The second season of the revamped World Series by Renault (nee Nissan) gets underway at Zolder this weekend, having been given a welcome shot in the arm by Robert Kubica's elevation to BMW Sauber F1 test driver.
While GP2 continues to garner more than most of the headlines in the F1 feeder series category, the World Series has gone about its winter business quietly, and emerged the other side with an enhanced line-up that could yet provide another graduate to the top flight at the end of the year.
Like GP2, the series has given its Dallara-built chassis a makeover, albeit only aerodynamically as slicks were already a staple, but has trimmed its calendar to nine predominantly double-header events, adding a couple of new venues and paring away those that proved unsuccessful or unviable last season. Monaco, however, remains, still a single-race weekend, but giving the F1 teams a chance to monitor progress in the ranks.
The World Series took its first tentative steps at Zolder just a year ago, buoying its crowd with free tickets that proved to be a hit throughout the year, and attracting 70,000 spectators to see Enrico Toccacelo and Robert Kubica open the season on the top step of the podium. The Belgian circuit has undergone some major safety-related changes in the interim, including the widening of run-off areas, but will still provide a stern test of man and machine when the 15-team field returns to do battle.
Over the past month, those teams have taken part in group testing at three of the championship's nine circuits - Barcelona, Le Mans and the Nurburgring - giving some clue as to who to expect to see at the front of the grid between now and the finale, back at the Circuit de Catalunya, in late October. After a mixed bag of talent in 2005, the new crop features the usual blend of old hands and new faces, with more than half the line-up capable le of winning races and, possibly, challenging for the title.
Many will expect the experienced dozen to hold the upper hand, at least in the opening stages, and that would effectively rule reigning champions Epsilon Euskadi out of the equation. Joan Villadelprat's Basque squad has opted for the unproven combination of Davide Valsecchi and Steven Kane this year, but remains confident that it can feature in the battle for the podium. Kane was a relatively late addition to the squad, and is still picking up pace, but Valsecchi has belied his lack of success at lower levels with his pace in testing and could be the year's surprise package.
Taking the opposite route this season is Draco, eager to prove its point in the World Series after regular success in Euro and Italian F3000. Having run Markus Winkelhock to a distant title challenge, and Christian Montanari to Monaco glory, in 2005, the team has opted for two experienced - if not proven - heads this year. Pastor Maldonado impressed enough in his Formula Renault career to get a Minardi F1 test, but has yet to confirm his potential as a possible grand prix graduate having had to sit out much of the 2005 campaign following an accident-induced suspension. The Venezuelan, who will continue to run in Ernesto Viso's shadow until he wins regularly, will be partnered by Czech Tomas Kostka, who has shown flashes of promise in testing but now needs to put that into practice on race weekends.
Carlin Motorsport, a race winner with both Will Power and Andreas Zuber last season, has opted for a foot in both camps in 2006, aided by Red Bull and Lukoil backing. America's Colin Fleming, a contemporary of Scott Speed in FRenault, moves over from Jenzer, and will be joined by Russian Mihael Aleshin in a real East-West combination. Fleming showed last season that he has what it takes to win at this level without actually ever doing so, and will hardly have a better chance to open his account than with Carlin. He has shone in testing but, then again, so has his unheralded team-mate, who makes the step up from FRenault despite not really achieving the breakthrough many others have needed to do so. Like Valsecchi, all eyes will be on Aleshin as a possible dark horse.
The other old hands are scattered through the field, many of them having changed teams over the winter. Toccacelo leads the group as he returns to the scene of his only WS success, but only joined unfancied Eurointernational at the very last minute, and will have to re-adapt to the WS car after a winter spent lugging Italy's A1GP machine around distant circuits. The Italian proved in F3000 that he has what it takes to run at the front regularly, however, and it could be his team that holds him back.