With ART winning back to back championships in the GP2 series, it was always going to take a very special team to take them on and beat them at their own game: iSport have now done just that, living up to their reputation in the paddock as "the team most likely."
But victory in both the driver's and team's championships didn't come easy: the seed for the title wins was planted almost four years ago: "If you start at the very beginning, we were probably nine months to a year in preparation of starting the team," Paul Jackson noted after the final race in Valencia, "so we were trying to get the right people together, trying to get some backing and all of those things that you need to get it off the ground.
"And then once we got started there's always a steep learning curve when you have a new car and a new group of people to bring together, to turn them into a unit. Lots of lots of hours of planning go into that, and on the physical work side the mechanics just work: whatever you ask them to do, they do it. In Monza the guys worked through a straight 38 hours, not only to rebuild a damaged car, but to put Timo's car on the grid in a position to win the race as well."
But what iSport have mainly done to claim the titles has been to out-ART the former champions. The French team has traditionally gone for a blend of experience and aggression in their driving line up, backing them with solid engineering ability, and then going out to blitz the competition. In 2005 ART ran the Nico Rosberg / Alex Premat combination against Heikki Kovalainen, with both drivers adding to the feedback and alternately taking points off the Finn, before repeating the performance the following year with Lewis Hamilton and Premat against Nelson Piquet Jr: in both cases the main competition was matched with a weaker driver who was unable to pick up the slack if the lead driver had a problem.
iSport learnt a big lesson from the previous two years: if you want to have a shot at the title, you need to have two strong drivers pushing each other on. Signing Andreas Zuber to sit next to Timo Glock was proof of that, and if having two competitive drivers in the same team can cause problems (the most obvious being the start of race one in Magny Cours), it can also spur each of the drivers to perform better than they may have done without the competition on the other side of the pit.
But the main thing iSport did on the way to the title was to simply out-engineer their competitors: "The engineers spent so many hours back in the office studying the data, working out simulations, making plans, and I can't speak highly enough of all the guys in the team: Without them it's not possible." The beating heart of the team from day one has been Richard, Gavin and the guys, and every time a competitor claimed "we got what we could out of the race today, but iSport simply have the fastest car out there" (and there were many times they said exactly that), it was an indirect compliment to the engineering strength in the team.
And, simply, the relationship between iSport and their drivers was second to none. Perhaps it is fitting to give the final word to Timo Glock on how the team helped him to bring home the championship: "It was just something special when I came for the first time in Silverstone: we went into Northampton to a Chinese restaurant, had dinner and talked for the first time, and after that it felt like we'd been working together for years.
"The first time I drove out of the pits in Silverstone and turned the first corner I knew it was the car I could win in: I could show everybody what I can do, and from that point on I had some special moments, like the test at Paul Ricard where we just worked our ass off to get the car right for a race distance and try to fine tune it for my driving style. When I came back from the test I said straight away we're going to win the race in Magny Cours, and that was clear for me because I had such a perfect feeling.
"This year we started to work over the winter: I could just feel that everybody wanted the championship and they worked so hard. It was something special, and I learned so much for myself in terms of working with a team and bringing everybody behind you, and this year was just a really special year. Even when we had a negative moment we took something positive out of it: we came back even harder, and the mechanics worked so hard in Istanbul, in Monza, to bring the cars back again."
It was this never say die attitude that was needed to finally tear the title away from ART: now that iSport know how to win the title too, the competition's job just got even harder.
ART Grand Prix
If iSport's title can be put down to exceptional work practice and effort, ART's failure to take the title for the first time in GP2's history doesn't imply the opposite: on the contrary, the team probably worked harder than they ever had in previous years. Simply, the two major factors in ART's fall from title winners to best of the rest where the problems with the second car, and that the rest of the field had caught them up at last.
In 2005 ART won with Nico Rosberg and Alex Premat. In 2006 ART won with Lewis Hamilton and Alex Premat. In 2007 ART came second with Lucas di Grassi and, well, a revolving door of Red Bull drivers. Looking back, Fred Vasseur must have wished his countryman hadn't gone off to DTM after all…
At the end of the season, di Grassi was clear about what was missing from his championship push: "For sure we've done a good job this year, and we've pushed all the way to the last race, but it's clear that Timo was in the fastest car, and he's got a good driver sitting next to him to help give good feedback: that's so important.
