FIA Formula 2 2017 – Season Preview

After more than a decade as the main feeder series to Formula One, GP2 has now morphed into the FIA Formula Two Championship for the new season – this is the 2016 field at the start of the feature race in Austria – and so, with such a valuable prize potentially on offer…who’s going to be the one to watch in 2017?

Well, they’ve finally managed to get it done…but what exactly HAVE they done? I mean, normally in motorsport, whenever a new championship pops up, there often has to be something that little bit different about it compared to its direct rivals, but, when the biggest alteration is to the name of the series rather than the technical aspects of the cars on show…it does seem to be a fuss over nothing. Sure, for people who only follow motorsport in passing, without knowing about the various ins and outs of a particular series, it does make a little more sense to have a clear, ordered structure to the single-seater ladder that allows young drivers to move up through the ranks more easily, but, from a fan’s perspective, there wasn’t really all that much wrong with the old system, and it does beg the question whether this needed to be done right now or not. The newly rebranded FIA Formula 2 Championship is all set to burst into life this weekend, but, while it might well signal the start of a new dawn for the direct feeder series for Formula 1…there’s still plenty to prove.

Before we get into the specifics, though, it’s probably best to clear up any confusion – despite the name change, the series is still run to virtually the same regulations as it was under its previous moniker of GP2, so, bearing that in mind, here’s a brief overview of the key technical and sporting rules for 2017…

  1. The cars themselves – built by renowned Italian chassis manufacturer Dallara – are powered by a normally-aspirated V8 engine that is capable of developing more than 600 brake horsepower and speeds in excess of 200mph, while most of the other major components, including gearboxes, brakes and tyres, are developed by a single supplier as a means of keeping costs down and the racing close.
  2. However, this will be the last season for the current chassis and engine regulations – the latter having been used since the series was born back in 2005 – with a new set of technical specifications due to be introduced for next year, including a brand-new turbocharged V6 engine to try and bring the series more in line with Formula One.
  3. In terms of a typical race weekend, two practice sessions of 45 minutes apiece are followed by a half-hour qualifying session that sets the grid for the feature race on a Saturday afternoon, where each driver has to make a mandatory pit stop within a specific window of laps to change at least two tyres.
  4. The result of the feature race then sets the grid for the partially reverse-grid sprint race on Sunday morning, with the driver finishing in eighth being elevated to start from pole position while the winner is dropped back, while the remainder of the field line up according to their finishing positions.
  5. Points are awarded on a slightly different scale for each race – while the feature race runs to the familiar FIA scoring system that awards 25 points to the winner, passing down through 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 to a solitary 1 point for the driver in tenth, the shorter sprint race only sees the top eight finishers score, with 15 points going to the winner and then passing down from 12-10-8-6-4-2 to a single point for eighth.
  6. There are also bonus points awarded, with the driver qualifying on pole for the feature race receiving an additional 4 points, while 2 extra points are given to the driver that sets the fastest lap of the race provided they finish inside the top 10 – if the time is posted by someone further back, the additional bonus points are awarded to the fastest lap from a driver in the top 10, even though it may not be the quickest time overall.

So, with all of that now hopefully a little clearer, it’s time to delve into what’s in store for the new season, and where better to begin than the calendar, which, as was the case with GP2, will follow the Formula One circus at all European rounds and some of the flyaway races in Asia as well, making a completed schedule of 11 race weekends and no fewer than 22 races.
After the season-opener in the heat and humidity of the Bahrain desert, there’s a gap of around a month before the campaign really gets going in Spain in mid-May, with the iconic street circuit in Monaco being followed by a trip to the newest venue on the calendar, specifically another street circuit in the heart of the Azerbaijani capital Baku. From there, it’s off to the forests of Austria before the cars take on the challenge of the fearsome Silverstone in Britain, with the tight and twisty Hungaroring in Budapest the last race weekend before a four-week summer break that begins at the end of July.
On the resumption, the championship visits two of the most famous and formidable race tracks anywhere in the world, namely Spa in Belgium and the incredibly fast Monza circuit in Italy, before returning to Spain to take on a new track for the championship in the form of Jerez – typically used more for testing – as a stand-alone round at the beginning of October, with the title battle reaching its conclusion (after another prolonged gap) under the lights in Abu Dhabi in late November.

