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“Drivers of 2014: Esteban Ocon”

Ocon took the European F3 title early. © FIA F3 Media services.

Ocon took the European F3 title early. © FIA F3 Media services.

Max Verstappen may have stolen all the headlines thanks to his quick promotion to Formula One, but there is little doubt that FIA European F3 champion Esteban Ocon was the star of the series this year.

From the moment the teenager tested with Prema Powerteam last September, the was a feeling that the championship might be coming Ocon’s way.

That he was able to deliver the title with three races to spare (and could arguably have done it earlier) while up against such competition as Verstappen and the experienced Tom Blomqvist was impressive.
After a year in Formula Renault 2.0, Ocon reveled in the similar feel delivered by the new Formula 3 engine, transmission and electronics package and the French teen made his mark early on by taking five wins in the first twelve races.

More impressive was Ocon’s consistency, which involved regular podium visits when things weren’t going right. Indeed during a “dry spell” over the fifth and sixth rounds, Ocon still took four 2nd place finishes. It was necessary – in those two rounds, Verstappen took six consecutive victories, giving some temporary life to the championship fight.

A perfect weekend at Moscow Raceway solidified his charge once again and apart from a blip at the Red Bull Ring, Ocon’s late season run was all about delivering that title as promised pre-season.
His relief at securing the championship at Imola was plain to see, but with two guest rounds of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in the bag courtesy of Gravity Sports Management, it was clear that Ocon’s attention was already focusing very much on the future.

The only criticism that could be laid at Ocon’s door is that he is never always the best at fighting through fields, although in saying, he rarely ever had. Tests with the Lotus and Ferrari Formula One teams and a possible GP2 drive are very much deserved – in this tall teenager, Lotus have a potential star.

“Drivers of 2014: Jolyon Palmer”

Palmer was GP2 champion a round as early as Sochi. © Charles Coates/GP2 Series Media Service.

Palmer was GP2 champion a round as early as Sochi. © Charles Coates/GP2 Series Media Service.

There is little doubt that Jolyon Palmer was the deserved victor of the GP2 Series this year. Just when the 23-year-old really needed to step up, he did so and in a stylish manner, putting soon-to-be Formula One debutante Felipe Nasr in the shade for much of the season.

Yet if Palmer’s campaign did not necessarily mark him out as the next big thing – this was his fourth year in GP2 after all – it did confirm the conversion of a once gangly, quick but uncomfortable Palmer into an assured, confident racer, who had finally found his qualifying pace.

While Palmer has improved his single-lap pace, he was probably still not the absolute fastest raw driver in GP2. In terms of being the out-and-out best driver on the grid, the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne and Raffaele Marciello will most likely outshine him.
But what Palmer did manage – and this was very impressive – was his experience, natural abilities and intelligence to create a championship programme that stifled the opposition early doors.

The efforts of DAMS cannot be understated either. The French squad has proven incredibly successful in GP2 during recent seasons, with Palmer securing their 3rd driver’s crown, while DAMS took their 2nd teams’ crown. DAMS and Palmer appeared to gel instantly and from their first victory together in the Sprint race at Bahrain, they rarely looked back.

That Palmer’s chief rival, Nasr, appeared to sleepwalk through the opening round didn’t help the Brazilian’s charge. Nasr eventually picked up his first series win in Spain and continued to look strong intermittently – picking up further victories in Austria, Britain and Belgium – however there were simply too many anonymous days. Nasr’s non-defence against Palmer during the Sprint Race in Hungary said everything about the direction of the championship.

Up until Monza, Palmer had only taken two race wins, but it was his consistency that kept him close to the top all year. In twenty-two races, the Briton was on the podium thirteen times – precious few other competitors came close to matching that.
At Monza, Nasr failed to convert Palmer’s exclusion from qualifying into a meaningful result. In fact, where Palmer started from the pitlane, he notched up an 8th and then a Sprint race win, while Nasr managed two 6th place finishes from 7th and 3rd…
Another win for Palmer in Sochi sealed the deal three races early, while Nasr took a qualifying penalty and a pair of drive through penalties in the Russian Feature.

Alas, Palmer is looking like becoming the third consecutive GP2 Series champion to not progress to Formula One; however such was the length of time it took for Palmer to truly emerge, the Briton was always likely to have trouble finding a drive at the top level in 2015.

“Drivers of 2014: Roberto Merhi”

Merhi took 3 wins on his return to single-seaters. © Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI / Renault Sport Media.

Merhi took 3 wins on his return to single-seaters. © Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI / Renault Sport Media.

When Roberto Merhi was cut loose from the Mercedes DTM team at the end of the 2013 season, the Spaniard was left facing a bleak future.

Some post-season tests gave Merhi options for the year, but when the 23-year-old joined the small Zeta Corse team, precious little was expected. That he took three victories on the way to 3rd in the championship upon his return to single-seaters displays just how close motorsport came to losing an excellent talent.

