Photo: Auto GP
The Auto GP grid may not have been chock-a-block with future F1 drivers, but there were some impressive campaigns from a few promising young drivers in a season that visited Morocco, Brazil and the US…
In the third year of its existence under the name “Auto GP”, the rebranded series continued to seemingly struggle to find its place in the hierarchy of junior single-seater racing. While Auto GP has definitely pulled off the switch to being an international series (although being a support even for WTCC and the Eurosport coverage that went along with that surely helped) and the machinery remained competitively powerful, the 2012 season didn’t seem to showcase much in the way of new talent, instead continuing to field many budgeted drivers and experienced drivers using the series to turn the tables on the direction of their careers.
The racing was, at times, pretty questionable, too, as some of the less-experienced backmarkers often managed to wreak havoc and majorly impact the outcomes of the races, while inexperienced pit crews often decided those races that looked tight in the fight for first. Even without that, however, the huge variance in class of the field was quite noticeable, and that didn’t bode well for on-track action.
Still, even among the issues, the most talented shined as Adrian Quaife-Hobbs dominated the season in a convincing fashion, Pal Varhaug delivered just the type of recovery season that his career needed, while Sergey Sirotkin made a very impressive switch to substantially more powerful machinery than he’s raced in before.
1. Adrian Quaife-Hobbs
United Kingdom, Super Nova International, age 21
221 points, 5 wins, 10 podiums, 6 pole positions, 4 fastest laps
The British GP3 graduate was the man to watch this year as he was enjoying a, quite frankly, incredible season that combined both stunning speed over one lap and respectable consistency. Amazingly, he scored six poles out of a possible seven and, while only half of those were converted to wins, that was usually through no fault of his own. At the beginning of the year, it looked like the Briton could possibly be challenged for the title, but he put those expectations to rest with a great run of consistency in the mid-season, capping off with a double win at Algarve. He would’ve probably liked to seal his title there, but only managed to do it a round later, as, funnily enough, his biggest blunder of the year (crashing on entry to the pitlane) still didn’t prevent him from securing his title then and there.
After a year like this, Quaife-Hobbs looks almost certain to continue his career in GP2 as he’s already secured test opportunities with Arden and Addax. In the first post-season GP2 test, Quaife-Hobbs finished the two days in seventh and second respectively. If that’s not enough to grab the attention of GP2 teams, what is?? Season rating: 10
2. Pal Varhaug
Norway, Virtuosi UK, age 21
183 points, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 1 fastest lap
One of the many drivers in the series looking for a sort of “rebranding” to their racing careers, Varhaug ended up one of the few who do pull it off. After a disastrous 2011 season in GP2 where he partnered Romain Grosjean and scored zero points to the Frenchman’s title-winning 89, the Norwegian decided to go one step back and it looks like that was a wise decision.
His pace was always good enough to fight for the podium and he knew it, driving a consistent and fairly trouble-free season to claim the title of the series vice-champion. Wasn’t good enough in qualifying sessions (he only had one front row start the entire year) but more than made up for it in the races. Usually, when his rivals hit trouble, it was Varhaug who best capitalized on that, as his three wins clearly show. His great performance in the season opener at Monza (second in Race One, winner of Race Two) is probably what gave him the critical edge in the fight for second in the standings. Still, it was far from a flawless season consistency-wise, the lowlight being him cutting a chicane while defending third during the last lap in Race Two at Marrakech and earning a post-race penalty that stripped him of the podium.
Varhaug took part in one of the two days of the first post-season GP2 test with iSport and was 15th at the end of the day. Don’t count against him being back in the series next year. Season rating: 8
3. Sergey Sirotkin
Russia, Euronova Racing, age 17
175 points, 2 wins, 9 podiums, 1 pole position, 5 fastest laps
The Russian youngster raised many eyebrows with his 2011 season, where he claimed the title in the European Series of Formula Abarth and was a close second to Patric Niederhauser in the Italian Series. However, Auto GP is quite a step-up from that (machinery-wise at least, not going by competitiveness levels), especially at that age. Well, a year later, Sirotkin’s Auto GP venture has put him on the map as one of the most exciting young rookies in the business, creating interest from top GP2 and FR3.5 squads.
