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Leimer and Berthon eager for season opener

20 March 2012

Fabio Leimer found his way to the top of the podium in Abu Dhabi last November, when he won the GP2 Final feature race in his first appearance for Racing Engineering. He's understandably hoping that it's a sign of greater things to come in the 2012 GP2 Series season that gets underway this weekend at Sepang in Malaysia.

"The car was perfect for me and my driving style," he said of his first races with the team at the end of last year. "It is exactly how I like a car and that's why I think, with some twists and turns, we will be competitive this year and fight for the championship.

"We had very promising tests and everything we wanted to test regarding the set ups was done," said Leimer about the two blocks of pre-season track time that the GP2 teams had in Spain over the course of the last two months. "That was the most important thing, that we gather as much information as possible during these test days."

That information will be more crucial than ever heading to Malaysia, a new venue for the GP2 Series with the consolidation of the European and Asian championships into one series in 2012 for the first time.

"There are simulators and data that help with such situations," the 22-year-old Swiss driver, describing how he was preparing for the unknown nature of Sepang. "There is definitely more focus on simulations to get to know the track and the specialities of each corner better. I also watch F1 videos to be as well prepared as possible."

While Leimer has had two full seasons in GP2 (with Ocean Racing Technology in 2010 and Rapax in 2011) after transferring in from International Formula Master, his 2012 team mate Nathanaël Berthon will be making his GP2 Series début at Sepang, after previously having competed for the team in last year's final GP2 Asia championship.

"It's a big opportunity for me to be part of the GP2 championship," said the 22-year-old Frenchman. "It's going to be a big fight, but I am more than ready for it ... I am really looking forward for the season to start and to get into the car to race it."

Sepang will be just as new for him as it will be for his team mate. "I have never been to Sepang before, but from what I know about the track it looks really nice," he said. "It is of course a bit different if you drive on a track you do not know yet, but my preparation included work on the simulator to understand the layout of the track a bit better, to get used to the sequence of corners on this track."

It's more likely to be the climate that has the biggest impact on everyone in the GP2 paddock this weekend, however. "I have also had a special physical preparation as it's very hot and humid in Malaysia," agreed Berthon. "This means the conditions are more demanding for the drivers."

As well as the humidity, the drivers also look likely to get their first taste of wet running in 2012, with thunderstorms forecast for the whole week and looking increasingly likely to hit the weekend's feature and sprint races as well. Not that this was putting off an excited Berthon, of course.

"This is exciting as the bigger the challenge, the bigger the satisfaction when you succeed," he smiled. "I think my expectations are the same as those of all my competitors, if you race; you do so because you want to win."

Berthon was nonetheless trying to stay realistic in his expectations for his GP2 Series début.

"It's important to keep in mind that most of the GP2 drivers in 2012 have a lot of experience in this category already," he admitted. "This means they have some advantage at the beginning of the season. But the cards are in my hands and I will work very hard to reduce this advantage that more experienced drivers might have.

Racing Engineering clearly hope to be at or very close to the top when action starts at Sepang, but they won't know for certain until they get to see the relative strengths of their rivals. Right now, they're not sure who their main threats are going to turn out to be.

"This is always difficult to predict in GP2," said Leimer. "It also depends a lot on the team and how it is set up compared to the previous season. But I don't think there will be big changes from last year to this season."

So far the pre-season tests were dominated by DAMS' Davide Valsecchi at Jerez, and then by Lotus GP's Esteban Gutierrez at Barcelona, but teams were generally following their own development strategies and opting for race simulations over qualifying runs, leaving Racing Engineering generally running consistently around the midfield with both of their drivers.

But the first true test will come on Friday, with practice at noon local time (4am GMT) and then the all-important first qualifying session of the year at 3.55pm local time (7.55am). Only then will Leimer, Berthon and the rest of the GP2 field start to a get a real picture of how things genuinely stand heading into the 2012 season.

Live coverage of all GP2 practice, qualifying and race sessions is being shown on the new Sky Sports F1 channel this weekend.


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