A podium in the opening race at Monza was something of a false dawn and Merhi spent the following two race weekends in the lower reaches of the points, before a pointless trip to Spa-Francorchamps in May left the Castellón native far adrift of the championship leaders.

The season began to turn around come the season halfway point at Moscow Raceway, as a succession of tight and twisty tracks played to Zeta Corse’s favour. Truth be told, the upturn in results had as much to do with Merhi’s abilities as it had with Zeta Corse’s growth in confidence.
In just their 2nd season, the Russian team were finally beginning to dial into the technicalities of the series; however their run began to falter as the series transferred to the quicker Paul Ricard circuit in September.

Merhi still held an outside shot of the title going into the final round in Jerez, but it required the Spaniard to victorious in both races, with points leader (and eventual champion) Carlos Sainz Jr scoring virtually nothing. Once again, the speed of the Jerez made Merhi’s efforts difficult, but a crash in the opening race put the result beyond doubt.
A further retirement in the season finale only served to drop Merhi to 3rd in the standings when the ever-consistent Pierre Gasly jumped him following a fine debut season in the category.

Yet Merhi might still consider this a reasonably successful effort, considering his brief thoughts of retiring from motorsport altogether at the beginning of the year. While no championship title, Merhi’s career does seem to be getting back on track, although where the Spaniard goes next remains to be seen.

“Drivers of 2014: Alex Lynn”

Lynn led the GP3 standings for the duration. © Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.

Lynn led the GP3 standings for the duration. © Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.

Dean Stoneman’s inability to secure pole position for the GP3 Series season finale in Abu Dhabi may have given Alex Lynn the title in a less than satisfactory style, but there is little doubt that the Briton was a convincing champion.

Indeed Lynn’s efforts over the course of the nine-round European and Middle East adventure were such that the Carlin man took the crown with an air of expectation.
The only surprise was that Lynn still had a challenger coming into Abu Dhabi.

It could be argued that the championship should have been put beyond any reach in Sochi, but Lynn’s almost blasé run through the penultimate weekend kept the door open – just a touch – for Stoneman to still have a chance.

Realistically the damage had been done in the opening portion of the season. Pole, fastest lap and the race win in the season’s first race in Barcelona in May gave Lynn a points lead that he would never give-up.
Another pole, win and fastest lap in race one in Austria four weeks later should have been enough to put Lynn on course for a dominant campaign, but his inability to deliver in Sunday’s reverse grid races on a consistent basis held him back.

At the same time, part of the blame could also be laid at the door of the GP3/13, the modifications to which made overtaking incredibly difficult, unless tyre problems became an issue.

While Lynn struggled to deliver victories following Austria, he did continue to collect podiums and points on a regular basis – allotting to secure solid numbers rather than risk crashing and emerging from a weekend empty handed – before eventually taking a reverse grid win at Spa in August.
Five podiums alongside his three victories certainly helped Lynn’s cause, but the lack of a regular challenger throughout the season played in his hands. While the points leader continued to pick up scores, Marvin Kirchhöfer, Jimmy Eriksson, Richie Stanaway and Emil Bernstorff all took race wins, but also endured numerous blank patches where the campaigns fell to nothing.

There is little doubt that Lynn is a very good talent, but it would be far more convincing if he were more aggressively challenged for the top spot and while the 21-year-old spoke of making the jump to F1 this summer, it is understandable that Red Bull may wish to place the Essex man in a championship that will deliver more persistent opposition.

“Drivers of 2014: Lewis Hamilton”

Hamilton with Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. © MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team.

Hamilton with Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. © MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team.

It is incredibly difficult to fault much of Lewis Hamilton’s world championship winning performance in 2014.

Now a seemingly far more mature animal than the man who claimed a first title in 2008, Hamilton surged to win eleven of the nineteen Grand Prix; however the Briton was kept in check for the duration by championship rival and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

Like last year, the 2014 season showed Hamilton and Rosberg were far closer in terms of performance than initially expected, but with the distinct advantage held by the W05 machine, the stakes grew significantly.

Many commentators expected Hamilton to ratchet up the poles, with Rosberg playing the intelligent racer. That the opposite became the norm gave a glimpse into how Hamilton has developed since his early days at McLaren.
But maybe perhaps we should not have been surprised. When partnered by Jenson Button at the Woking squad for three seasons from 2010, Hamilton then surprised critics as he displayed an ability to manage initially the strong Bridgestone’s and then the ultra delicate Pirelli tyres with aplomb.

With such consistency and maturity, it is no surprise that of all the sixteen races that Hamilton finished, he was never once off the podium. There were even a pair of 3rd place finishes when starting toward the back in Germany and Hungarian following a car problems.
Additional mechanical failures Melbourne and Montreal took the Briton out of both races while Rosberg scored big, doing much to put Hamilton under pressure.