He was the only one throughout the season who came close to matching the one-lap pace of Quaife-Hobbs, stealing pole from him once and accompanying him on the front row on three occasions. Sure, some of his season was hampered by a lack of experience (as he stalled his car on the grid in Race One at Monza and was involved in some questionable collisions over the year), but the pure speed is obviously there, as he proved by having more fastest laps than anyone else in the series in 2012. His pole at Marrakech wasn’t to be converted to a victory as he wasn’t able to see the lights go out from his grid position, but thankfully for him, he already claimed his maiden win a round before at Valencia. In the end, he very nearly caught up to Varhaug for second, but even a second race win in the final round at Sonoma wasn’t enough to close the gap. Still, a very respectable third in a rookie season.
Sirotkin’s Auto GP achievements and the fact that he is backed by Lukoil have allowed him to take part in two FR3.5 rounds over the year. As of now, he’s already done a FR3.5 test with ISR and a GP2 test with DAMS, so it’s very much expected that he’ll continue his career in one of those two series next year. Season rating: 9
4. Chris van der Drift
New Zealand, Manor MP Motorsport, age 26
127 points, 1 win, 4 podiums (6/7 rounds)
Van der Drift is almost certainly not making it into F1, but it was good to see the single-seater focused racer back in action. Before Auto GP, he’s built up a very impressive junior racing resume (2nd in Eurocup Formula Renault, 2nd in Formula Renault NEC, 2nd and then 1st in International Formula Master), however, an unfortunate injury from a crash sustained at Brands Hatch prematurely ended his quite successful Superleague Formula career. Two years later and with that series gone, it was only natural van der Drift would take a stab at a series like this, though he only got the chance thanks to being De Jong’s driver coach.
His qualifying efforts were quite bad in the beginning (although he improved massively later on), but his race pace was there and allowed him to often fight for podiums and consistently score points – so consistently, in fact, that he didn’t have a single non-score in his 12 races. All in all, it was a decent return campaign, with its highlight being the Race Two victory at Marrakech. Hopefully, van der Drift can continue to race single-seaters (for which the rumoured return of A1GP would come quite handy) but, if not, he could always pursue a career in GT racing or try to get into V8 Supercars, both of which he has sampled in the past few months. Season rating: 8
5. Daniel de Jong
Netherlands, Manor MP Motorsport, age 20
104 points, 3 podiums, 3 fastest laps
Just like Varhaug, de Jong took a step back in joining Auto GP full-time after contesting FR3.5 in 2011 where he only managed 2 points. Thankfully for his career, he wasn’t out of his depth in this series, getting on the podium in the very first race and generally being a consistent midfielder. Again, just like with his driver coach van der Drift, his qualifying runs were no good and often left him starting among the backmarkers but he made up for it with consistent race pace and thanks to usually coherent team strategies.
Midway through the season, de Jong also got a seat in GP2 (where he replaced race-winner Tom Dillmann), but failed to score any points in the four rounds that he contested. Still, he did get a test opportunity with Coloni (although that team is leaving GP2 next year so that can’t be a good sign) and generally looked really good in the conditions, even topping the timesheets in an afternoon session. If the budget allows it, a full-time GP2 campaign in 2013 would be a logical choice. Season rating: 7
6. Sergio Campana
Italy, Team MLR71 and Euronova Racing, age 26
90 points, 1 win, 2 podiums, 1 fastest lap
Having finally won the Italian F3 title (after being fourth in 2009 and fifth in 2010) last year, Auto GP seemed a logical step up for Campana. At his age, he’d probably not be thinking about F1 and, for a respected Italian single-seater racer, Auto GP is a pretty good series to race in.
And, for his level of experience, Campana did reasonably well in his maiden year in the series. Racing in a newly-established team, he was very much on the pace in qualifying sessions, but the race results often didn’t show that with frequent bad luck and collisions messing up his performance. Still, he did have quite a highlight in his maiden season, as he gave Team MLR71 their first victory at Marrakech, a street circuit no less. Season rating: 7
7. Facu Regalia
Argentina, Campos Racing, age 20
68 points, 2 podiums (5/7 rounds)
The Argentinian driver’s pre-2012 record didn’t look too convincing for him to be appearing in Auto GP – coming off of three years of Formula BMW Europe and a year of Italian F3. He wasn’t particularly impressive in any of those, but his 2012 campaign actually turned out quite decent.
