GP2 season preview: Who will emerge as Vandoorne's successor?
Last year's GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne has left some big shoes to fill for this year's grid, but as Valentin Khorounzhiy writes, there are no shortage of candidates to follow in the Belgian's wheeltracks.
ART Grand Prix
After Stoffel Vandoorne's 2015 campaign returned ART Grand Prix to the status of the top dog in GP2, the French team appears well-poised for a repeat, having tied up two of last year's four race-winning rookies.
The newcomer to the line-up is Sergey Sirotkin, who finished a very creditable third last year with the unfancied Rapax squad – and has now become a Renault F1 test driver.
Last time Sirotkin went into a second year as a title favourite was with Fortec in Formula Renault 3.5 two years ago, and that one didn't quite work out. But he was only 18 then – and 20-year-old Sirotkin appears a different, much improved version.
The Russian will partner ART returnee Nobuharu Matsushita, who is backed by Honda.
Matsushita enjoyed an almost equally impressive rookie campaign last year, going from Japanese F3 champion to GP2 race winner. He never really challenged Vandoorne in 2015 – and, if he is to confirm his F1 credentials, keeping up with Sirotkin will be a must.
Among the most reliably solid teams of the GP2/11 era, Racing Engineering has looked on the ball in pre-season testing, both of its drivers regularly making the top five.
But pre-season testing has been a false dawn for many a team in the past, and the question of whether Jordan King and Norman Nato can challenge the series' biggest stars is still up for debate.
Nato has enjoyed a fairly mediocre past couple of seasons, but is as quick as anybody on his day and is very talented – something that was evident when he ran Daniil Kvyat very close for the FR2.0 Alps title 2012.
And Manor development driver King, himself with a strong FR2.0 pedigree, was a match for vastly more experienced teammate Alexander Rossi last year – at least in qualifying, if not in race trim.
But challenging for a GP2 crown in this company? That would be an entirely new level for both of them.
After three drivers' titles in the first four years with the GP2/11, DAMS didn't really have a shot at a fourth crown in 2016, having picked two newcomers to the series.
But they were brutally fast newcomers and, by retaining one of them – Williams development driver Alex Lynn – the French team should be a credible, season-long threat.
For Lynn, who reckoned his chances at the title will be boosted by an engineering shake-up within the team, 2016 is as big a season as they get. The contracts of the two Williams regulars run out at the end of the year, and a GP2 crown for Lynn would give the British team reason to think long and hard about any renewals.
Partnering Lynn is rookie Nicholas Latifi, a young Canadian whose campaigns have ranged from spectacular (four wins in FWS in a field that featured Max Verstappen, Raffaele Marciello and Antonio Fuoco) to anonymous (just 10th in F3 in 2014 with the all-conquering Prema team).
A new Renault test driver, Latifi has looked mighty in post-season GP2 testing last year, but he doesn't quite need to reach those heights in the campaign itself just yet.
Mitch Evans was supposed to be done with the series after 2015 – he seems rather keen on sportscars and is too quick to be a GP2 journeyman – but a seat in a Campos team, backed by Sean Gelael's sponsor KFC Indonesia, was clearly too good to refuse.
As it stands, the Kiwi is the only GP3 champion not affiliated with an F1 team, and even if he wins GP2 this year, a Formula 1 switch is probably a long shot.
But win he might – this Campos team is probably the strongest he's been with in GP2, and he is probably the strongest driver they've ever fielded.
As for Gelael, the Indonesian's still young, but he's not had any headline single-seater results in a while. He'll need to start delivering soon.
Having parted ways with long-time backer Ferrari (in rather unamicable circumstances), Raffaele Marciello is kicking off a new era at Russian Time.
The Italian has achieved a lot with the Prancing Horse, but 2015 was a nadir – even as Marciello roundly beat his teammate week-in, week-out, the speed to challenge for the front just wasn't there.
He'll have less pressure on him now, but the field is as tough as ever and a lot will depend on how quickly he can gel with the new team.
At the very least, he'll definitely be a good yardstick for the team's long-term protege Artem Markelov, who, after a much improved 2015, needs to move further up the order if he is to avoid becoming a veteran of GP2's midfield.
In 2015, a fruitful partnership with Sergey Sirotkin yielded what was undoubtedly Rapax's best campaign in this generation of GP2.
The Russian has since moved on, and brought on to replace him is Arthur Pic – a GP2 race winner on the one hand but a driver entering his sixth year at this level on the other.
The Frenchman is no pushover and, a few years ago, a driver of his speed and experience would enter the season as the favourite – but not in 2016.
In the other seat is newcomer Gustav Malja, who enjoyed a spirited run in FR3.5 last year and already has three GP2 races with Rapax under his belt.
A credible GP3 title challenge last year did wonders for Luca Ghiotto's reputation, especially after his 2014 FR3.5 season had never really gotten going. At one point, the Italian was strongly linked with Red Bull, but the move never came through, much to his bewilderment.
Ghiotto did, however, secure a promotion within Trident and is among the more exciting additions to the GP2 field.
There's no better way to show Red Bull was in the wrong than finishing as the top rookie in 2016, although that is likely to be a tough ask.
Completing an all-rookie Trident line-up is Philo Paz Armand, arguably the least experienced driver on the grid, whose main goal for 2016 is likely to be just keeping pace with the pack.
That Marvin Kirchhofer's run to third place in GP3 in 2015 – and with a record-tying five wins, no less – was arguably his worst open-wheel campaign so far says a lot.