Without doubt, the nadir of Hamilton’s season came at Spa-Francorchamps, when a contentious clash between he and Rosberg at the entry into Les Combes on lap two punctured the former’s left rear tyre.
It was a clumsy error on Rosberg’s part; although those with agendas still contend it was a deliberate action, but Hamilton’s desire to push hard back to the pits as a quickly as possible only served to add damage to his Mercedes.

From there, the season was dominated by Hamilton. Six wins in the final seven races – including a string of five victories from Monza to Austin – put the title well beyond Rosberg, although the latter’s mechanical issues in the Abu Dhabi finale made it a foregone conclusion regardless.

There are those who may point to W05 as being the dominant reason for Hamilton’s 2nd title, but that would be churlish.
Hamilton will turn 30-years-old next year and as he hits his stride, this success could potentially lay the foundations for a period of dominance similar to that experienced by Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher in recent years.

“Drivers of 2014: Pierre Gasly”

Gasly's star shun at Arden. © Photo Gregory Lenormand / DPPI / Renault Sport Media

Gasly’s star shun at Arden. © Photo Gregory Lenormand / DPPI / Renault Sport Media

From the moment Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly secured a podium at the Formula Renault 3.5 season opener at Monza, there was a instant feeling that the drinks manufacturer had bagged another future star.

Yet for Gasly, while 2014 would prove to be a positive year in one sense, in another it was disappointing. Or maybe frustrating is a better description.

During a late season charge, the French teenager claimed the runner-up spot at the Jerez finale ahead of Spanish rival Roberto Merhi – helped when Merhi was taken out – however he may rue having not won a race throughout the campaign.
There was often a sense that Gasly was there or thereabouts, but for every 2nd place finish (there were six of them), the Arden International racer was pipped by eventual champion Carlos Sainz Jr, Merhi or Oliver Rowland.

Add two 3rd places into the mix and you have a season record that is nothing to sniff at, but it was becoming clearer as the season drew to a close that the lack of a race win was playing on his mind. “We lost too many points early in the season to be as much of a threat to Carlos for the championship,” said the 18-year-old. Gasly added: “The points [scored] in the second half showed what we could do and I am sure everything I learnt this season will be a big help for my career.”

Despite the lack of a victory, Gasly still viewed the eventual season outcome as a positive one. “It has been a great season, a lot of work from everyone. It certainly wasn’t easy but the guys gave me a great car all year and enabled me to really show what I could do. It was fantastic support and I learnt so much this season. I was racing against people with a lot more experience and we made it a great year, consistently good results, often on the podium.”

Meanwhile, Gasly also joined the troubled Caterham Racing Team in the GP2 Series for the final three rounds, but circumstances played against the French teen. It is believed that Gasly will switch to the GP2 Series full-time in 2015 as Red Bull look like making a return proper to the Formula One weekend feeder.

“Drivers of 2014: Fernando Alonso”

Alonso endured a tough 2014 with Ferrari. © Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team.

Alonso endured a tough 2014 with Ferrari. © Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team.

Given the nature of the Ferrari F14T machine, it is a wonder that Fernando Alonso managed two podiums on his way to 6th in the Formula One World Championship.

In what was on paper a barren year by his standards, the Spaniard consistently wrestled dragged top performances scoring a pair of top-four’s early on; however it was at the third round in Bahrain that the true qualities – or lack thereof – of the F14T became clear.

Under Middle Eastern lights, Alonso just about secured a finish inside the top ten, but it was clear for all to see that the double-world champion was never going to be in a position to repeat the heroics, as delivered from 2010-13.
Despite this, the 33-year-old persevered to secure a brilliant podium finish in China and followed that up with six more points finish, before taking his second and final podium just prior to the summer break in Hungary.

The Italian squad only fell further backward once the season reconvened at the tail end of August. There was one 4th place in Singapore, but beyond that Alonso was left to battle for a mixture of 6th’s and 7th’s, while others around them improved. One final 9th place classification in Abu Dhabi brought the half-decade Ferrari dream to an ignominious end.
Admittedly, there were times when one wondered if Alonso was truly delivering his finest. Several years of persistent disappointments at Ferrari would sap many a competitive soul, but even if there were occasional “lapses”, the 33-year-old still maintained a higher rate performance than many of his peers.

One sensed through the year Alonso’s growing frustration, as the frailties of the F14T became more apparent and as the year developed, it became clear that the relationship had fractured permanently.
Come the end of Abu Dhabi, the Spaniard were circumspect in his analysis. “Today, my time with Ferrari comes to an end, as does a very tricky season, in which, even if we were unable to do much against the technical dominance of our rivals.
“After five years it’s not easy to say farewell to a team with which I have grown so much over the past five years, both as a driver and as a person. I thank all the Ferraristi for their support. I will miss the team, the fans and Italy.”