Here, then, is a look at the calendar in more detail, complete with circuits and race dates…

  1. Bahrain (Sakhir) – 15th/16th March (Rounds 1 and 2)
  2. Spain (Barcelona) – 13th/14th April (Rounds 3 and 4)
  3. Monaco (Monte Carlo) – 26th/27th April (Rounds 5 and 6)
  4. Azerbaijan (Baku) – 24th/25th June (Rounds 7 and 8)
  5. Austria (Red Bull Ring, Spielberg) – 8th/9th July (Rounds 9 and 10)
  6. Great Britain (Silverstone) – 15th/16th July (Rounds 11 and 12)
  7. Hungary (Hungaroring, Budapest) – 29th/30th July (Rounds 13 and 14)
  8. Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps) – 26th/27th August (Rounds 15 and 16)
  9. Italy (Monza) – 2nd/3rd September (Rounds 17 and 18)
  10. Spain (Jerez) – 7th/8th October (Rounds 19 and 20)
  11. Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi) – 25th/26th November (Rounds 21 and 22)

Try picking a winner out of this little lot! The class of 2017 assembled for their traditional pre-season photo at the first round in Bahrain

As an illustration of just how much the junior formulae are struggling at the minute, the withdrawal of Carlin from the championship to focus on their ever-expanding programmes in IndyCar and Indy Lights in America means that only 20 cars will take part this season, but, while the quantity may have dropped, the quality is most certainly still there, so here’s a run-through of the runners and riders for this year as it stands…

PREMA RACING – Having announced their arrival in the series in the most spectacular fashion imaginable by both winning the teams’ title and securing the top two spots in the drivers’ standings courtesy of eventual champion Pierre Gasly and runner-up Antonio Giovinazzi, it’s going to be tough for the Italian team to replicate that level of success this time around, but it would be a surprise if they weren’t competing at the sharp end once again. With both moving on to pastures new in 2017 – Gasly to the Super Formula series in Japan, Giovinazzi to a reserve driver role with Ferrari in Formula One – the team have put their faith in a couple of exciting youngsters, with the highly-rated Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc making the step up after clinching last season’s GP3 Series title alongside one of his main rivals in the form of Italian rookie Antonio Fuoco.

RACING ENGINEERING – One of the stalwarts of the championship since it was created back in 2005, the Spanish outfit were the most consistent challengers to PREMA in 2016 without ever really looking as though they were close enough to push for the title, and hopes will be high that they can remain at least half-competitive this time around. The loss of both drivers from last year means it’s an all-new pairing behind the wheel for 2017, with Renault F1 Academy driver Louis Deletraz – who made his series debut in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year – moving into the championship full-time after finishing a narrow runner-up in last season’s Formula V8 3.5 Series to join Swede Gustav Malja, who will be looking to become a more consistent front-runner in his second year in the championship.

RT RUSSIAN TIME – Despite only making their series debut back in 2013, the Russian operation have certainly made an impression with their performances in recent years – not least when they secured the teams’ title in their debut season – and, on paper at least, look well equipped to mount a strong championship push in 2017. Despite the departure of Italian Rafaelle Marciello – who was best of the rest behind PREMA last year on his way to third overall – the team still boast one of the more experienced driver line-ups in the field, with Russian Artem Markelov looking to build on his maiden victory in the Monaco feature race last year as he moves into his fourth consecutive season with the team, while Italian Luca Ghiotto emerged as one of the series’ rising stars of 2016 with the Trident team, and switches for his second year in the championship with hopes of improving on his eighth-placed finish from last year.

ART GRAND PRIX – After making it look so easy in 2015 on their way to securing both the drivers’ title with new McLaren F1 ace Stoffel Vandoorne and taking the teams’ crown at a canter, last year proved much more difficult for Nicolas Todt’s crack French outfit as they slipped to fourth, but it would be a surprise if the new season didn’t see them return to something near their championship winning form. On the driver front, Japanese driver Nobuharu Matsushita – now part of the McLaren stable as well as part of their tie-up with engine suppliers Honda – returns for a third year with hopes of mounting a title push after a character-building 2016 that saw him banned for one round because of dangerous driving, while Thailand’s Alexander Albon makes the move up after finishing runner-up in GP3 last year to fill the seat vacated by rapid Russian Sergey Sirotkin.

DAMS – Having become so used to success in recent times, last season turned out to be particularly tough for the French team as they dropped to their worst finishing position in the championship since 2010 despite taking three race victories, but there’s every chance that this year could see them back on the top step of the podium on a more consistent basis and ultimately push to regain the title they last won with Jolyon Palmer in 2014. In terms of their driver line-up, Canadian Nicolas Latifi returns for a second year with the team aiming to build on a debut campaign that promised much yet delivered little, but most of the team’s hopes will rest on the shoulders of new arrival Oliver Rowland, who switches from MP Motorsport to replace departed compatriot Alex Lynn with hopes of taking the title in his second season in the series.

