This time last year no one really knew what to expect - GP2 was a new concept, sure, but it was replacing the increasingly creaking Formula 3000, a series whose best years had been and gone, leaving little more than a shell of what it once was. And while the GP2 line up was impressive on paper, more than a few people wondered if a feeder series for Formula One was even viable anymore.
And then the races began, and the doubts evaporated in the minds of everyone who watched them.
The racing was fast and furious, with frequent overtaking and lengthy battles for the lead. The two title contenders claimed five wins each, two of the ten men to win during the season. Sixteen drivers claimed at least one podium, and 23 drivers scored during the year, pointing to the depth of talent throughout the field.
The recipe for success for the series was a simple one - take almost all of the best young drivers in Europe outside of Formula One, put them in equal cars in front of the main paddock with solid engineering support, point them in the right direction and let them race.
In a spec series, the best driver with the best engineer should make a championship winning package, and looking at the incredible Formula One debut enjoyed by reigning GP2 champion Nico Rosberg, it's not hard to argue that this was exactly what happened (although runner up Heikki Kovalainen's gritty season means that it's by no means clear cut), which is exactly what most race fans want to see.
And, given the set-up of the series, the 2006 season is almost guaranteed to be more of the same.
Picking the overall winner from the 26 drivers is next to impossible at the moment, given how close most of the field has been in pre-season testing. Lewis Hamilton, Alex Premat, Nelson Piquet, Adam Carroll and Jose Maria Lopez all have justifiable arguments to be included in the favourites list, but on current form, up to ten drivers could also have a serious run at the title in what may be the closest racing series on earth.
One other point that should be noted is that this time last year Rosberg wasn't even being considered as a title contender - his biggest claim to fame at the time was as one of the Three Princes, the sons of former F1 world champions on the grid, and he wasn't even the most favoured of the three. In a competition this tight, just about anything can happen.
After fine-tuning the programme throughout 2005, there was little to change for this year, with the exception of the tyres. Gone are the Formula One style grooved tyres in favour of slicks, which has had obvious ramifications - at testing in Paul Ricard, lap times have tumbled, and a top speed of 325km/h has been whispered about in the pitlane.
Brembo have had to come up with a new braking system to deal with the new tyres, and while a few teams have struggled a little in testing, most have now come to terms with them. Mecachrome has taken over the engine programme from Mader, and with the engine programme now based at the same location (Aubigny, France) that handles Renault's Formula One engines, reliability should not be an issue this year.
The only other changes for 2006 are that the fastest lap in both races will now only gain the driver one point instead of two, and while the races remain the same length (180km and 120km), they will be limited to a maximum of 75 minutes and 45 minutes respectively.
Teams and Drivers
ART Grand Prix
Alex Premat and Lewis Hamilton
ART started 2005 hoping for a race win and ended the year with both driver and team titles, a slightly overwhelming level of success for the team in their first year out of the F3 Euroseries, which they had dominated. Consequently all eyes will be on the team, and in particular Euroseries star Hamilton, who will be in what the paddock half-jokingly refers to as 'the magic car' (the 2005 car 9 of champion Rosberg).
Hamilton tried to downplay expectations at a recent test, stating that he was just hoping to do well but that he was not targeting the title, but expectations will be high for the pairing. He will, however, be competing against drivers with far more experience with the cars, including teammate Premat, fresh from claiming the title in the off-season for the French A1 Grand Prix team and wanting more of the same.
The pair are likely to work well together over the season - Premat in particular has a history of becoming best friends with his teammate over the season, sometimes to his disadvantage - but expect fireworks between the pair on track, where it counts.
Michael Ammermueller and Nicolas Lapierre
Arden, as the form team of Formula 3000, were expected to dominate the series with pre-season title favourite Kovalainen, but with team boss Christian Horner moving up to run the Red Bull Racing Formula One team, things did not go to plan, and second in both championships was the result, one which stung a team long used to winning everything in sight.
New lead driver Lapierre looked out of his depth at times in 2005, having to learn the circuits as well as how to work within a big team while trying to find a way out of the shadow of his experienced teammate. The amiable Frenchman was unable to claim a win in GP2 last year, but a winter spent in the A1 series resulted in six wins and the title; he now needs to prove that he can rise to the challenge of leading Arden's attack on the GP2 championship.
Ammermueller arrived at Arden on the back of his Red Bull connections and a second place in last year's Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup. While the German has shown speed in testing, it's unlikely that he'll be able to fight for the championship this year and will instead fall into the traditional Arden role of strong rookie next to the more seasoned team leader.
Super Nova International
Jose Maria Lopez and Fairuz Fauzy
Super Nova are a difficult team to predict anything about - every year they run fast in testing and then seem to fall off the pace during the season, and for no discernable reason. Stuffed full of strong engineering staff, nonetheless last year saw Giorgio Pantano's early challenge snuffed out by a string of DNFs, only to have the car gremlins seemingly switch to Adam Carroll's car and extinguish his chance at the title as well.
