The 2015 GP2 series was won very convincingly by McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne, as he became the most successful driver in the history of the category. With Vandoorne being demoted into Japanese Super Formula, runner-up Alexander Rossi promoted to IndyCar and fourth-placed driver Rio Haryanto promoted to F1, some of the big hitters from last year are not around to fight this time.
With reigning European Formula Three champion Felix Rosenqvist off racing in Blancpain and Indy Lights, and reigning GP3 champion Esteban Ocon racing in DTM, the rookie class is a bit lacklustre compared to the last couple of years. Nevertheless, a number of impressive rookies from last year will be looking to improve in their sophomore campaigns, and a few experienced racers will need to really challenge for the title in their 2016 GP2 series campaigns to have any real chance of being picked up by a F1 team for 2017 and beyond.
Sergey Sirotkin – ART – 3rd in 2015, 5th in Formula Renault 3.5 (2014)
Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin was the top rookie last year, and is also the highest-placed driver returning to the series. He took a lone feature race win at Silverstone but consistent points finishes and rostrums helped him secure third in the championship. He moves to ART to replace Vandoorne and anything but the title for the Renault test driver will surely be a disappointment. He will be looking to emulate Vandoorne by taking the title in only his second season, something rarely seen in the Pirelli-shod era of GP2 racing.
Mitch Evans – Campos – 5th in 2015, 2012 GP3 Champion
Entering his fourth season of GP2 racing, Evans is the most experienced of the championship contenders. Then with Russian Time, Evans had a dire first six rounds of the season, standing on the podium just once. However in the final nine races he scored six podiums – two sprint race wins and four third places, with his weekend at Monza being very impressive as he came from dead last on Saturday to win on Sunday. He is also taking part in the European Le Mans Series this year, and should his GP2 stint not lead into F1, he is making a name as a very handy prototype driver.
Alex Lynn – DAMS – 6th in 2015, 2014 GP3 Champion
Williams young driver Lynn will certainly be towards the front again in 2016. He had what was very much an up-and-down 2015 campaign, where he took two victories but he had 11 non-scoring finishes or DNFs. For 2016, a much more consistent year could well yield a championship for the Briton, and with Valtteri Bottas and maybe Felipe Massa potentially both on the move for next year, Lynn must be in with a shout of getting into one of the stronger cars on the grid in what would be his rookie season, provided he delivers the goods this year.
Rafaelle Marciello – Russian Time – 7th in 2015, 2013 Formula Three Europe Champion
The first of the drivers with an outside shot of the title this year is Italian driver Marciello. He entered GP2 in 2014 off the back of a scorching Formula Three campaign. However the results have been far from fruitful. Bad luck and occasional misjudgement cost him in his rookie campaign, and last season saw a simple lack of speed compared to the likes of Rossi and Vandoorne result in a single feature race podium. He has big shoes to fill at Russian Time as he replaces Evans, but that outfit knows how to win races. He needs a consistently quick season this year to really feature, which will be tough, but the speed is almost certainly there.
Pierre Gasly – Prema – 8th in 2015, 2nd in Formula Renault 3.5 (2014)
A lot of recent talk at Red Bull has been how Daniil Kvyat has cracked under pressure and has since been demoted to Toro Rosso. Another man under serious pressure at Red Bull is their most experienced junior driver Gasly of France. He has gone two seasons now without a single race win, and although he kept in touch with Carlos Sainz in 2014, wins and possibly a championship may be a must for Gasly, who must be ready to jump into a vacant Toro Rosso seat if one pops up for next year. With new team Prema (the absolute powerhouse in Formula Three right now), this may need to be a learning year. However Gasly cannot afford another season without a race win, so they need to be on the pace quickly.
Nobuharu Matsushita – ART – 9th in 2015, 2014 Japanese Formula Three Champion
Matsushita had the seemingly impossible task of being Vandoorne’s team mate last year but did a very respectable job considering it was his first season on a bunch of circuits he did not know, in a car he did not know, and on tyres he did not know. With more experience with ART than his new team mate Sirotkin, some strong results early in the year may raise some eyebrows for McLaren’s latest development driver, and someone Honda has kept an eye on for a while. However I believe Sirotkin is better poised to challenge for the title this year, so Matsushita will need to overcome that obstacle before thinking of fighting for the honour himself.
Oliver Rowland – MP – 21st in 2015, 2015 Formula Renault 3.5 Champion
Rowland’s seriously strong Formula Renault campaign last year saw him get backing from the French manufacturer for 2016, and few will argue against him getting backing from a name such as Renault. He will be entering his first full season as a GP2 driver this year and not really with a team which would normally be expecting to feature towards the front, but Rowland – who had a solid outing in Formula E in place of an injured Nick Heidfeld recently, is a driver strong enough to possibly drag any team at this level to the front, provided he gets to grips with the tyres as quickly as possible.