Home Featured The strange story of the support series that supported itself

The strange story of the support series that supported itself

by Elliot Wood

Photos: F2 Media Service / LAT Images

Formula 1’s Asian grands prix had a high-profile support series of their own between 2008 and 2010. Those support races continued for several years after that, just not in the way originally envisioned

To understand the story behind GP2, you need to understand that Formula 1’s former chief executive Bernie Ecclestone had his fingers in many pies. While Bruno Michel is the face commonly associated with GP2 and its successor Formula 2 today, it was in fact coined by Mr Ecclestone and former Renault F1 team boss Flavio Briatore (another man with many interests).

It aimed to be more cost-efficient for teams than its predecessor International Formula 3000 by being a totally spec series, but more importantly forming a synonymous relationship with F1 and basing itself almost entirely in its support paddock.

The long-established European grands prix were the obvious place to start when forming the GP2 calendar, as it picked up mostly from where F3000 had left off, was the cheapest arrangement for the all-European grid of teams and were circuits with years of experience and the best infrastructure to support multiple high-profile racing series on one weekend.

GP2 had two years of immediate success, with high-quality grids, big-name champions in Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and a car that was successfully tested to its limits mechanically (from the off as electrical problems afflicted the first ever event) and as a safety structure in a scary crash for EJ Viso at Magny-Cours in 2006.

Ecclestone expected nothing less than the series proving its credentials, and he even trademarked the GP1 name for a potential series as a result of its success. His eyes were on making money, and a new rival to his own F1 product would do him no good, especially when it was finally making inroads into the Asian market and aiming to expand its calendar.

But there was another single-seater series that had already cracked that continent though and its growing economies: A1GP.

The ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ invited the world’s nations to compete, very different to the eurocentric F1 and GP2 paddocks, with 25 countries from all six habitable continents competing in the first season in 2005; the same year GP2 was born. A1GP raced on five continents that campaign, although its return to China in 2006 on the streets of Beijing was an embarrassment.

Despite that ill-fated trip, and a slow-burn on marketing and broadcast deals, A1GP had done a better job than F1 in making Asia viable. But the series existed on shaky financial ground, and Ecclestone saw his chance to take up the mantle with an entity of his own. He had always been looking east when it came to new avenues for profit, as far back as the 1980s when he pushed to get F1 to race behind the Iron Curtain on a Hungarian street circuit, realised instead with the creation of the Hungaroring. His first ventures into Asia with the world championship were Malaysia (1999), Bahrain and China (both 2004).

Rather than base a global series in Asia, Ecclestone knew to engage with that audience directly it needed an F1-endorsed series of its own. The races could run on F1’s support bill for several rounds, then probe some of Ecclestone’s (paying) target countries for F1 with the rest of its calendar. He wanted Asian drivers in the series too, primarily for marketing reasons. Local drivers would attract more trackside fans and more television deals (the rights all owned by Formula One Management), and the hope was that enthusiasm would then bleed into F1 despite the lack of local representation.

Ecclestone’s plan went public in early 2007, with rumours having already been swirling that he wanted GP2 to trial the winter racing format that A1GP had successfully used. After all, F1 teams testing during that time didn’t bring him in any money.

The teams that signed up for the inaugural GP2 Asia season in 2008, 12 from the main series and one from Malaysia in Meritus (now behind F4 South East Asia), were all asked to field a driver from outside of Europe and the Americas.

Excluding Russia and established racing nation Japan, there were six Asian drivers on the ’08 grid. One of those, Karun Chandhock, actually went on to race in F1 and was a race-winner in GP2. Four of the others also racked up main series experience, although admittedly Chinese star Ho-Pin Tung was half-Dutch and two of the drivers – Adam Khan and Jason Tahinci – were born in Britain.

The United Arab Emirates held two rounds to warm up for its F1 hosting duties, and its season two slot had the unexpected drama of floods in the desert. Rain had already caused havoc in the other ‘exploratory’ round in 2008, when changing weather and a deteriorating track surface at Sentul in Indonesia required teams to equip cars with protective devices for wings.

Bahrain, Chinese and Malaysian GP support slots featured in 2008, with Qatar joining the fray as a standalone event in 2009. The Middle Eastern nation wanted to join the F1 fray, and had waited for its Bahrain neighbour’s exclusivity clause for the region to expire before putting its cards on the table – with a night race – in GP2. Ecclestone never signed a deal.

There were seven drivers from the east in the 2008-09 season, with two Kiwi talents proving the best. Bahraini F3 graduate Hamad Al Fardan was next best, while the others did not score. The teams with all-Western line-ups had to concede eligibility for prize money with one of their drivers -? a way of Ecclestone avoiding paying out for teams not enhancing the brand.

While the main series had already moved on to a second generation car, GP2 Asia used 2005’s Dallara GP2/05 through to its 2009-10 season and that limited its relevance when A1GP was boosting its reputation with a Ferrari partnership and Formula Renault 3.5 increasingly became seen as a series of equal pedigree to GP2 when it came to being the final step before F1.