"Look at what we've had: Michael broke his wrist and then there were young drivers filling in who had never been here before. You've only got to look at the points: of all the points scored by the team this year, I scored them all except ten."
The Brazilian makes a valid point, and it's one that is no doubt shared by his team bosses: Vasseur has made comments in the past that he deliberately targets two strong drivers for his team rather than building the team around one, as the competition will inevitably push each other on (even at the possible cost of on-track warfare, as seen when Premat spun Hamilton around on his way to victory last year in Barcelona), as well as for cover, so that the one driver can pick up the pieces if the other one has a problem.
The other problem, as pointed out by di Grassi early in the season, is that the rest of the field were inevitably going to catch up with ART over a three year cycle on the car: "ART have been the strongest team so far: that's clear, but equally all the teams have had this car for the same amount of time, and they are improving all the time. And it's logical, if we have been the best team, then there is less improvement we can possibly make, while the others can make a bigger leap. So if we're almost at the limit of our improvement, and they're getting better all the time, it's hard to fight that: they have the momentum."
Nevertheless, it is a sign of the quality that runs throughout the French team that, despite these problems, they still managed to put up such a strong fight all season long. And with the new car just around the corner, Vasseur will be hoping that the momentum will now be swinging back towards his team for 2008.
Campos Grand Prix
Campos Grand Prix's record in the GP2 series has been nothing to write home about in the past: in the first year of the series they were dead last with just 7.5 points, while last year they moved up to second from bottom with a grand total of 12. But in 2007 the cheerful Spaniards finally had something to smile about: third in both championships, 3 race wins and an 80 point haul.
Surely some mistake? How can it be possible to turn around a team so comprehensively that they've got from cellar dwellers to competing for the title? Quite simply, Adrian Campos knew that big changes were needed if his team was ever going to compete, and he was brave enough to make them. The decision paid off, big time.
The most visible change was in the driver's line up: after two years of running Spanish racers (or those of Iberian descent), Campos made a conscious choice to look for talent wherever it may come from, and the first part of that choice was to bring in the abundant experience of Giorgio Pantano.
The Italian has probably run more races at this level than any other driver, and could bring that wealth of experience to the team, along with a proven ability to fight wheel to wheel with some of the biggest names in racing. It was a litmus test: bring a driver of Pantano's talent to the team, and he will be the benchmark for what the team can do.
The equally important, if less visible, change Campos made during the off-season was to firm up the engineering talent within the team. By bringing in a few key individuals you would not only have a few jobs done more effectively, the theory went, but the improvement would be seen throughout the team as the new members would be help the existing personnel to improve their own performances.
The gamble worked. Right from the outset Pantano was fast in testing, and more importantly carried that speed over to the racing environment as well: there were few weekends where the affable Italian wasn't in at least one of the press conferences, for either qualifying or the races, and it was clear that the relationships between the newcomers and the older hands was blossoming in the furnace of on-track success.
And not only was the Pantano-Campos relationship working, but success soon crossed to the other side of the pit. Little was written about Vitaly Petrov joining the team at the start of the year, with most observers expecting nothing from the quiet Russian who had come into the series midway through the previous season with DPR to little acclaim, failing even to score a point during the 8 races he drove for the English team.
He again started the 2007 season slowly, but there were clear signs of improvement as the relationship with the team improved: he scored his first points in Monaco before becoming a regular points scorer as the season progressed, working up to a top 3 qualifying performance in Monza ahead of the phenomenal win in the season finale at Campos' home track in Valencia, leading his teammate across the line for an emotional 1-2.
And perhaps this is the mark of just how strong Campos have now become: while strong performances for Pantano are expected, the team has now made Petrov a winner too. It remains to be seen what their next move will be, but it is clear that 2007 will go down as the year that Campos really arrived in the GP2 championship.
Super Nova International
For Super Nova, 2007 will probably go down as the year that got away from them: after starting on a high when Luca Filippi brought home a strong win at the opening round of the season in Bahrain, there was a real sense that the rest of the year just slightly slipped out of their hands, for whatever reason.
Which is not to say that they had nothing more to cheer about: Filippi managed six podium finishes over the year, with teammate Mike Conway also bringing one home at his home race in Silverstone. It's just that the team possibly suffered from the weight of expectation after claiming their first victory since Spa 2005, and as the season progressed it seemed that the team was pulling in different directions as they looked to add to their win tally.