Even having missed the final two rounds of the series (focusing on his simultaneous European F3 Open campaign where he finished 4th), he was still the best driver for Campos by a mile and scored an unexpected two podiums to go along with a front row start for Race One. He was generally at his best in qualifying, but showed some decent consistency as well, which in the end amounted to a respectable seventh in the standings.
Regalia isn’t exactly short on cash (as he has clearly shown this year with his two simultaneous campaigns and a brief stint in GP3) and has already tested in GP2, where he actually looked fairly competitive (although that could’ve been due to the difficult weather conditions). Still, a step up to GP3 would probably be a much better idea. Season rating: 7
8. Victor Guerin
Brazil, Super Nova International, age 20
46 points, 1 podium (5/7 rounds)
Guerin was one of the more inexperienced drivers on the field, previously having raced in Formula Abarth and Italian F3 and, naturally, continuing his career into Auto GP. He didn’t look out of his depth or anything, which is probably credit to the guy, but he was much, much slower than his title-winner teammate. Qualifying was undoubtedly his strong suit but the race pace was frankly lacking, as was any sort of consistency. Still, there were some highlights to his season, including a great drive from 16th to 5th at Marrakech and helping Super Nova get their only 1-2 finish of the season at Hungaroring.
Alongside his AutoGP campaign, Guerin also completed more than half of the GP2 season with Ocean, not scoring any points for them. Still, if he could afford that, I’d imagine we’re going to see him on the grid of that series in 2013. Season rating: 6
9. Antonio Pizzonia
Brazil, Ombra Racing and Zele Racing, age 32
45 points, 2 wins, 2 podiums (2/7 rounds)
The ex-F1 Brazilian single-seater veteran (currently racing full-time in Stock Car Brasil) secured a guest driver spot for a domestic round of the series and definitely showed himself as one of the contenders for the win. Still, it did look like Quaife-Hobbs had an advantage on him, but two pit-related misfortunes allowed Pizzonia to claim two wins at Curitiba.
After such a successful showing, Pizzonia decided to show up for the final round of the season at Sonoma and qualified in third for Race One. However, he managed to take out Quaife-Hobbs in the first corner and simultaneously end his own race. He started Race Two but had to retire after a few laps due to pain from the previously-mentioned collision. Season rating: 7
10. Antonio Spavone
Italy, Euronova Racing and Ombra Racing, age 18
41 points (6/7 rounds)
The Italian youngster was somewhat of an unknown quantity as he entered this season of Auto GP with just a single full-time campaign in single-seaters behind him (in Formula Abarth). For the first half of the season, he combined AutoGP with a GP3 campaign (where he contested four rounds, not managing to score any points) and that looked like a little too much pressure for a relatively inexperienced racer. For most of the season, he was generally racing in the back of the midfield, consistently picking up points for places from eight to ten until he produced a really good race at Sonoma, where, during the season finale, he held off vice-champion Varhaug for fourth.
Another year in this series would probably make the most sense for Spavone’s 2013 campaign as he still seems fairly under-experienced for more competitive categories. Season rating: 5
11. Giacomo Ricci
Italy, Zele Racing and Team MLR71, age 27
40 points, 1 podium (3/7 rounds)
At 27, Ricci is one of the “veterans” of the junior single-seater ladder, having competed in many series over the years with varied success. In 2006, he became the champion in Euroseries 3000 (that would later be re-branded and turned into Auto GP) so it would make some sense for teams to have him do part-time campaigns for him.