Nonetheless, the talent is there, as can be seen by Carroll's three strong race wins, and Pantano must have been the unluckiest driver of the year to not claim a win. This year, Lopez leads the driver line-up after an up-and-down season with DAMS, and with so much on the line career-wise, he almost has to win to ensure his progression in the sport despite his young age - his paymasters at the Renault Drivers Development Programme will demand nothing less.
Fauzy, on the other hand, has no such grand expectations on his shoulders. As the only regular driver in GP2 not to score a point last year, any result at all will be a vast improvement in form and will probably be celebrated on his side of the garage like a win will on the other.
Ernesto Viso and Tristan Gommendy
iSport's team principal Paul Jackson is a zero bullshit kind of boss, running his team very much in the mould of sister team Williams. For an outfit that came together for the first time last year to join the GP2 series, their results were remarkably strong, and it would be one of the bigger surprises of the year to see them drop off the pace this year.
Viso will have no excuses this year - a lot of the problems he suffered last year were quietly blamed (and not entirely unfairly) on BCN's sometimes lackadaisical work ethic, but the move to iSport means the Venezuelan will have nowhere to hide on that score. Flashes of brilliance, particularly in the latter parts of the season, will need to take over from the moments of brain fade that also marred his season - if Viso can manage that, he will fight for the title in 2006.
Gommendy, on the other hand, will be well placed to learn as much as possible about how the series works, and will be hoping to build towards a title run in 2007. Fourth in the World Series by Renault last year, and a former Macau GP winner, the Frenchman's year will be an education for him.
Adam Carroll and Javier Villa
Racing Engineering are a team going places - all the way to Formula One, if the governing body accepts their application for a 2008 entry. While team boss Alfonso de Orleans confirms that he is looking into the move, right now his principal focus is on adding a GP2 title or two to the multiple Spanish F3 titles his team have won.
GP2's off-season equivalent of the Alonso-to-McLaren shock was the announcement that Carroll was set to leave Super Nova for the Jerez-based team, and the pairing of the Ulsterman with former Formula One engineering guru Gary Anderson provides one of the strongest combinations in the series. If the Irish pair and their Spanish team can come to grips with the brake problems they've suffered in testing, they will be the men to beat for the driver's title.
Villa, on the other hand, has already admitted that 2006 will be all about learning what is needed to compete at this level. The team believe that the Spaniard, who narrowly missed out on last year's F3 title in his homeland, has the potential to be the next Alonso - time will tell if their faith is well placed.
Nelson Piquet Jr and Xandi Negrao
Nelson Piquet Jr has probably had more bad press over his racing career than the rest of the grid put together - for years he's been accused of being a dilettante, lazy, unable to compete, and of having every bad characteristic a racing driver can have.
Piquet is a chip of the old block - smart, funny and, most importantly, blindingly fast. So fast is he, that a number of other team bosses have coveted the driver (culminating in a will he/won't he rumour mill about the Brazilian potentially moving to ART in the off-season). Piquet has a history of learning a series one year and then dominating it the next - the driving ability is unquestionably there, but the biggest question is whether the team has sufficient expertise to help their favoured son to the title.
On the other side of the garage, Negrao is unlikely to pose much challenge to his countryman - a year on from his GP2 debut and the genial Brazilian has yet to show any real sense of urgency or desire to push himself forward. This can only provide more resources within the team for their more proficient team leader.
Ferdinando Monfardini and Franck Perera
DAMS began and ended the 2005 season with strong performances in the form of lead driver Lopez, but for the middle section of the year the team completely lost their way on set-up. That a team with the depth of DAMS could suffer thus is as good an indication of any of the push throughout the grid to improve, but a dominant off-season in A1 will have given the team a sense of achievement that should provide momentum into the new season back in their main job.
Monfardini is a mystery to most in the paddock - his speed would show from time to time, but it was only when threatened with losing his drive in favour of the disenfranchised Gianmaria Bruni that he showed his mettle with two strong performances in Monza. Two more tough drives while in huge pain at Bahrain gave an indication of his ability, and DAMS will be banking on this combining with a year's experience to push the team up the grid.
Perera moves up to GP2 after a strong debut year in the F3 Euroseries, where he placed fourth, and the 2004 Formula Renault Italia title. While it seems the French driver is being fast-tracked through the junior categories thanks to his Toyota connections, much is expected by his Japanese paymasters, and he has certainly provided value for them so far. Podiums will not be out of the question, and possibly a win if things go his way.
Luca Filippi and Jason Tahinci
During the off-season Coloni Motorsports morphed into FMS International when Formula One driver (and past rival of team boss Paolo Coloni during his driving career) Giancarlo Fisichella bought half of the team from the long time Italian racing family. The move brought much needed capital to the team, which has allowed them to bring in a number of Formula One engineers to help with the push back up the grid.
FMS will, however, struggle on the driver front. Filippi arrives in GP2 fresh from winning the Italian Formula 3000 title and looks to be a good prospect for the future. His lack of experience at this level will work against the Italian though, and it's unlikely that he'll be able to fight the title contenders at the front in his first year in the series.