Largely, though, the biggest fight the team had all season was with their own bad luck. Five retirements for Filippi and eight for Conway were just the tip of their iceberg: both drivers were forced out of the points on numerous occasions due to car gremlins that had the Super Nova pitwall howling with rage, along with mistakes by other drivers (Sebastien Buemi punting Filippi out at the first corner at the Nurburgring) or their own (Conway's embarrassing spin out of the pits in Monaco).
Nevertheless there were clear signs of speed throughout the year: Filippi's qualifying in particular was strong, with two pole positions as the icing on the cake, and Conway brought home a fastest lap in Germany and finished the year as one of the biggest overtakers on the grid.
And it is these highpoints that the team will take with them into the off-season: if there was a sense that 2007 was a year to be endured for Super Nova, there was still much to point them towards a belief in a better 2008.
What a difference a year makes. At the end of 2006 DAMS looked on the ropes, having scored just 14 points on their way to 11th in the championship, with just a podium for Franck Perera in Monaco to show for a full year's work. By contrast 2007 saw the French team take two wins in the experienced hands of Nicolas Lapierre, six podiums for rookie sensation Kazuki Nakajima, and a solid haul of points to get DAMS back up to the sharp end of the grid.
After the disappointments of last year it was clear that the team needed to get back to basics, and the signing of Lapierre was an indication that the team was going to do just that. The Frenchman is one of the most experienced drivers in the field, and with his injuries as a result of his crash in Monaco bringing his push for the title to a premature halt there was no question that he was fired up to show what he can do at the start of this season, as could be seen by his celebrations at his long overdue victory in Bahrain.
Sitting next to him was the much discussed by little seen Nakajima: early word came through of a driver who was blisteringly fast but also a little wayward, and so it initially seemed as he overdrove the car in the opening rounds, setting fastest laps but throwing the car off as well. As soon as those ragged edges were worn off, though, the Japanese driver came to change the shape of many of the races, with the rest of the field changing their pit strategy to accommodate his.
The combination pushed DAMS back into the spotlight: having learnt their lessons it's hard to see the French team having a repeat performance of last year's efforts in the future.
Javier Villa: triple race winner. As unlikely as that statement may have seemed at the end of the 2006 season after the young Spaniard failed to score a point in his rookie year, that was exactly what happened in 2007 to give Racing Engineering their moments in the sun in a season that was dramatic even by their standards.
After disappointment in Bahrain the team really got their season underway in Barcelona, scoring points for both drivers and a maiden podium for Villa in front of a large home crowd. From there it was onward and upward, with the Spaniard claiming wins on the Sunday races in Magny Cours, the Nurburgring and the Hungaroring, leading solidly from the front row of the grid despite constant pressure from behind.
But if Villa was the rock the team anchored themselves around, the other side of the pit was in flux as Sergio Jimenez, Ernesto Viso, Filipe Albuquerque and Marcos Martinez all spent time in the number 15 car. The most memorable of those was Viso, sadly for the wrong reasons as a result of his horrific crash in Magny Cours, but the fact that he was back and smiling in the paddock the next day was a testament to the team as well as the incredible job done by Dallara.
Of the remaining drivers Jimenez looked quick and ready to dice with the rest of the field, Albuquerque (perhaps unsurprisingly) kept out of trouble in a one-off appearance, and Martinez recovered from a shaky start to put in some decent performances at the end of the season, although Jimenez looked to be the only one able to compete with the team's lead driver.
Villa is almost certain to lead the team out next year as he takes a run at the title, a huge responsibility for the 20 year old. He will no doubt be hoping that the team will have learnt from the other teams this year that a little stability on the driver front can pay big dividends at the end of the season.
The question most people asked about Arden International at the end of the season is this: what happened? Coming out of the gate like a scalded cat, the team had both drivers in the points in Bahrain and then went even better in Barcelona with a famous victory for Bruno Senna, the team had seemingly found the answer to the woes of their previous season. And then?
Sadly, the answer was not much. The team's slump in form was baffling from the outside, albeit it propped up by a pair of podium finishes for Senna in Magny Cours and Monza to bring an air of respectability to their season, but for a team with a history as strong as Arden's there is no doubt that they will have been expecting more from the year.
One change to the usual order at Arden was the signing of two drivers new to the team and the series: over the years the British team has made a habit of running one experienced driver with an eye on the title and one newer driver to gain experience before taking his shot at the title the next year, but with both of the 2006 drivers moving on for 2007 Arden was effectively forced into changing this strategy.
