Montmeló wrap-up… see you at Montmeló

Yesterday’s test at Montmeló wraps up the pre-season testing for the GP2 Main Series.  No more testing, except Friday practice during race weekends.  A few new conclusions to make:

– Alvaro Parente confirms he is very much at ease at this track.  He won his maiden race in GP2 last year here.  Also to note that his performance is a strong testament of the good shape of the BCN Competición cars acquired a couple of months ago.  Could he win Ocean’s first race in GP2 Main?

– Javi Villa continues to show good test form, much like previous years.  Super Nova teammate Luca Filippi has also had a solid pre-season, a start that points for some optimism in David Sears’ team.  Surprise team in 2009?

– The 2 ART drivers (and cars) are not shining as expected.  Both Maldonado and Hulkenberg have been in and out of the top 10, finishing 10th and 17th respectively on the timesheets after all 3 days in Barcelona.  Excessive confidence?

– Lucas DiGrassi is starting off 2009 where he left off 2008.  He is clearly the favourite for the driver’s title and has shown his speed and leadership at both pre-season tests.   Anyone betting against him?  (see the polls on the blog)

-Romain Grosjean doesn’t seem his usual self at Barwa Addax.  Where in 2008 he was the only focus of ART’s attention, to the detriment of Luca Filippi, at Barwa he has to share protagonism with team veteran Vitaly Petrov.  Unhappy already?

-The so-called “GP2 Backmarkers” are just where they should be – at the end, with few exceptions shining through: Parente and Valsecchi who are the only race-winning hope for this group of teams.  Who will not make it to the end of the season?

So we have a bit over a month ahead of us to wait and see these cars in action again at Montmeló, only this time racing for real.  1 seat still available at DPR and 2 seats at Trident.  I will follow closely and comment on rumours regarding who may fill these seats.

Where’s Red Bull in 2009?

Missing from the 2009 grid in the GP2 Main Series is sponsor Red Bull.  This Austrian energy drink giant has been present in the category since its inception in 2005, supporting drivers such as Scott Speed, Sebastien Buemi, Neel Jani, Adrian Zaugg and Michael Ammermuller.  Red Bull has also been the team sponsor for Arden since 2005, but  dropped out at the end of the previous season.

So, why does a firm such as Red Bull – so committed to sports (especially extreme ones), suddenly drop out of GP2?  They have successfully directly sent Speed and Buemi to F1, as well as indirectly supporting Heikki Kovalainen through its Arden sponsorship.  Their track record seems reasonably positive.GP2 Series

Many would probably guess that this withdrawal is a result of the current financial climate.  But with 2 F1 teams and a significant investment in racing at other (lower) levels, this does not sound coherent.

The only answer I can think of is Red Bull’s traditional philosophy of rotation and renovation.  Many team owners will agree with me that the program’s director, Dr. Helmut Marko, likes to switch regularly, regardless of the success or track record of the team.  Red Bull has been in GP2 since 2005 and possibly 2009 looked like a good time to get out.

The Red Bull Junior Team program may be undergoing some renovation itself, and is now focusing on F2 with 3 drivers (big mistake) and some emerging talent in F3 and Formula Renault.  The only exception is British F3 champ Jaime Alguersuari, who has elected to go to WSR and bypass GP2.  Let’s see if in 2010 drivers such as Brandon Hartley or Alguersuari could see themselves in a GP2 car with Red Bull backing.

Parente’s sponsors

Pictures emerging from Tuesday’s GP2 test at Montmeló show the ORT car driven by Alvaro Parente with some sponsorship:

– Energy drink Soccerade is prominent on the engine cover.  This Icelandic company already supported Alvaro’s 2008 season with Super Nova and continues.  I need to investigate the Portuguese/Brazilian link with this firm, since they have Parente’s fellow countryman Cristiano Ronaldo (aka CR7) as their brand ambassador.  Also, Felipe Massa’s drink bottle is sponsored by Soccerade…. not a coincidence.

– The Portimao circuit is now featured on the sidepods, both on Parente’s and  Karun Chandhok’s car.  ORT is based at Portimao, so it seems fitting that some sorparente-montmelot of alliance comes out of their collective interests.

– Portuguese mobile operator TMN (Portugal Telecom) is just under the cockpit, and may be the Portuguese sponsor that Tiago Monteiro had promised.  By their location on the bodywork, it does not seem like a deal worth much money, though at this stage every little bit helps.

– The red triangle logo just below the cockpit belongs to Delta Cafes, a Portuguese distributor of coffee to restaurants and bars.  Again, the logo size points that it’s not a relevant sponsor, but at least more cash to support Parente’s season.

Maybe with this new blood in the team, Parente’s budget could help ORT approach breakeven for 2009.  Like I said before, Monteiro could be wishing he had waited to take over BCN Competición last November.

