The cars maybe the same, but the championship formerly known as the GP2 Series now seems to have more of a purpose as the premiere feeder series to Formula 1 after its re-branding as the FIA Formula 2 Championship.
The FIA’s blueprint seems now to be clearer with it’s new status, with the aim to start in the thriving Formula 4 championships from around the globe to move into Formula 3, with Formula 2 now the last stepping stone into Formula 1.
Heading into 2017, ten teams line-up for the challenge, led by defending Teams’ Champions Prema Racing, who, as a first year team came into GP2 last year to win both titles – Pierre Gasly clinching the crown in the season finale in Abu Dhabi from team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi.
Both Gasly and Giovinazzi have moved on to pastures new, the Red Bull Junior now racing in Japan in the Super Formula championship, while the latter has become part of the Scuderia Ferrari team in Formula 1 and made his Grand Prix debut earlier this year in Australia for the Sauber F1 Team. Proof that drivers from GP2/Formula 2 can make the jump into the premiere single seater formula!
Replacing Gasly and Giovinazzi in the Prema line-up are too more highly rated drivers, and both part of Ferrari’s Driver Academy, with Charles Leclerc moving into the championship as the reigning GP3 Series champion where he will be joined by Antonio Fuoco.
Leclerc has been on the radar of many scouts in the past couple of seasons, finishing fourth in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship in 2015 before jumping to ART Grand Prix in GP3 last year and taking the crown as a rookie, with the nineteen-year-old Monegasque driver taking three wins as well as making his Formula 1 free practice debut for the Haas F1 Team.
Fuoco has long been a trusted member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, and has previous outings with the Ferrari team in testing, and took two wins of his own in GP3 last season whilst racing for Trident. It will be interesting to see how the two young protagonists perform this year under the watchful eyes of the Formula 1 paddock.
2016 saw Racing Engineering finish second in the Teams’ championship with Norman Nato and Jordan King, but the squad have an all new line-up for 2017, with 2016 Formula V8 3.5 runner-up Louis Delétraz being joined by Gustav Malja.
Delétraz ran Tom Dillmann close to the championship last year while with Fortec Motorsports, having stepped up into the series on the back of winning the Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup and being runner-up in Eurocup. He made his GP2 debut in the season finale in Abu Dhabi last year with Carlin, and although he is no longer part of the Renault Sport Academy line-up, he is still an exciting talent.
Malja is stepping into his second full-season in these cars this season after a year of two very different halves with Rapax in 2016. The first half saw the Swede struggle to break into the top ten, but the second half saw a complete change as he twice finished on the podium and only twice in the final ten races did he fail to score points. He will be looking to continue his progress into 2017, and the line-up at Racing Engineering has a lot of promise.
Russian Time have retained the services of Artem Markelov for a fourth consecutive season, with the young Russian looking to continue his development having improved year after year in the championship, with his maiden victory coming, albeit in somewhat crazy circumstances due to virtual safety cars, in Monte Carlo last season. He ended the year with a podium finish and inside the top ten in the championship, and he should be aiming for even better this year.
Joining Markelov inside the team will be Italian Luca Ghiotto, who was a race winner himself last year after stepping up into GP2 as the runner-up in GP3 the year before. Racing for Trident, Ghiotto took victory in Malaysia, and in his rookie campaign took eighth place in the championship. Both drivers should be aiming for improvements this year, and one or both could potentially challenge for the title.
ART Grand Prix head into the new season aiming to reclaim their position at the top of the standings, and will see Honda protégé Nobuharu Matsushita return for a third season. The Japanese ace has twice taken victories, once at Hungary in his rookie season in 2015 and again in Monaco last year, both in sprint races, and he will be looking to improve on that record this year, especially in the feature races where he has yet to taste victory.
Joining Matsushita this season is GP3 graduate Alexander Albon, who pushed Leclerc close for the title last year and remains in the ART stable for a second season. Albon has previously been a member of the Lotus and Red Bull Junior programmes, but in the past couple of years has made a name for himself without the need of the backing of a manufacturer.
