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WS Preview: Zolder and season
1 January 1901
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.
Montanari returns to the World Series with newcomers Prema Powerteam, while Eric Salignon swaps Cram for Interwetten.com, Alx Danielsson DAMS for Comtec and Milos Pavlovic GD Racing for Cram Competition. Patrick Pilet did his moving late last season, joining GD from Jenzer, and he will be partnered this year by Matteo Meneghello, who joins GD from Eurointernational. Celso Miguez (Pons Racing) and Ryo Fukuda (Tech 1 Racing), meanwhile, stay put with their 2005 teams, even thought the Japanese driver's mount will now be run by the new owners of the former Saulnier franchise.
The old hands will be full with the challenge of keeping the new boys at bay, with a large contingent of F3 drivers stepping up to steal the glory. Apart from the likes of Kane and Valsecchi at Epsilon, both British and Spanish F3 champions make the move to the World Series. Alvaro Parente will run with Victory Engineering this year, having benefited from F3 entrant Carlin's new association with the Italian operation, while Andy Soucek is installed at Interwetten. Both have already demonstrated that they are worthy title holders, and 2006 contenders, with solid pace during pre-season testing.
However, to concentrate on champions is to overlook the likes of James Rossiter (Pons Racing) and Alvaro Barba (Jenzer Motorsport), both of whom step up from F3 careers in 2005. Rossiter is a highly-prized capture for Sito Pons' operation, having combined his season in the F3 Euroseries with a place on Honda F1's development scheme. The Briton, who struggled to repeat his 2004 British F3 form against stronger opposition in Europe, missed part of the pre-season due to his F1 commitments, but was immediately on the pace when he joined the World Series. Barba, meanwhile, is not in the same mould, but could surprise on occasion.
A third F3 champion also joins the fold this year, but it has taken several seasons for Robbie Kerr's promise to be recognised. Only John Surtees foresight in picking the Briton for his A1GP team appears to have resurrected Kerr's single-seater goals, and he finds himself at KTR alongside another Surtees-inspired A1GP pick, Sean McIntosh, who graduates as runner-up in the Formula Renault UK series. Both have adapted surprisingly quickly, especially given that the A1GP season and testing overlapped at the turn of the year, and KTR could yet find itself in with a shout of both titles.
Formula Renault also provides the World Series with Ben Hanley, who finished as runner-up in the Italian national championship last season. The Briton already has WS experience though, having jumped at the chance top graduate early, joining Cram at the end of the 2005 campaign. He has since gone on to be included on Renault F1's driver development programme, suggesting bigger things lie ahead should this season go to plan.
Pascal Kochem likewise takes a big step into the WS, but has shown glimpses of promise in testing, and could be considered among those relative unknowns who could possibly make an impact this year. Alessandro Bonetti is another, the Italian having appeared undecided on where to race in recent seasons, bouncing up and down the ladder as though it was also populated by snakes.
Four other drivers, apart from Kerr, have seen the World Series as a last refuge for their F1 ambitions, with Hayanari Shimoda turning his attention from GP2 and joining Parente at Victory, again a move instigated by Carlin. Borja Garcia actually sampled a full season of GP2 last season but, not having made a big enough impact on the series, finds himself at RC Motorsport this year, where he will be partnered by Frenchman Bruce Jouanny, whose own attempts to make the grade foundered on financial problems.
Completing the field this year are two drivers who should receive solid support at the opening round at least, and another who will be little known to many inside the paddock, let alone on the other side of the fences. Greg Franchi moves up from the F3 Euroseries to join WS rookies Prema, while Jerome d'Ambrosio returns for a full season at Tech 1 after managing just a single outing last year. Edwin Jowsey, meanwhile, has been hiding in historic racing in the UK, but is determined to make his mark with fellow newcomer Comtec this year.
The team line-up also received a shake-up over the winter, with one squad deciding that the World Series was not for it, another opting to concentrate on GP2 and a third deciding to follow the sportscar route. Three new faces have thus been recruited, with former racer Simon Abadie's Tech 1 taking over Le Mans-bound Saulnier Racing, Comtec getting the nod to join the series in place of backmarker Avelon and Prema getting a later call to sub for the departing DAMS. All three have decent pedigrees elsewhere and appear to have got to grips with the WS cars during testing, adding to the intrigue ahead.