My thoughts on (and proposals for) transforming GP2 to a durable Formula 2
On January 23rd, Liberty Media completed its purchase of Formula 1, immediately ousting former head honcho Bernie Ecclestone and replacing him with Chase Carey, with supporting roles for former team boss Ross Brawn (as managing director motor sports) and Sean Bratches (as managing director commercial operations). With the purchase came two lesser series, GP3 and GP2. Yesterday, February 2nd, word got out that Liberty Media intends to rebrand GP2 as Formula 2 for the 2017 season, a name previously used by the junior racing series from 1953 to 1984, when it was superseded by Formula 3000 (which was, itself, superseded by GP2). There was a revival of the name in recent years (2008-2012), but due to directly competing with both GP2 and the World Series by Renault, this revival was short-lived. Currently, GP2 is also plagued with problems leading to dwindling audiences, which the rebranding intends to fix. However, I don’t think a simple name-change will magically fix the problems the series faces. This post will detail these problems, and propose possible changes which would hypothetically fix them. But first, a little history lesson for context.
History of GP2
The GP2 series was formed in 2005 to replace Formula 3000. Formula 3000’s downfall came because of rising costs of participation for the teams. The series quickly fell into a downward spiral: because of the rising costs, fewer teams were able to participate. Fewer participants meant that the series was less attractive for audiences causing lower viewership, which made sponsors withdraw their sponsorship or lower their investments in the teams. This, in turn, made it harder for teams to keep afloat, eventually resulting in the series getting scrapped after their final 2004 season.
The aforementioned Bernie Ecclestone, together with then Renault team boss and driver manager Flavio Briatore, jumped on the opportunity to fill the gap left by the demise of F3000 by creating the GP2 Series. Initially, the series was a great success. With 24 cars on the grid, and many by now household names participating. At the time, winning the GP2 series practically guaranteed a seat in F1 the year after. Rosberg (2005), Hamilton (2006), Glock (2007), Hülkenberg (2009), Maldonado (2010) and Grosjean (2011) are either still driving in Formula 1 (with great success) or have left a noteworthy impression to still be remembered (…is that Glock?). During these early years, even runner-ups have had (somewhat) successful periods in Formula 1, with Kovalainen, Pèrez, Piquet Jr. and B. Senna being the most noteworthy names among them. The series was such a success, it spawned a sister-series in 2008 meant to fill in the gaps during winter, called the GP2 Asia Series. After the 2011 series, it merged with the main series.
sorry for this ad, just an unemployed hobbyist trying to stay afloat!
Problems with GP2
After 2011 however, GP2’s status as a breeding ground for talent seemed to go down hill. At the end of the 2016 season, 30 (out of a total 166 drivers) had made the jump to Formula 1, 28 of them directly. Of those 28 drivers, 18 made their debut in Formula 1 between 2006 and 2011. Only 10 made the jump starting with the 2012 Formula 1 season (including the upcoming 2017 season). Out of a total of 28 driver debuts in the first period, 64% came directly from GP2. Between 2012 and 2017, this percentage dwindled to 45% of 22 debuts. Below you can view these numbers on a yearly basis. More importantly, none of the GP2 champions from 2012 onward received a direct promotion to Formula 1.
Meanwhile, the average number of seasons completed before winning the GP2 series rose from an average of 2.4 to 2.9, signaling stagnation of talent within the series. Furthermore, the drivers that did get promoted from GP2 to Formula 1, performed decidedly less in the second period compared to the first. These rookies were mostly picked up by backmarker teams, such as HRT, Caterham, and Manor. They (exceptions notwithstanding) weren’t selected for their talent, but for the bags of money they could provide those teams with.
Real talents, nowadays, are picked up earlier in their career. If you drive in GP2, that means you better have a wad of cash, because it means your talent as a driver alone wasn’t enough. Even the talented drivers which did drive in GP2, were already picked up by a Formula 1 team lacking a seat before they entered GP2 (such as Magnussen, Vandoorne). Others, like Verstappen (Formula 3), Bottas (GP3) and Kvyat (GP3) skipped the class entirely before making their Formula 1 debut. The only debuting driver this season, Lance Stroll, will make the same jump Verstappen did by switching from Formula 3. This trend might have started with Sebastian Vettel in 2007, who joined BMW (temporarily replacing Kubica) aged 20 directly from the World Series by Renault, winning his first championship in 2010. This has led to roughly three categories of drivers racing for the GP2 title remaining in the series:
- somewhat talented drivers without wads of cash,
- somewhat talented drivers with wads of cash, and
- talentless drivers with wads of cash.