The team took Stoffel Vandoorne to the title in 2015, and the potential is there this year for another potential charge for the both the Drivers and Teams’ crowns.
DAMS are another team looking for better in 2017, especially after heading into last year expecting to challenge for the title with Alex Lynn. In the end, inconsistency meant they were never in the hunt, but they will be aiming to make amends this year, although Lynn has departed to be replaced by fellow Briton Oliver Rowland.
Rowland perhaps was the best driver in 2016 not to take a win, but he gave MP Motorsport their best ever season, scoring 107 of the teams 113 points, while he will be partnered by Nicholas Latifi, who started last season with a podium at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya only to finish inside the points on three more occasions through the season.
Everyone knows that Rowland has the talent to succeed, after all he arrived in the GP2 Series as the defending Formula Renault 3.5 champion, and with a more recognised front-running team, he should be amongst the favourites for the title, while Latifi will be aiming to prove he can be consistently at the front of the field if he wants to show that his presence in the Renault Sport young driver programme is justified.
Rowland’s former team MP Motorsport have an all new line-up for 2017, with Red Bull Junior team refugee Sergio Sette Câmara moving up from the FIA Formula 3 Championship, where he will be joined by Jordan King.
Sette Câmara has previous Formula 1 testing experience with Scuderia Toro Rosso machinery but found himself on the outside of the Red Bull programme at the end of 2016, with the young Brazilian having finished eleventh in the final standings in Formula 3 whilst with Motopark, although he did manage impressive results in both the Masters of Formula 3 at Zandvoort and at the Macau Grand Prix.
For King, it is his third season in the championship, with 2016 being his best year so far when he took two victories at the Red Bull Ring and at Silverstone. He has already admitted that this will be his third and final year in the series, and after Rowland’s success last year, another Briton will be looking to show good speed for the team in 2017.
The Rapax team has announced a line-up comprising of a mixture of experience and potential, with Johnny Cecotto Jr, the most experienced driver in GP2 Series history being joined by McLaren Junior Team racer Nyck de Vries.
Cecotto replaced Arthur Pic in the team in the final two rounds of 2016 and took a podium finish in the season finale, and has looked strong throughout testing, as has de Vries, who has moved up from GP3, where he took race victories at both Monza and Abu Dhabi as the Dutchman finished sixth in the championship with ART Grand Prix.
Arden Motorsport have a new title sponsor and a new driver line-up in 2017, with Pertamina coming on board following the decision of Sean Gelael to make the switch from Campos Racing. Gelael only finished inside the points on two occasions last season, but one of them was a podium finish at the Red Bull Ring!
The Indonesian will be joined in the team by Norman Nato, who was one of the surprise packages in 2016 when he took fifth place in the standings with Racing Engineering. He took two race victories and with more luck could have had more, but the Frenchman returns to the team that gave him his GP2 break in 2015.
Campos Racing have only confirmed one driver so far, with Swiss teenager Ralph Boschung stepping up into Formula 2 for the first time having raced in GP3 for the past two seasons, taking one victory at the Red Bull Ring last year with Koiranen GP.
Stefano Coletti is listed on the official entry list for the season opener in Bahrain, with the Monegasque driver set to make a return to the championship he last competed in back in 2014.
Trident Motorsport has also only confirmed one full-time driver in Nabil Jeffri, with the Malaysian hopeful of improving on his performances from 2016 with Arden where he only once finished inside the points, when he took seventh place in the Sprint race at Baku.
Spaniard Sergio Canamasas has been confirmed by the team to be Jeffri’s team-mate in the season opening race in Bahrain, but beyond that anything is possible.
The championship did suffer a loss during the off-season when Carlin announced it’s departure in order to focus on it’s other championships, but looking at the field that will attack this weekend’s first race of the season in Bahrain, there are still ten very strong teams and twenty drivers itching to get the season started.
The year will start at the Bahrain International Circuit before returning to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and to Monaco, before their second trip to Azerbaijan. The championship continues to follow Formula 1 to the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, the Hungaroring, Spa-Francorchamps and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, before a stand-alone event at the Circuito de Jerez. The championship again concludes in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.
Let the battles commence!