Pierre Gasly finally proved his doubters wrong in 2016 as he showed the kind of pace and racecraft that saw him brought into the Red Bull Junior programme, as the young Frenchman took the GP2 Series crown.
Gasly’s efforts were made all the more remarkable by the fact he was racing for a team competing in their first season of the championship in Prema Racing, although the pedigree of the Italian team is well renowned in junior formulae, particularly in recent years in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship and in Formula 4.
Such was Prema’s performance in 2016, Gasly’s closest and final challenger for the title was his Italian team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi, who as a rookie driver showed just how good a driver he is and marked himself as one to watch for the future having stepped up from Formula 3.
Feature Race Victories the key for Gasly
Heading into the round at Silverstone, it had looked like being another disappointing season for Gasly, who had lost a win on the final lap on GP2’s debut in Baku to Giovinazzi, while he also spun out of the lead in the Feature race at the Red Bull Ring.
However it all turned around at Silverstone, when Gasly finally found his winning form by taking the Feature race victory, while he repeated the feat again in the following round at the Hungaroring, before winning again at Spa-Francorchamps and in the final round of the season at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Gasly had headed into the finale trailing Giovinazzi in the championship, but pole position and the Feature race victory handed him the advantage, and despite failing to score a point in the Sprint race, the Italian’s failure to break into the podium places ensured the championship for Gasly, who became the second Frenchman after Romain Grosjean to take the crown.
Of course it was far from plain sailing for the Red Bull junior, who suffered a miserable weekend in Monaco despite it starting well with a pace setting performance in free practice, while he retired from the Feature in Baku at the first turn.
He also found himself disqualified from a well-earned third place at the Hockenheimring through no fault of his own, as his fire extinguisher emptied itself mid race. He had provided one of the moments of the year before his removal from the results, as he out-dragged Raffaele Marciello to the line by a nose.
Giovinazzi belies his rookie status
For Giovinazzi, he had looked to become the first rookie champion since Nico Hülkenberg before the finale in Abu Dhabi did not go his way, but the young Italian showed prestigious pace that saw him noticed by Scuderia Ferrari and invited to a simulation run, and he won a season-high five wins.
He went into the Baku weekend having failed to score points, although he did lose a top ten finish at the Circuit de Catalunya only to have a twenty-second penalty for a collision with Marciello relegate him to eighteenth, which would have a major effect on his championship chances at the end of the year, especially as he would have been starting on the front row for the Sprint race rather than the ninth row.
His season really turned around in Azerbaijan, with the Baku circuit first seeing the Italian take his first pole position of the year before a great recovery from a bad start saw him take the Feature race victory, although the race itself was blighted by a series of safety cars and chaos caused at the restarts that ultimately cost Nobuharu Matsushita with a race ban due to dangerous driving at those restarts as he attempted to judge them from the front.
Sunday’s Sprint race saw Giovinazzi once again take victory, this time at Prema Racing team-mate Gasly’s expense, and he left Baku sitting third in the championship – not bad for heading into the weekend without a point to his name!
Giovinazzi would have to wait until the Sprint race at Spa-Francorchamps to take his third victory of the season, but his fourth – the Feature race at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza – was lucky at best and all because of the failure of the safety car to pick up the right leader.
Gasly was comfortably leading the race with Giovinazzi outside the top five, but the safety car deployment for a crash between Arthur Pic and Sergio Canamasas would have seen the drivers yet to pit – Marciello, Gustav Malja and Giovinaazi, fall in behind the train, only the safety car picked up Gasly, allowing the front three to get effective free pit stops and hit the front.
Marciello would lead ahead of Malja and Giovinazzi, but passes on his rivals over the final two laps gave Giovinazzi the win, while Gasly was baffled to finish only fourth having dominated the race up to the point of the safety car. It was also remarkable that Giovinazzi would take the win having started at the back of the grid having been excluded from qualifying for illegal tyre pressures.
Giovinazzi would win again in the Feature race on GP2’s return to the Sepang International Circuit, and left Malaysia in the championship lead, but despite fifth and sixth place finishes in Abu Dhabi, he would be denied the championship by Gasly.
Sirotkin Frustrated, Marciello Consistent
It was a frustrating season for Sergey Sirotkin, who joined the ART Grand Prix squad in a bid to claim the title, but he found himself retiring from three of the first four races of the year, and it took until the Hungaroring in July to claim his first win, of which he only repeated once more at the Hockenheimring.
The Russian would take six other podium finishes across the season, and although he finished third in the final standings, he was never truly in contention for the title.
Sirotkin would get ahead of Marciello in the standings after the finale in Abu Dhabi, but the Russian Time driver was in contention for the title until the season finale despite ending the season without a victory to his name. It was an extremely consistent season for the former Ferrari Driver Academy driver, but the lack of visits to the top step of the podium cost Marciello dear in the standings.
Nato leads the Best of the Rest
Norman Nato started the year with a victory at the Circuit de Catalunya for Racing Engineering but was forced to wait until the Sprint race at Monza to take his second win, although he was on course for victory at Monte Carlo before circumstances with numerous virtual safety cars enabled Artem Markelov to grab a surprise maiden win despite being well out of contention.
Due to the tight and twisty nature of parts of the Monaco circuit, Markelov seemed to get the luck as he encountered the virtual safety cars in the slower parts of the lap, where erstwhile race leader Nato lost more time in the faster parts of the lap, and when Markelov pitted, to many peoples surprise, especially to the surprise of Nato, he assumed the lead and took the victory.
Alex Lynn was a triple winner during his final GP2 Series season, with the DAMS driver taking the Sprint race victories in Catalunya, Hockenheimring and the final race of the year at the Yas Marina Circuit, while fellow Briton Jordan King also took two Sprint race wins, the first at the Red Bull Ring and then in front of his home fans at Silverstone.
Mitch Evans took his Campos Racing machine to victory in the Feature race at the Red Bull Ring as part of a surprise 1-2 with team-mate Sean Gelael, while ART Grand Prix’s Matsushita was able to claim the Sprint race victory at Monaco, and Luca Ghiotto took his maiden GP2 win in the Sprint race at Sepang for Trident.
Oliver Rowland gave MP Motorsport their best ever season in the championship with four podium finishes and at one point led the championship, while podium finishes went the way of Arthur Pic (Rapax), Nicholas Latifi (DAMS), Marvin Kirchhöfer (Carlin) and Johnny Cecotto Jr (Rapax).
Gasly a deserving champion
The season will be remembered for the impact Prema Racing had on the championship, with the inter-team title battle being won by Pierre Gasly, although it looks likely that the Frenchman will follow 2015 champion Stoffel Vandoorne across to Super Formula in Japan in 2017 after missing out on a promotion to Formula 1.
Gasly was the man to beat in qualifying during the season, taking five pole positions, while his Feature race victories, of which he had four, propelled him to the front of the championship when it mattered. He deserves to be in Formula 1, but 2018 is likely to be his time – just in time for the return of the French Grand Prix.