Of course, one should never say never. Next year, the Spaniard returns to Woking and to McLaren from whom he endured a very public divorce in 2007. This time he returns at the behest of McLaren’s new engine partner, Honda, and with a rejuvenated Jenson Button as his teammate.

“Smooth Operator”

© Leigh O'Gorman

© Leigh O’Gorman

With his outwardly laconic nature, one might be forgiven for thinking Tom Blomqvist approach ill-suited to the higher reaches of motorsport.

Yet when properly supported, the English-born ‘Son of Stig’ is no slouch behind the wheel. Taking the runner-up spot in the FIA European F3 Championship behind Esteban Ocon and ahead of Max Verstappen was no mean feat.

Blomqvist is quick – of that, there is little doubt – but with stints in the McLaren and Red Bull junior programmes now lagging deep in his history, delivering on the future was always going to be a tough ask.

A move to Carlin with the (huge) support of Far East fast food merchants Jagonya Ayam helped a lot and after two occasionally tricky years in European F3 behind him, 2014 needed to count.

Winning the opener at Silverstone helped and Blomqvist added several more victories before the race was out. And he was leading on the opening lap at Macau until a clash with Ocon resulted in a massive shunt took them – and many others – out in spectacular fashion.

Blomqvist recently tested DTM machinery with BMW and while the German tourer series may not be immediately on the horizon, the 21-year-old has earned his shot at professional motorsport.

“Thoughts on the 2015 GP2 Series calendar”

GP2 will end in Abu Dhabi next November. © Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.

GP2 will end in Abu Dhabi next November. © Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.

There were precious few surprises to be found in the GP2 Series calendar for 2015 – and to be fair, none were expected.

As per usual, the series will play support to Formula One, but that has always been the case and it cites it as one of its major selling points.

And while that is perfectly fine in itself for much of the season, it also presents its own set of problems.

In following Formula One so rigidly, there are a few unfortunately gaps in the calendar, starting with the four-week break between Monaco and Austria, which is in place as F1 visits Canada.

Later, after the summer holiday break between the Hungarian and Belgian rounds, the series and its competitors are faced with another two lengthy gaps as Formula One leaves Europe for the Far East, Americas and then back to the Middle East.

On the face of it, that might not mean much, but at the business end to a championship, five and six week gaps between the final three rounds present a break of momentum that can easily derail a campaign.
This was not as big an issue this year, as both the GP2 and GP3 series’ were as good as wrapped up come Monza, but one must not underestimate how such a break could potentially crack a run of results.

There are solutions, but few are realistic. Preventing these gaps by ending the season after Monza would drastically shorten the calendar and weaken the series in the eyes of competitors. Unfortunately the loss of some European rounds in recent years makes it almost impossible to keep the championship within the boundaries of continent, while adding the likes of Singapore back onto the schedule would merely increase the costs of competing beyond reason.

Standalone events are also out of the question, as the costs of running a single event and presenting it as a live television broadcast to FOM standards is simply prohibitive. That would merely be a last gasp measure and the series is nowhere near contemplating that.

Alas, what exists now is probably the best solution available.

“GP2 Series unveil 2015 calendar and teams”

GP2 testing begins in Abu Dhabi in March, with the season concluding there too. © Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.

GP2 testing begins in Abu Dhabi in March, with the season concluding there too. © Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.

The GP2 Series announced its 2015 season calendar during the week, with the Formula One support class revealing a mostly consistent schedule.

As with this year, the championship will be made up of eleven rounds, beginning in Bahrain in April and following Formula One through the European season, before drawing to a close at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next November.

The only question mark at this point lies with the eventual venue of the German Grand Prix, as ongoing financial and ownership issues at the Nürburgring continue to plague with the classic arena.

Unfortunately due to nature of the Formula One calendar, sizeable gaps remain between the Italian and Russian events (five weeks) and the Russian and Abu Dhabi finale (six weeks).

There are to be two pre-season tests – firstly at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi from March 9th-11th, followed then by three days at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain in early April.

Also, the GP2 Series formally announced the teams that will be competing in 2015; however the only change to this year is the already announced departure of Caterham Racing who have been replaced by Status Grand Prix.

2015 GP2 Series calendar
March 9-11:      Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi
April 1-3:       Sakhir, Bahrain
Race Events
April 17-19:     Sakhir, Bahrain
May 8-10:        Barcelona, Spain
May 21-23:       Monte Carlo, Monaco 
June 19-21:      Red Bull Ring, Austria
July 3-5:        Silverstone, UK
July 17-19:      (tbc venue), Germany
July 24-26:      Budapest, Hungary
August 21-23:    Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
September 4-6:   Monza, Italy
October 9-11:    Sochi, Russia
November 27-29:  Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi

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