Ricci raced at Monza, Marrakech and Sonoma and scored decent points on every outing. A lack of qualifying pace let him down on all three occasions so, while in Race One he would usually produce a decent points-scoring finish, he’d have his best shot at a good result in the reverse-grid Race Two. He failed to finish those at Monza (where he was punted off from second by Campana) and Sonoma, but at Marrakech was right there on the podium. Still, for a former series winner, you’d expect more, even if it changed quite a lot. Season rating: 6
12. Giancarlo Serenelli
Venezuela, Ombra Racing, age 31
34 points (6/7 rounds)
A regular winner (and three-times champion) in the Mexican-based LATAM Challenge Series, Serenelli only made his step up to international-level racing this year, at the age of 31. Alongside his Auto GP campaign, he contested almost a full season of GP2, where he was largely unimpressive. A regular backmarker there, in Auto GP Serenelli very often managed to run in the midfield (even despite the quite woeful qualifying efforts) and even managed fourth in Race One at Hungaroring. Still, he wasn’t finishing consistently enough, which in the end cost him quite a lot of positions in the standings. Season rating: 4
13. Max Snegirev
Russia, Campos Racing, age 25
After a year of British F3 in 2010 and a year of F2 in 2011 (that yielded him a total of 3 points), Snegirev made the sidestep to Auto GP, while mounting another F2 campaign. And, unlike his F2 campaign, things weren’t so bad for the Russian driver in Auto GP. With a couple of notable qualifying efforts and some fairly decent points finishes, you’d expect him to be higher up the standings, but his finishing record was quite poor. Season rating: 4
14. Giuseppe Cipriani
Italy, Campos Racing, age 47
A middle-aged restaurant manager from Italy is not the sort of people we usually expect to talk about here, at PaddockScout. But, credit where it is due, for his level of experience and aspirations, Cipriani didn’t do too badly. He was a firm backmarker for pretty much all of the season and had six DNFs in 14 races, but, at the same time, recorded a very impressive weekend at Hungaroring, where he was sixth in both races. Since he’s probably not looking at moving up the ladder, a decent enough season. Season rating: N/A
15. Sten Pentus
Estonia, Virtuosi UK and Zele Racing, age 30
14 points (3/7 rounds)
After three consecutive years in FR3.5 (where he finished 16th, fourth and then 24th), Pentus took a step back for a part-time campaign in Auto GP. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite seem to manage to get up to pace in this one, scoring a fairly unimpressive 14 points in 6 races. Fourth in Race Two at Hungaroring was a highlight, but, with so much experience and against opposition of this class, he really should’ve shown more. Season rating: 4
16. Francesco Dracone
Italy, Virtuosi UK, age 30
14 points (5/7 rounds)
The experienced Italian driver somehow has two IndyCar races under his resume, but that is not representative of the abilities he’s displayed. Racing in F3 Italy since 2004, he made a switch to Euroseries 3000 in 2006 and contested every year of it, save for 2010. His 14 points is surely an improvement over the 1 point he accumulated in 2011, but that’s more likely due to the less competitive nature of the midfield. With this much experience in the series, he really should be performing much better. Season rating: 3
…22 Michele La Rosa
Italy, Team MLR71, age 41
After kicking off his single-seater career with a one-off weekend in the series last year, the Italian businessman was back for more with his own team. He wasn’t particularly close to the pace of the rest of the field, but wasn’t really getting in the way either and even managed to pick up some points in the later races. Sure, you could say guys like him shouldn’t take part in specifically junior series, but he did provide a car for Campana, so it’s all good in my book. Season rating: N/A
Many other drivers made one-off appearances over the year. Chinese youngster Adderly Fong raced at Monza (where he managed seventh in Race Two) and at Hungaroring, but only scored once. FR3.5 driver Yann Cunha was present at Valencia (where he failed to score) and at Marrakech (where he made up for that with a ninth and a sixth). Italian driver Matteo Beretta contested the first two rounds of the season, recording a DNS after qualifying in 14th and three finishes outside of the points. Austrian Peter Milavec raced at Valencia but was the last one to finish in both races. European F3 Open regular Juan Carlos Sistos recorded a ninth and a DNF during his appearance at Algarve. Rafael Suzuki, who mostly races in national F3 championships, was present at Curitiba, where he did quite well, finishing in seventh in Race One and in sixth in Race Two. Japanese part-time GP3 racer Kotaro Sakurai and British IndyCar hopeful Pippa Mann both contested the final round of the series at Sonoma, with Sakurai finishing seventh in Race One and retiring in Race Two, while Mann crossed the line in ninth and eighth respectively.