Not a single Asian driver raced in 2009-10, although Meritus ended its time in the series with a first win. It had no intention to race in the main series and therefore didn’t enter the 2011 Asian season, where the Dallara GP2/11 was introduced.

GP2’s new teams now saw the Asian championship as a way of getting a head start, but their plans were curtailed by a later start date (so the new car could be delivered to all 13 teams), anti-government protests in Bahrain cancelling two rounds through force majeure among themselves, and the cars then being stuck in Bahrain. An unusual standalone event at Imola concluded the season.

Criticism had already come in for the series essentially moving entirely to the Middle East, with the 2009 Malaysian GP slot being the last race in the Far East. But there was some nice symmetry in that GP2 Asia ended at the same circuit GP2 began.

Except GP2 Asia didn’t actually end in Northern Italy in March 2011, with a rather incomplete aim of bringing in new names, tracks and teams to the main GP2 series and F1. It actually kept on going under a different name.

While the mess of the Bahrain cancellations was being sorted, GP2 organiser Bruno Michel was already well into planning the next season, which would return to the two-year winter format now it wasn’t acting as a test bed for a new car. The Abu Dhabi GP was certainly going to appear, but there was not a single rumour about supporting Ecclestone’s new races in Korea and India. Michel admitted he wanted a Bahrain return, despite the continuing civil disruption and general frustrations at racing in a desert in front of empty stands. The teams saw limited commercial gain in spending their winter racing there.

As expected, that was the calendar, with a return to Malaysia’s Sepang circuit with the F1 circus even being added. But with the line-up of teams being the same in both series, and those teams wanting to hire the same drivers for both such was the competitiveness in the main championship, Michel decided in mid-2011 to put the two series together for the next year.

The GP2 Asia season opener in Abu Dhabi instead became the 2011 GP2 Final, won by Racing Engineering’s Fabio Leimer. The Spanish team had avoided GP2 Asia while the old car was in use, freeing up the spots that enabled Meritus to race.

In December 2011 the calendar for 2012 was revealed, with Sepang as season opener, and the two Bahrain dates penned for the Asian series now acting as rounds two and three before the cars were shipped back to Europe. A surprising addition at the end of the year was a support slot at the Singapore GP, and no appearance of Abu Dhabi.

The standalone Bahrain event was dropped in 2013 to regain Abu Dhabi, with Malaysia and Singapore departing in 2014 in a cost saving measure that introduced a Russian GP support slot in Sochi instead. Continuing with the GP2/11, rather than bringing in a new car, also saved money but rising budgets and the short shelf live of F1’s new Asian races showed that a series based solely in the East may not have lasted long on its own anyway. Ecclestone even contemplated an active return, in response to the rising costs, by entering a team under his ownership.

In 2015 the German GP fell off the F1 calendar too, and GP2 kept its calendar at 11 rounds by supporting the World Endurance Championship in Bahrain late in the year. It also strengthened its F1 relevance by adding the Drag Reduction System.

A reshuffle of F1’s own calendar for 2016 then put GP2 in a tricky situation for maintaining a pre-season, with returns to Germany and Malaysia in the second half of the year replacing Bahrain and Russia. The European GP’s revival on the Baku street circuit in Azerbaijan, very much a Eurasian location, added another long-term venue for the series.

Bahrain returned again in 2017 as the 9950km trip to Malaysia was dropped and the series was renamed F2.

Formula Scout poses the question of what if GP2 had continued with the Asian series as a winnable title within the series? Euroformula did the same for many years with Spanish Formula 3 after outgrowing its domestic roots, and any extra prizes for drivers to win is always an incentive for entries. Even Formula E ran a ‘European Races Cup’ in-season last year.

For FS’s calculations, each of these subsequent Asian seasons have taken place in one calendar year, meaning they take Asian races from the start and end of each GP2 season. As a result, a separate ‘main series’ can also be calculated.

The first change is in 2013, where Russian Time’s Sam Bird would have comfortably been ‘main series’ champion rather than Racing Engineering’s Leimer, and down in sixth for the eight-race Asian season. Carlin’s Jolyon Palmer was Leimer’s closest opposition in the East, and he finished second again to ART Grand Prix rookie Stoffel Vandoorne a year later.

Prema’s Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi had to share the titles in 2016, with the latter claiming the Asian crown. The Italian team was unbeaten again in 2017, with Charles Leclerc taking both titles. His DAMS rival Oliver Rowland suffered from a disqualification in the short Asian season and ended up sixth in the points, behind his team-mate Nicholas Latifi. Alex Albon, 10th in the main series after missing a round through injury, was a far more representative fourth in Asia for ART.

The Thai driver, who made it to a Red Bull Racing seat as a F1 rookie last year, is the most high profile Asian driver who’s raced in GP2/F2 since Chandhock almost a decade before. In total 16 drivers with Asian licenses, excluding Japan and Russia but including New Zealand, competed in the main GP2 series from 2005 to ’17, and an equivalent 12 drivers in GP2 Asia.

Only seven GP2 Asia events were F1 supports; 10 were standalone events, six of which at non-F1 circuits. If current F1 owner Liberty Media wanted to revive the idea of an Asian support series, then it needs to learn where GP2 Asia failed.

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