The signing of Senna focused a lot of attention on the team, which was inevitable considering his illustrious name, while Adrian Zaugg was seen as a young hotshot who deserved to be in the series after showing pace in the lower categories. Unfortunately for Arden the lack of experience was telling: both drivers made rookie mistakes, as could be expected, but only Senna showed the pace to take the fight to the upper reaches of the field.
But a team of the stature of Arden doesn't fall apart over night, and they will take the speed shown in Monza and Spa as an indication that they still have the ability to field a strong challenge in the right hands.
If there was a prize for most raucous pitwall it would definitely go to Durango every year, where at some races it looked as though the action there was outdoing that on the track. But equally they would win the prize for most passionate team as well: no other team seems to be quite so enthralled with the on-track action as the plucky Italians, who celebrated like no other team when the planets aligned and they picked up a superb win in the hands of Karun Chandhok.
Chandhok's win in Spa on Sunday morning was possibly the most popular victory of the season, and certainly one of the most well known: within minutes it seemed that everyone on the Indian sub continent was trying to call the ecstatic driver or his father, generating motor racing press previously unheard of in the cricket mad country, and immediately promoted him into the top flight of Indian sporting stars.
It was nothing more than Chandhok, and Durango, deserved: the team had done a good job all year, and the Indian was desperately unlucky to have been pushed out of the lead in Turkey by Kazuki Nakajima, losing at least a certain podium finish in the process, before bringing home the team's highlight of the season.
The only downside to the win is that it put Chandhok's teammate Borja Garcia somewhat in the shade: the Spaniard did a good job of picking up points for most of the season, outscored his teammate 28 to 16, but didn't get the all important photo opportunity on the podium to show for his efforts. But it was the combination of both drivers' efforts that pushed the team higher up the team's ladder than some of their more fancied rivals, and it's certain that Durango would have been quietly thankful they ran both drivers this year.
Petrol Ofisi FMS International
Public proclamations of love for their new signing. Recriminations and rancour when driver and team part ways. Emotional wins against the odds. Heartbreaking tales of woe when they don't make the finish. Tears and cheers, champagne and sackcloth. Just another year in the history of FMS International.
The 2007 adventure began with the signing of former F1 driver Antonio Pizzonia: the team was looking to the Brazilian to spearhead their campaign after Giorgio Pantano moved to Campos, while Pizzonia was looking to FMS to give him the opportunity to take a run at the title and put his career back on track. Ironically the Brazilian soon came together with his Italian predecessor in Bahrain, with Pizzonia coming off very much the worse for wear, and it seemed only a matter of time before a new driver would be sitting in the red and white car.
That new driver was Adam Carroll, given a lifeline to get back into topflight single seater racing after moving to the DTM series, and he picked up the ball and ran with it: two wins, five podiums, and talk that he would have been a title contender had he started the season with the team followed. Both parties added to the mix: Carroll's speed and ability was undoubted, while swift thinking from the pitwall set up the Ulsterman for an against the odds victory in Istanbul.
Spare a thought too for Jason Tahinci, who probably came into the series too early considering his experience, but showed clear signs of improvement this year: the Turkish driver was desperately unlucky to be punted out of both races at his home circuit while looking set to bring home his first points in the series, his best opportunity this year to help push the team up the standings.
After hitting the ground running in 2006, Trident Racing came back to earth with a thump in 2007, struggling to maintain their form for a variety of reasons outside of their control, albeit with the slightly softened landing provided by a promotionally useful win by Pastor Maldonado at the legendary Monaco circuit.
The Venezuelan came to the series with a reputation of being somewhat wild but very, very fast: his time in the car did little to dispel this, having been involved in a number of on-track incidents with his competitors over his 13 races prior to picking up a sporting injury between Hungary and Turkey, but team boss Alessandro Alunni Bravi would have forgiven him most of those after being drenched in champagne by his driver on the front straight of the Principality.
Kohei Hirate also came to the paddock with a big reputation, being seen as one of the leading lights of Toyota's young driver programme, but he was soon put in the shade by fellow TDP driver Kazuki Nakajima: as a result Hirate seemed to be swallowed up by the pressure, and 8 retirements points to a problem that snowballed as the season went on.