CAMPOS RACING – After securing the teams’ title way back in 2008, success hasn’t been quite so easy to come by for Adrien Campos’ eponymous operation since they made their return to the series after a five-season absence three years ago, and, while it might be a step too far to expect them to be in championship contention, the pedigree of the team alone means a few surprise results can’t be ruled out. The departure of Kiwi Mitch Evans to the new Jaguar operation in Formula E means there’s a new look to their driver line-up for 2017, with Swiss youngster Ralph Boschung making the step up despite cutting his GP3 campaign short last year because of a lack of funds to lead their attack, with their second car being driven for the opening round at least by experienced Monegasque driver and former series front-runner Stefano Coletti, who makes a surprise return after spells in IndyCar and European GT racing over the past two years.

MP MOTORSPORT – Despite showing flashes of pace over the past few years, consistent results have been at a premium for the Dutch operation since they came into the championship in 2013, but, after enjoying their most competitive year to date last time around, there are hopes that the new season can yield a further step forward. Having lost the services of Rowland to DAMS, much of the team’s success this season will depend on the performances of fellow Brit Jordan King, who returns to the team that gave him his Formula Renault debut back in 2012 after two race-winning years with Racing Engineering, while Brazilian teenager Sergio Sette Camara makes the leap up from the European Formula 3 Series to pilot their second car, and will be looking to make a name for himself having lost his status as a Red Bull Junior driver over the winter.

TRIDENT – Although one of the most well-established teams in the paddock having joined the championship back in 2006, there’s never been much for the Italian team to shout about over the years, but, after showing that they were capable of producing race winning pace last season, the new season could see them start to move closer to the front on a more regular basis. In terms of their driver line-up, Malaysian Nabil Jeffri moves across from Arden for his second season in the series, and will be hoping to progress after failing to really make his mark last time around, while Spaniard Sergio Canamasas – who has forged a reputation over the past few years as something of a pantomime villain due to the sometimes questionable nature of his driving – switches from the departed Carlin team to fill their second seat.

RAPAX – After taking a teams’ and drivers’ title double with former Williams F1 driver Pastor Maldonado in their maiden series campaign in 2010, the intervening few years have seen the Italian team gradually drop back through the field, but the flashes of pace and occasional race wins along the way suggest that they are still capable of reproducing some of their title-winning form in 2017. On the driver front, the experienced Venezuelan Jonny Cecotto Jr. – who had actually announced his retirement from racing at just 26 before making a surprise comeback in Malaysia last season – returns to spearhead their attack, but he’ll have to keep an eye on new team-mate Nyck De Vries, with the highly-rated young Dutchman – another member of the McLaren F1 junior programme – stepping up after a competitive season in GP3 that saw him finish sixth overall to make his debut in their second car.

ARDEN INTERNATIONAL – Despite being one of the most successful and well-respected teams around when it comes to junior single-seater racing, the British team have endured a tough couple of years in the series as they languished towards the rear of the field, but it’s entirely possible that the new season could see them start to make something of a recovery. After an up-and-down second year in the series with Racing Engineering, Frenchman Norman Nato returns to the team that gave him his GP2 debut back in 2015 with hopes of mounting a concerted title push having finished a strong fifth overall, while Indonesian Sean Gelael continued to show improvements over the course of his first full season in the championship with Campos last year, and moves across with aims of progressing further still.

In truth, it’s a little difficult to try and work out where the championship titles might be headed given the quality of the grid this year, but, with many deals only having been secured at the 11th hour (and some even later than that), some drivers are going to be better prepared to fight at the front from the get-go while others get up to speed.
For me, Rowland has looked quick from the moment he arrived in GP2 (sorry, F2) at Spa back in 2015, and, having wrung the neck of the MP Motorsport car last year to achieve results that probably exceeded the team’s expectations, a move to DAMS means he’s probably the marginal early favourite, but the likes of Leclerc – despite being a rookie – and Matsushita in particular look like the ones that could give the Brit the most to think about.
Elsewhere, seasoned pros such as Markelov, Cecotto, King and Nato should all be in the mix as well, while the likes of Ghiotto, Malja and Latifi will also be better equipped to challenge with a year of experience now under their belts in both the car and the series, and it’ll be interesting to see how the other new faces – particularly the remaining GP3 graduates (Albon, Fuoco and De Vries) – get on as they try to make a name for themselves.

So, that’s what I think, but now it’s over to you to give your opinions and views on how the first year of the rebadged championship is going to play out and, more importantly, who’s going to walk off with the title – will it be one of the familiar faces (as it was with Gasly in 2016), or could some of the new names replicate the success of Giovinazzi from last year and take the fight to the ‘old’ guard? Comment here, on Facebook or vote below – it’s almost time for the start of a new dawn for Formula One’s direct feeder series…


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