Formula 2. That sounds a lot like a Formula 1 feeder series. It used to be one, up until 25 years ago. But what about the new F2 - is it a fast track to F1? Or is it international Formula Palmer Audi?
Its revival came about due to the FIA's desire to provide up-and-coming drivers with an affordable platform from which to display their ability. Costs have been escalating for years in F3, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2.
Champion Andy Soucek tests the Williams at Jerez © LAT
In 2008 - just as the economy took a turn for the worse and drivers were finding it harder to raise budgets - F2 was unveiled.
A noble gesture. Whether the motives were actually that noble, or whether it was simply a pawn in an FIA/FOM power struggle is irrelevant really. F2 was back.
In Jonathan Palmer, the FIA chose the only man with a knowledge of centrally-run single-seater championships (FPA) and the demands of international motorsport events (through his MotorSport Vision circuits). And in Williams it found the perfect designer and supplier of the kit, and links to F1 such as the test prize for the champion.
So to answer the original questions, there are elements of both. At the close of one season of racing, it's too early to judge if F2 has been a success - just as it still isn't clear exactly where in the motorsport spectrum it lies. Where many of the class of 2009 go next, and how they perform, will be the best indication.
Did the concept work?
The centrally-run system has its pros and cons. On one hand it costs a lot less to enter the series; on the other you don't get the same treatment you would from a team pushing for you. There is the advantage of being handed the fastest driver's data and onboard footage after every session, but the disadvantage of not having your own engineer to build a working relationship with over a season (although some external engineers did accompany drivers to races under the 'family-and-friends' banner as self-titled 'ghosts').
But, if anything, it forced the drivers to look for solutions themselves rather than kicking back with their iPods and hoping the team would make the car perfect for them.
Reliability was an ongoing issue, particularly in the clutch department, but it becomes more of a focal point when it's a one-stop shop than it does with teams. It's an issue that Palmer's F2 crew strove to cure, with numerous repairs throughout the year.
The under-one-roof format helped the series to do exactly what it claimed: offer a driver the opportunity to prove himself with a test at the sport's highest level. Step up, Andy Soucek.
Soucek's big career break
The 24-year-old Madrid native has been around for a while, and had been written off in some quarters. After winning the Spanish Formula 3 title, he had a promising year in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2006. Then he moved to GP2 where, despite flashes of very good form, his campaign dissolved amid financial and contractual dramas.
Andy Soucek leads the field at Oschersleben © LAT
Adamant that he would never return to GP2, even if it would take him, Soucek needed a break. It came in the form of F2.
That the Spaniard delivered a near-textbook championship season is in no doubt. Over the course of the season, he was a cut above. He finished in the top four 14 times in 16 races (and was running second when the car broke in one of the failures), and won seven times while nobody else managed more than two.
He was almost too good. In a season where one driver is so dominant, you can't help but wonder about the strength of the opposition. It's a no-win situation: if you don't dominate a championship, you're not special; if you do, the others weren't.
So, did Soucek win because he's a seriously good racing driver, or did he win because he was up against a class of journeymen and eager-but-undeveloped kids?
There were vast differences in age and experience. At the top end were Soucek, Julien Jousse and Milos Pavlovic (early to late twenties). At the rawer end were fresh-faced teenagers such as Kazim Vasiliauskas and Mirko Bortolotti.
There was quality in the field, just not enough of it. There was a very consistent top eight at the front, and those outside never looked like springing a surprise. Of course, any new series is going to struggle to get strength in depth from the word go. No championship can afford to turn away drivers in its inaugural season and, with no teams to pick the best drivers, it was 'first come first served' until it was full. Now that it's established, more drivers of note should be attracted and the series bosses can afford to be more selective with entries to ensure they have the highest-quality field possible.
Red Bull Junior driver Robert Wickens was still a teenager when he earned wins in F3, FR3.5, A1GP, Atlantics and Formula BMW. The Canadian was the pre-season favourite for F2 and looked a surefire title contender after blitzing the Valencia opener.
But he had some bad luck shortly afterwards and did not take it well. Frustrations crept in and the pressure exerted by Red Bull - which heightens when racing against two fellow Juniors in identical equipment - knocked him off track. He struggled to recapture his form of Valencia and wouldn't win another race. That he was still Soucek's closest challenger throughout says more about his peers' flawed campaigns.
Jousse, Mikhail Aleshin and Philipp Eng won a race each but were never really at the party. Tobias Hegewald seemed to organise the party at Spa, with two wins, but that was it for him.
Kazim Vasiliauskas en route to victory at Imola
Those drivers all had good experience of the European circuits. One who didn't was Henry Surtees, 18 years old when the season began, and who took a maiden pole position on the challenging circuit of Brno and a podium finish at Brands Hatch. One day after that third-place result, his death in a freak accident rocked the series.
The finds of the season were youngsters Mirko Bortolotti and Kazim Vasiliauskas. Both 19 by season's end, their age is about the only thing they have common. Bortolotti is from Italy, steeped in racing tradition and history, while Vasiliauskas is from Lithuania, hardly renowned as a hotbed of motorsport activity. Bortolotti had the pedigree of an Italian F3 title behind him, had been picked up by Red Bull's young-driver programme and had already tested a Ferrari F1 car and set an unofficial lap record at Fiorano. By contrast, Vasiliauskas had dabbled a little in Formula Renault 2.0.
Bortolotti won early on at Brno and was always around the first two rows. Three second places followed his sole win, but he had a tendency to be in the middle of incidents and lost a few points he should have scored. Vasiliauskas, meanwhile, rocked the boat with a podium first time out, made himself a fixture inside the top 10 and peaked with a crushing win from pole in the penultimate round at Imola. He also raced in the Palmer Audi series.
Are any of them ready for F1?
The success of F2 will depend upon its graduates, and especially its champion, making it elsewhere. All the evidence this year points to Soucek being a class act. He was among the first to get his head around the intricacies of the new car, he discovered the secret to getting it safely off the line long before most, he was never flummoxed on set-up, he was always quick - quickest when he needed to be. He didn't make mistakes. He had one off day all year, Saturday at Brno, and won on the Sunday.
But whether that puts him in the 'ready-for-F1' category is another question entirely. And that's really the problem at the moment for a series calling itself Formula 2: you have no idea whether or not the champion is F1 capable. In GP2, you do know.
Since the end of the season, Vasiliauskas has done a couple of days of GP2 testing and could be headed there next year to provide a gauge of the crossover. It'd be a shame for F2 to lose its obvious title favourite for 2010, but it'd be an even bigger shame for F2 if he went there and looked average.
Bortolotti, meanwhile, may hold the key. He's been called up by Toro Rosso for a day of the Jerez F1 test next month. He hasn't yet sat in a GP2 car and, if he's placed in F3 next year, that tells you where Red Bull thinks F2 fits into the motorsport ladder.
And Soucek? He says F1 is pretty much his only move from here. That Williams test was a very big day for him. And for Formula 2.
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