Maldonado's replacements Ricardo Risatti and Sergio Hernandez added little to the team's results (although the Argentinean was briefly notorious after knocking championship leader Timo Glock off track as they made their way to the dummy grid in Spa), but considering the problems Trident did well to bring home 3 podium finishes (2 for Maldonado, the other for Hirate), and will be looking to rebuild the team ahead of the 2008 season.
And they'll be able to keep telling everyone they won in Monaco. Have we mentioned that yet?
Minardi Piquet Sports
After touching the heights in 2006 when Piquet Sports came second in both championships running Nelson Piquet Jr, 2007 was a brutal reminder of just how competitive the GP2 series has become: the newly rebranded Minardi Piquet Sports finished 11 th in the championship with just 22 points after a season of heartbreak and woe.
After such a successful season the year before, many observers expected even more from the Italo-Brazilian team, but that was to miss the serious changes that had gone on inside the team during the off season. Most obvious of those was the departure of team talisman Piquet Jr to Renault, which seemed to leave a gaping hole after being the basis of their initial existence, a hole that was not entirely filled despite the merger with the legendary Italian marque.
In hindsight the team should have dampened down expectation by stating that it was a rebuilding year: they lost members of the team as a consequence of the move to Faenza, and the Minardi half was clearly going to need time to get used to the pressure cooker atmosphere of GP2.
The drivers did their part, but the job of pulling the team together was probably beyond either Roldan Rodriguez, making his debut in the series on the back of 2 nd in Spanish F3, or Xandi Negrao, who despite starting his third season was still only 20 and had spent his whole career in the shadow of Piquet Jr.
There were clear signs of speed over the season: both drivers ended up on the podium, and both had strong fights up and down the field all year. But ultimately the biggest fight the team lost was simply with bad luck: Negrao in particular must qualify as the unluckiest driver of the season after seemingly endless different problems stopped him scoring solid points. Having now left England, the team will clearly have to pick up a number of black cats to bring good fortune back to the team for next year.
Dave Price must have filled his truck with horseshoes ahead of the final two races this year in Spa and Valencia: prior to the events his team had not scored a single point in 2007, but two podiums in the final two weekends gave the team a pickup just when they must have given up hope, reviving the team's flagging fortunes as they head into the all important off-season and look to attract drivers for next year.
A lot of the credit has to go to Andy Soucek, who never stopped trying in a season that would have beaten many other drivers: the two podiums were nothing less than he deserved after the difficulties he'd lived through earlier in the season, and his team were clearly in love with him as he sprayed the champagne over them in Spa and at his home circuit in Valencia.
Equally, behind the scenes moves by Price to prop up his flagging engineering staff mid-season paid dividends, with the quiet desperation of the early season soon changing to hope and then delight, the entire team almost exploding with joy as they watched Soucek bring the car home in the points in race one at Spa, finally allowing them to get the monkey off their back and look for more improvement at last.
Sadly, on the other side of their pit Christian Bakkerud was unable to show much, as a recurring back injury picked up early in the season put the cheerful Dane out of the car for a number of events, handing Olivier Pla the opportunity to be briefly reunited with his old team. Both drivers will be hoping for something more next year.
Enrique Scalabroni must be thanking his lucky stars that Spa was brought back onto the calendar this year, given that all of his team's points this season were scored at the legendary circuit at the hands of Ho-Pin Tung , who picked up an eighth and a fourth in the two races there. A points finish were long overdue for the Cino-Dutch driver, however, and the weekend brought to a close a string of ninth place finishes which threatened to deny the talented rookie any reward for his solid performances throughout the year.
The team also provided a platform for Sakon Yamamoto to stay near the Formula One paddock, which ultimately allowed the Japanese driver to take advantage of an opportunity to return when a spot opened up at Spyker, showing once again how important the series is for promoting drivers to the top of the motorsport pile. With Yamamoto moving up the Spanish team gave Markus Niemela a chance, and the Finn showed well despite his lack of testing, particularly in Monza where he moved up from the back of the grid to finish ninth and just outside of the points.
However, there is no doubt that BCN will be disappointed with their season: the team were relatively reliable but just too slow to be able to compete with most of their rivals, the ultimate goal of racing. While they were always likely to struggle running rookies in the series, the team will have to substantially boost their engineering strength if they hope to show any improvement next year, particularly as their rivals will also be improving their performaces during the off-season. The team have a long road ahead of them to get back on terms with the competition over the next few months.