Filippi would have gained from having a more experienced teammate alongside him in his first season, and the team spoke to a number of prospective drivers in that respect. However nothing came of the negotiations, and they signed up Tahinci instead, of whom the kindest thing that can be said of his driving record to date is that he provides the team's budget for the next two seasons.
Hiroki Yoshimoto and Timo Glock
BCN are an enigma - they stormed to second in 2004's Formula 3000 finale with Enrico Toccacelo (and were substantially closer than winner Tonio Liuzzi's seven wins suggests), but last year the team were horrendously up and down, with the low point of the season coming when they were unable to get Yoshimoto on track for qualifying in Monaco, compelling the driver to sit out of the race he had dreamt of competing in since he was a child. A lot of work will be needed to get the team back into contention this year.
Despite the heartache, Yoshimoto returns for a second year with the Spanish team in a move that suggests a win for heart over head for the gregarious Japanese driver and his Spanish manager. He showed what he is capable of on the few occasions he was given the car to do so - a strong second in France and a commanding drive in the lead in Turkey (albeit spoiled by a bad call on tyres from the team) suggest Yoshimoto will take his chances, if he gets them.
Alongside him this year will be newcomer, and former Formula One driver, Timo Glock. Still only 24, the German is one of the strongest competitors outside of the top series, and a Rookie of the Year season in Champ Cars will have done him no harm at all. In one of half a dozen other teams, Glock would be seen as a genuine title contender, and he will be hoping that BCN have rediscovered their 2004 form as he attempts to get back into the big game.
Olivier Pla and Clivio Piccione
Sponsor turned team owner, as Direxiv bought into the former David Price Racing team in what could be a precursor to a move up into Formula One as the junior McLaren team. Before then, the team will be hoping they can build on last year's two wins and challenge the top teams on a regular basis.
Pla returns to his old team in the hope that they can get more of what they achieved together last year. The Frenchman is generally amiable company, but as the races get nearer he becomes notoriously intense and introspective and has been known to psyche himself out of contention by overthinking the race before it started. If Pla can overcome this - and it was notable how much calmer he became after the wins started last year - he could be an outside contender for the championship.
Piccione moves over from Durango this year at the behest of his sponsor, and it will provide an interesting contrast between the two drivers. As laid back as his teammate isn't, the Monegasque driver has to beat Pla this year to feature in Direxiv's future plans.
Lucas di Grassi and Sergio Hernandez
Durango spent a good part of the off-season as the subject of rumours about a possible sale to a number of different suitors, with Trident, FMS and Carlin among the bigger names linked to the team. None of the gossip came to fruition, and the team returned to testing this year hoping to shrug off the inevitable black clouds and prove their worth. While it's unlikely the team will be fighting for wins, they will be keen to prove that they are at least the top team in Italy outside of Formula One.
Di Grassi arrives fresh from the F3 Euroseries, where he was best of the rest by placing third behind the ASM pair, and a career-strengthening win at Macau. Moving up to second position in RDD behind Lopez, the Brazilian will not be expecting wins in his first year in the series, but he'll be hoping he can spring the odd surprise on the other rookie drivers while he learns the circuits and car ahead of a title tilt in 2007.
Hernandez should have the upper hand in his team by dint of experience, although he struggled last year to come to terms with flamboyant teammate Juan Cruz Alvarez, who was sadly unable to find a budget to compete this year. A reliable car should help him improve this year, although it's unlikely anyone could have as much unreliability this year as he suffered through in 2005.
Adrian Valles and Felix Porteiro
Campos limped through 2005 with a diabolical reliability record, which looks to have killed off the career of Alvarez, who was on course for a podium no less than six times, only for his car to breakdown. He was unable to find any backing due to his results, and almost did in Hernandez. The Valencia-based team are talking up their challenge this year, but only time will tell.
Valles and Porteiro, second and fifth respectively in last year's World Series by Renault, are exactly what Campos were looking for - fast Spaniards with respectable CVs looking to move up, and with the means to pay for it. Both drivers have been reasonably fast in testing and have the potential to push the team forward. Both drivers, however, will be at the mercy of their team and will be hoping that their testing form doesn't evaporate when the races start.
Gianmaria Bruni and Andreas Zuber
The new team on the block have hit the ground running in their first official GP2 tests and are hoping that buying in talent from around the grid, including former Formula One designer Sergio Rinland, will provide the Italians with a shortcut to the front of the grid. On testing results, it seems to be working so far, and the team are not embarrassing themselves against their more fancied competition.
They could have done worse than to build the team around Bruni, who provides Trident with a strong benchmark with which to judge themselves. The Italian won a race last year, should have won more but for a string of car problems, and has Formula One experience - all that, and he is still only 24 years old. Bruni showed he can fight for a championship if he has the car to do it with - Trident now have to show that they can give him that car.
Alongside Bruni will be yet another WSR race winner in the form of Zuber. The Austrian has looked reasonable in testing and will be looking to learn as much as he can from his highly experienced teammate throughout his rookie year, with the hope of pushing him competitively in the latter stages of the season.