The first and third categories have virtually no chance of making it into F1. Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer for instance, have largely abandoned their racing careers after winning the GP2 titles in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Furthermore, GP2 GP2 is supposed to be the top-tier of junior racing, the direct feeding ground for Formula 1. However, it isn’t. And because it isn’t, its reputation will be tarnished making it less exciting to watch. Audiences will dwindle, sponsors will withdraw. Money will stop flowing, and eventually, the series will meet the same fate as F3000. GP2 nowadays has become a series filled with unknown drivers, driving for unremarkable teams with unremarkable liveries (seriously, half the field seems to be sponsored by Jagonya Ayam). It is difficult to pick someone to cheer for and, by extention, nearly impossible to be emotionally invested in the series.
Solutions for Formula 2
In order to make Formula 2 a success, and do justice to the heritage of its historical namesake, I propose the following:
- Have every Formula 1 Grand Prix be accompanied by Formula 2
Currently, there are eleven events planned for GP2/Formula 2 in 2017. Ten of those are coinciding with Formula 1 events, while one is a standalone event at Spain’s Jerez. Formula 1’s calendar counts 20 events, meaning that only half of F1’s races have GP2 in the pre-program. By having a GP2 at every race, you build consistency. With consistency comes stability. This stability can be used to slowly expand the awareness of GP2/F2 existing. A lot of people, myself sometimes included, simply miss GP2 races due to not knowing there is one that particular weekend. I remember being young, and couldn’t stand waiting until 14:00h in order to watch the race. My 10 y/o-self would’ve loved to spend sunday morning watching GP2.
[update: I forgot about addressing additional costs by traveling around a lot more; Liberty Media could combat this by increasing the base prize money to fill the gap]
- Have only one, hour-long Formula 2 race per raceweekend
Currently, GP2’s schedule is as follows. On friday, between 12:00 and 12:45, there is a free practice session. Then, between 15:55 and 16:40, there is a qualifying session for the first race, which starts on saturday, 15:40. The second race starts on 10:25, sunday morning. Then, of course, races are often held in different time zones, meaning that you not only have to remember these completely irrational times, you also have to convert them to your own timezone in order to not miss the start of the race. I propose an easier schedule. Keep the free practice session on friday between 12:00 to 12:45, move qualifying to saturday 11:00, and have the singular race on sunday, 11:00. This way, the burden of remembering is removed entirely, and a new race weekend ritual combining F1 and F2 can really come to fruition.
- Force F1 teams to field their test/reserve/development drivers in Formula 2
Instead of trying to focus Formula 2 on finding new talented drivers deserving of a Formula 1 seat, embrace the fact that talent gets scouted earlier. Embrace the fact that as a Formula 2 driver, you are essentially not good enough to make it into Formula 1. I’d rather have a grid filled with somewhat talented but broke drivers, than loads of rich talentless drivers. Most GP2 drivers have become one giant, blurry grey mess for me, without any recognizable names or teams. I find it hard to find a driver or team to cheer for. Forcing F1 teams to field their 3rd or 4th drivers in Formula 2 means that the series gets an injection of quality and experience, and might even let them avenge and revitalize their deflated careers which made them accept a testing role in the first place. Especially Ferrari has a history of having great and often experienced drivers wither away behind the scenes, including names such as Marc Gene and Luca Badoer. Hell, Ferrari can even field a team and call it Dino, as they did from 1957-60 and 1967-69.
Some might say this would place an unfair burden on teams with a lower budget. However, it is only the richest teams (i.e. Ferrari) which have drivers secluded behind the scenes. Sauber’s test driver Sirotkin, for instance, already has two GP2 seasons under his belt. There is a big loop-hole that teams can simply exploit by hiring current F2 drivers as 3rd drivers. However, the bigger teams would want to have a dependable and experienced development driver. This would be a trade-off they are willing to make, and would not at all hinder smaller budget-teams.
I think my proposed changes will create a stable series which will, over time, become a steadfast pre-F1 tradition in every household currently watching Formula 1. It needs to be more accessible to audiences. Liberty Media has previously stated to explore more digital streaming options for Formula 1. They might want to test audience demand and technology by streaming Formula 2 first, before unleashing Formula 1 on the web. A Formula 2, not focussed on being a feeding ground for F1, but being its own entity in conjunction with F1 as a still entertaining but lesser quality series would (in my humble opinion) be the right way forward.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments!