||Giedo Van Der Garde||Caterham Racing||10|
|9||Stefano Coletti||Scuderia Coloni||10|
|11||Nathanael Berthon||Racing Engineering||1|
|12||Fabrizio Crestani||Venezuela GP Lazarus||1|
Teams' standings after round 1 of 12:
|8||Venezuela GP Lazarus||1|