Montmeló – Day 1 results

The usual suspects on top of the time sheets at the Barcelona circuit on Day 1 of the final pre-season tests.   Alvaro Parente, winner of the feature race here in 2008 with Super Nova, was fastest in the morning session and ended up with the 2nd fastest time overall.  A good result for Ocean, who no doubt had this type of results in mind when signing up Parente (with a limited budget, no doubt).    Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio also put it a good showing today, putting his DAMS GP2 ahead of many favourites such as Maldonado, Hulkenberg or Grosjean.  The French Barwa Campos driver had serious problems finding the right setup, completing a total of 46 laps but ending up 19th in both test sessions.

The trend of seeing “temporary drivers” at the bottom continues, with Rigon, Jakes and Teixeira closing out the list (alongside a very slow Luiz Razia).  As opposed to the Paul Ricard test, all these drivers completed a good set of laps – the only exception being DPR’s Jakes during the morning session (8 laps).

Weather in Barcelona tomorrow should be equally good for the teams, as they prepare for the final 2 days of testing.

Summary of Day 1:

1. Lucas DiGrassi: 1’27″471

2. Alvaro Parente: 1’27″733

3. Jerome d’Ambrosio: 1’27″854

4. Vitaly Petrov: 1’27″897

5. Pastor Maldonado: 1’27″936

6. Nico Hulkenberg: 1’27″973

7. Javier Villa: 1’28″036

8. Davide Valsecchi: 1’28″077

9. Roldan Rodriguez: 1’28″123

10. Kamui Kobayashi: 1’28″159

Montmeló preview: 3 seats left

At this second test we have 1 more seat officially filled.  Nelson Panciatici has been confirmed according to Italiaracing by Durango.  He will now officially drive with this team after the test held 2 weeks ago at Paul Ricard.  I wonder about Panciatici’s budget, but drivers with at least a partial budget (€400-500k) now find themselves in a good bargaining position to sit in a GP2 car for the 2009 Main Series season.

This leaves only the 2 seats at Trident and 1 seat at DPR pending an official driver confirmation.  For the Montmeló test, DPR is showing up with James Jakes, a well-funded driver coming off a dismal F3 Euroseries season (13th place, 1 win) who is also contesting the GP2 Asia Series, but with Super Nova.

Meanwhile Trident will repeat with Davide Rigon, who will hopefully begin to perform in GP2, and incorporates Angolan driver Ricardo Teixeira, backed by national oil firm Sonangol.   Not sure what is going on behind the scenes at the Milanese team, but when Hamad Al Fardan seemed a sure bet, another emerging-market driver comes along.  No doubt Salvadori’s team is looking to make some income from the pre-seasontests, given the signing of a funded driver seems more remote every day.  My guess is a Teixeria-Al Fardan lineup would be a saviour for Trident, though just in the short-term since it would condemn them to the bottom of the team standings and significantly lower their “status” in the category.  2009 will be a long season for Trident and its already shaky finances.

Teams (part III): the GP2 backmarkers

After the GP2 Stars and the Survivors, come the 5 other teams that in my estimation will be hard-pressed to finish the 2009 season without incurring serious financial troubles.  Apart from the hemorrhage the GP2 Asia Series is causing (to be addressed in a separate future post), these 5 teams are consistently at the bottom and fighting for the budgets (usually partial) of midfield drivers and occasional newcomers with funding.

