After a two-day test at the Shanghai International Circuit track saw sophomore Kamui Kobayashi shine for DAMS, the Japanese driver will undoubtedly start among the favourites as the second GP2 Asia campaign kicks off alongside the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend.
Going to China is a first for the championship, but Shanghai represents one of two 'additional' events this season, and gives the GP2 Asia teams another chance to run alongside their F1 counterparts after the inaugural series generated a lot of interest in Asia and the Middle East with five rounds between January and April 2008.
Renault test driver Romain Grosjean was crowned as GP2 Asia's first champion after a hard-fought and competitive campaign, and Kobayashi - who performs a similar role for Toyota's F1 operation - will have to overcome equally tough opposition if he is to succeed the Frenchman by the time the season ends at the Bahrain Grand Prix next April.
With Grosjean not involved this time around, a new champion is guaranteed and, while Kobayashi will start as favourite having added dominant testing performances in both Europe and China to race wins in last year's Asia Series, the Japanese ace will have to fight off equally experienced and raw rookie opposition alike.
Among those with previous GP2 history are racewinners Vitaly Petrov and Davide Valsecchi - the Russian having finished third in last year's Asia Series and the Italian coming to Shanghai with victory at Monza fresh in his mind - while Jérôme d'Ambrosio, Roldan Rodriguez, Sakon Yamamoto, Javi Villa, Andreas Zuber and Luca Filippi all bring front-running form to China.
Among the rookie contingent, the champions of both the World Series by Renault and Formula Master step up to take on the GP2 regulars, with Giedo van der Garde skipping the last WSbR round of the season to join iSport and Chris van der Drift swapping cars within the Trident Racing organisation.
The two Dutch-based drivers will be joined by a host of other newcomers, with Kiwi Earl Bamber, former Champ Car racer Nelson Philippe, Finnish talent Mika Maki, F3 frontrunner Sergio Perez, ex-F1 pilot Alex Yoong and Briton James Jakes standing out from the list. Racing Engineering, the team that won the 'regular' season with Giorgio Pantano, is once again absent, with My Team Qi-Meritus Mahara taking its place for the second successive season.
The Shanghai round kicks off a campaign which will end with two other F1 supporting roles - in Malaysia and Bahrain - and takes in two visits to the Dubai Autodrome that hosted the first ever round earlier this year, and Yamamoto is particularly excited to be returning to a familiar venue.
“I have raced at Shanghai twice in Formula One, and it's a perfect addition to the GP2 Asia calendar," the Japanese, who wears the #1 plate for ART this season, commented, "There is always a great atmosphere at the Chinese Grand Prix, and I think the racing will be very good.