But GP2 will be an entirely new situation for Kirchhofer, who, for the first time in his single-seater career, will not be driving for the reigning champions.
Carlin had a complete write-off of a season in 2015, but the signing of Kirchhofer is a statement of intent, signifying the British team has far from given up on GP2.
The identity of Kirchhofer's teammate for most of the season has yet to be confirmed, albeit Carlin has secured a second driver for Barcelona in GP2 journeyman Sergio Canamasas.
GP2 is a tough series for rookie drivers, but it's been a lot kinder to rookie teams – just ask Motopark, which won the 2013 crown on its first attempt with Russian Time. And while Motopark's lower-league pedigree was good, Prema's is mindbogglingly excellent.
And the Italian team certainly has the drivers to get the job done this year. Yes, Pierre Gasly might have gone winless ever since joining the Red Bull programme, but there's a good reason Red Bull has not dropped him and, in fact, is likely lining him up for a 2017 Toro Rosso F1 seat.
That reason, possibly, is that Gasly is still a demon over one lap, his three poles in 2015 a good demonstration of that. If he's finally sorted his race pace, he's your title favourite.
As for rookie teammate Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian slowly but surely etched his name into the list of the most promising drivers around over the past few years. An F3-to-GP2 move with a new team sounds daunting on paper, but then again, he was easily the quickest rookie in the pre-season testing.
The two previous Formula Renault 3.5 champions – Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz – got a ticket straight to F1 after their titles. But the landscape has since changed, and their successor Oliver Rowland finds himself in GP2 instead.
The latest in a long line of Racing Steps Foundation-backed Brits (and arguably the quickest of them), newly-signed Renault junior Rowland was believed to be in the hunt for a Prema seat, but will instead work with the MP outfit.
MP has no real history of being a GP2 frontrunner, albeit it did win a race with Marco Sorensen back in 2014. And there's reason for cautious optimism – when Rowland made his guest debut with the team last year, he was seriously quick.
Lining up alongside Rowland is MP's long-standing driver Daniel de Jong, who, on the one hand, has just five points from three seasons, but, on the other hand, wasn't at all far off Rowland in testing.
A highly-reputable junior outfit, the Christian Horner-founded Arden squad has been a serious force in GP3 and FR3.5 over the past few years, but had no major GP2 successes to speak of ever since taking Luis Razia to runner-up in 2012.
Could that change in 2016? It's unlikely, with neither of its new signings having any previous experience in GP2.
Reliable GP3 frontrunner Jimmy Eriksson will head the field, having long earned a GP2 promotion, but the Swede has previously displayed a tendency to struggle in his first year in a new category.
For teammate Nabil Jeffri, it's his fourth year in Europe, his CV ranging from the highs of a German F3 runner-up finish in 2014 to the lows of just two points scored in European F3 last year.
- Valentin Khorounzhiy, editorial assistant, Global
- David Gruz, special contributor, Global
- Jamie Klein, UK editor
- Benjamin Vinel, head of junior formulae content, France
5. Raffaele Marciello
JK: It could well be that being jettisoned from the Ferrari Driver Academy is the making of Marciello. Russian Time should provide a much better platform to challenge for the top positions than Trident, and with two years of GP2 experience under his belt, the Italian could be 2016’s dark horse.
VK: Marciello will almost certainly return to the top step of the podium - but whether he and Russian Time can mount a sustained title assault and go through the season without any major dips in form is another matter entirely.
4. Mitch Evans
DG: The Kiwi had his fair share of bad luck in his past two GP2 campaigns, but he ended 2015 on a high note. He doesn't need to improve - just carrying that form through the winter will be enough to make him the man to beat.
BV: Having suffered with infectious mononucleosis until summer of 2015, Evans has since scored more points in GP2 than any driver but Stoffel Vandoorne. The Kiwi's certainly talented enough to win the title on his fourth attempt, though his testing pace has not been particularly notable.
3. Pierre Gasly
BV: Despite having gone winless for nearly three years, Gasly still remains a great talent, and one must not forget that his first full campaign in GP2 was marred by serious misfortune. He is a quick, quick lad.
VK: Gasly's arguably the quickest driver in the field in qualifying trim - and has shown throughout his career a superb ability to get a lap together at the right time. But he'll need to perform at his absolute best to leave Red Bull no choice but to promote him to F1 in 2017.
2. Alex Lynn
JK: Was quick, if a little inconsistent, in his rookie campaign last season, and now with the full weight of the DAMS title-winning machine behind him, Lynn is well-placed to scoop the crown. Whether that will be enough to earn a promotion to F1 is another question.
BV: Undoubtedly fast in his rookie season, although he did throw away a couple of potential wins with mistakes. He can't afford that in 2016, but with a restructured engineering department at DAMS, there's little doubt Lynn will be right in the mix.
1. Sergey Sirotkin
JK: Filling Vandoorne’s shoes at ART is no easy task, but what the Russian demonstrated with the unfancied Rapax squad in 2015 makes him a more than worthy candidate to replace the Belgian. How he handles the increased pressure of expectations will be key to his title chances.
DG: Seeing what he managed with Rapax as a rookie, it's hard to imagine the Russian will not fight for the title year. He just needs to avoid the sophomore slump he had in Formula Renault 3.5.
VK: One of the fastest drivers around and knows that fact well. Hopefully, another convincing campaign will forever banish any ramblings from people who had once decried him as a run-of-the-mill pay driver.
Canamasas joins Carlin for home GP2 round in Barcelona
Barcelona GP2: Gasly heads Lynn in season-opening practice