  • FMS/Coloni: Probably the most consistent team in GP2, though unfortunately consistently poor.  Apart from a 5th place finish in 2006 with Pantano, they have been 9th or 10th every season.  Even after the branding push from Giancarlo Fisichella, the team has failed to raise its game.  For 2009 they have GP2 veteran (and eternal promise) Andy Zuber, with a partial season budget that I estimate around €600k – from Dominator yachts. FMS has also signed up well-funded Luiz Razia, who stays “with the family” after contesting the Euroseries 3000 organised by raziaColoni (though he ran with Ernesto Catella’s team).  Razia probably brings in a bit more than Zuber (estimated €800k max), putting FMS about €400-500k shy of a breakeven season.  I doubt, Zuber will  make it through the season, so I’m sure Enzo Coloni is looking for some cash for mid-season onwards.  Maybe F3000 sponsor PartyPoker can fill in the gap?
  • Trident:  The “newest” team in GP2, joining in 2006, Trident started off strong and has trailed off since then.  After winning its 3rd race in GP2 with Gianmaria Bruni, Trident has won a total of 5 races.  Trident, along with ART and Arden, is the only team to win at least 1 race in every season it has contested.  Regarding 2009, not much to say except that team owner Maurizio Salvadori must be in serious trouble.  He has yet to find even 1 funded driver for the season – even a mediocre one.  Trident showed up at Paul Ricard with Davide Rigon (great driver, no budget) and Hamad Al Fardan (apparently funded).  Al-Fardan seems to have the  budget, though something is happening behind the scenes to slow down his confirmation. He is running the GP2 Asia Series with iSport and by now was expected to have a confirmed seat for the Main Series. Maybe budget is an issue for his sponsor, Gulf Finance House, given that the gap between Asia and Main is a substantial amount (between €500k and €700k higher).  We’ll have to wait until the tests at Montmelo for an update.  2009 will be a terrible season for Trident economically, and no doubt a top candidate in the “for sale” category.
  • Ocean:  Even as the only team not to win a GP2 race (under the BCN Competicion banner), Ocean still has  better team standings stats than Durango and DPR.   Tiago Monteiro  will have a rude awakening in the glamorous world of GP2 ownership.  Monteiro has yet to announce a title sponsor to support his signing of national talent Alvaro Parente (Galp?).  Parente is a GP2 race winner, but lacks the full budget for a GP2 season.  Teammate Karun Chandhok, another GP2 veteran is still India’s hope for their next F1 driver.  With cash from Punj Lloyd and Amaron, plus maybe a partial budget from Parente – Ocean may reach the €1.2 million mark.  Without a title sponsor to kick in at least €600 to 700k, Ocean will find that GP2 is indeed a tough business.
  • Durango: An ex-F3000 team, Durango has a long and storied history led by Ivone Pinton, though their trek through GP2 has seen them consistently languish at the bottom.  After starting off strong with a win from Clivio Piccione in the feature race at Nurburgring in 2005, Durango has seen few happy days.  Except for 2007, when some consistency from Borja Garcia landed the team 8th in the team standings, they have always failed to make the top 10.  2008 ended strong with a win from Davide Valsecchi, driver who is staying on and should be competitive, now backed by Renault’s RDD programme.  The second seat is still vacant and was filled by Spanish F3 runner-up Nelson Panciatici.  Pending this confirmation, Durango will no doubt have a troubled 2009 season financially.  Probably another team to add to the “for sale” list as the seasomichael_herck_2008_gp2_magny-cours1n drags on.
  • DPR:  Though consistently at the back, DPR enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame with 2 wins from Olivier Pla in 2005 (both sprint races).  Since then, DPR has suffered through the Direxiv debacle and David Price (the “DP” in DPR) has sold a majority stake to businessman Andre Herck.  With son Michael at the wheel of the first car, DPR still has no second driver.  Giacomo Ricci filled in at Paul Ricard but I would be surprised to see him piece together a full 2009 budget.  DPR will suffer in 2009, though it’s probably not the first year for them.

Teams (part II): the GP2 Survivors

After the top 4 teams in GP2 come what I would call the “survivors”.  They are survivors because they fight year after year – sometimes even every half-year – for their drivers and their budget.  Some years they make money or break-even, while others they lose a bit of money.

The GP2 Survivors:

  • Arden:  Coming off a 2003 and 2004 championship in International Fsperez3000, Christian Horner’s team started off strong in the inaugural GP2 season in 2005, challenging for the drivers title until the last race with Kovalainen at the wheel.  Since then, Arden has been a searching for its bearing, finding it few times, but has counted with the invaluable backing from Red Bull (Horner’s “real” employer).  For 2009 Arden has switched Red Bull for Telmex as a title sponsor through Sergio Perez.  I would set Arden’s total budget for 2009 just under €1.8 million – with most money coming from Perez and some from Mortara.  This will be a breakeven season for Arden, but they will survive.
  • Super Nova:  David Sears’ team, like Arden, came on strong from F3000 (2002 champs) and had a positive 2005 GP2 season finishing 3rd in the team standings with Carroll and Pantano, and 5th and 6th respectively in the drivers championship.  After rebounding slightly in 2007 with Filippi and Conway (after a mediocre 2006), Super Nova finished 2008 in a mid-pack 7th place (with Parente and Soucek).   In 2009 they will regain Luca Filippi and have drafted Javi Villa from Racing Engineering.   I estimate each driver brings it at most €700k each,  so Super Nova have signed these drivers optimstically hoping to find the missing €400 to €500k sometime during the season to break even.  The team was rumoured to be up for sale, so I’m not sure how Super Nova’s finances will look towards the summer.
  • Piquet GP:  Wildly inconsistent in their team results (6th, 2nd, 11th, 3rd), Piquet benefitted from Nelsinho’s results early on and suffered Xandi Negrao’s during the same period.  After Piquet Jr’s departure to Renault F1, the team has found little stability in its drivers.  2007 was their worst year in GP2, with the weak Negrao-Roldan Rodriguez lineup.  2008 should have been their year, with Maldonado and Zuber, but they fell short due to their lack of consistency.  For 2009, they have Rodriguez back and Alberto Valerio adding some Brazilian blood.  I seriously doubt their budget will be much more than €1.5 million – leaving Piquet GP in the red about €300k for 2009. As with the others in this Group B – my bet is they will somehow manage to survive.
  • DAMS:  Held up by its Toyota Racing Development (TRD) seat, DAMS is consistently a mid-pack runner in GP2.  Kobayashi is TRD’s big bet, after the success of Kaz Nakajima and his graduation to F1 in late 2007.   Jerome D’Ambrosio is another good driver, growing well in GP2 after his Formula Master title in 2007.  Budget-wise, they should be the strongest of this group, though slightly under the targeted €1.8 million breakeven mark.  DAMS can support a year of this €200-300k loss, partially subsidised by its highly lucrative A1GP presence.  Definitely a solid team that will endure 2009.