Just a week after the rival GP2 Series kicked off its inaugural season, the 30 drivers entered in the World Series by Renault get the chance to strut their stuff at round one in Belgium.
Fifteen two-car teams will take part in their first two races at Zolder this weekend, beginning with free practice on Thursday morning and ending with the traditional World Series double-header on Sunday. Just like GP2, however, picking a potential winner from the list of likely frontrunners is already proving problematic.
Attention will inevitably be focused on drivers who have already taken part in the World Series by Nissan and Formula Renault V6 championships. Thanks to his victory in the 2004 FRV6 Eurocup, Italian Giorgio Mondini (Eurointernational) will carry the #1 plate, but he will find himself up against other FRV6 'veterans' such as Alx Danielsson (DAMS), Christian Montanari (Draco Multiracing USA), Damien Pasini (Cram Competition), Ivan Bellarosa and, perhaps most dangerously of all, Dutch driver Jaap van Lagen, whose KTR team will undoubtedly want to do well on its home circuit.
Among the drivers converted from the 'old' World Series, the Spanish pair of Adrian Valles (Pons Racing) and Felix Porteiro (Epsilon Euskadi) have already marked themselves out as ones to watch, while Frenchman Tristan Gommendy (KTR), Czech driver Tomas Kostka (Victory Engineering) and Yugoslav Milos Pavlovic (GD Racing) are also expected to feature most prominently. On top of that, Indian driver Karun Chandhok (RC Motorsport) would love to follow in the footsteps of fellow countryman Narain Karthikeyan, who finished sixth in the World Series in 2004 and who now drives for Jordan in Formula One.
F1 is a familiar discipline for Japanese driver Ryo Fukuda (Saulnier Racing) and Australian Will Power (Carlin Motorsport), both of whom have enjoyed test outings, with BAR and Minardi respectively. Their experience puts them up among the favourites, although Fukuda's WS tests have not always been as productive. Power, however, has been setting tracks alight all pre-season.
The same expectation will be there for another Italian, Enrique Toccacelo (Victory Engineering), who finished second in last year's FIA F3000 championship. Unable to raise the budget to compete in GP2, the former BCN pilot will be out to prove a point this weekend.
Several drivers have chosen to move up from the F3 Euroseries this season, including Andreas Zuber (Carlin Motorsport), Robert Kubica (Epsilon Euskadi), Markus Winkelhock (Draco Multiracing USA), Daniel la Rosa (Interwetten.com) and Eric Salignon (Cram Competition). However, all of the above will face another group of young hopefuls, coming from Formula Renault 2000.
Second and third in the 2004 Eurocup respectively, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud (DHG Saulnier Racing) and American Colin Fleming (Jenzer Motorsport) have both shown that they are more than ready for the step up, while national series champions Patrick Pilet (Jenzer Motorsport) and Pastor Maldonado (DAMS), the Venezuelan now part of the Renault Drivers Development programme, will also want to prove that they have what it takes, as will two former World Series Light drivers, Celso Miguez (Pons Racing) and Giovanni Tedeschi (RC Motorsport).
With teams of the quality of Carlin Motorsport, DAMS, Pons Racing, Draco and Eurointernational - all of which have won titles in recent years - there is class up and down the pit-lane, making the choice of potential champion more complicated than judging purely by driver ability.
Private testing organized by Renault Sport at the Le Mans, Valencia and Paul Ricard circuits enabled an initial pecking order to be established. Winkelhock, Valles, Porteiro, Power, van Lagen, Pavlovic, Montanari, Zuber, Kubica, Gommendy and Maldonado all took it in turns to make the running, which would suggest that no-one starts with a ready-made lead in this new category. From here on in, there'll only be one judge: the chequered flag!