To say that it’s not been a vintage year for British drivers in GP2 is something of an understatement.
Our only regular starter has been Mike Conway at Trident Racing who experienced a pretty frustrating season, characterised by crashes, retirements and underperformance.
Northern Ireland’s Adam Carroll did a short stint for Fisichella Motorsport as that team was experiencing a spot of driver turmoil. And Ben Hanley, toiling away at Campos, found himself unceremoniously dropped mid-season.
But, realistically, Conway was the only show in town. So we thought we’d take a look at his racing year – and assess how he fared against pre-season expectations.
On the verge of greatness
Conway came to GP2 on the back of great things. He won the 2006 British F3 International championship and acquired the management services of the Brundle/Blundell outfit 2MB. That year he became the first Briton to win the Macau Grand Prix since Darren Manning in 1999.
He also won the 2006 McLaren Autosport National Racing Driver of the Year Award and got an immediate break in GP2 replacing an injured driver at Silverstone.
In 2007 his first full GP2 season was spent with the British Super Nova Racing outfit, in which he collected 19 points and a single fastest lap to come 14th in the drivers’ championship. However he was significantly behind team-mate Luca Filippi, who amassed 59 points to come fourth. The team was fourth overall in the championship.
Trident – a 2008 title challenger?
Signing with Trident Racing for 2008 was meant to be the start of great things. Certainly Conway was optimistic enough to aim for a title shot, saying that believed the team could offer him the chance to challenge for the 2008 drivers’ championship.
He said then: “Having completed my rookie season I have knowledge of all the tracks and the experience of racing at this level, which gives me the foundations to be competing at the front right from the start of the season.
“They have a high-calibre team with the resources and experience to provide me with the infrastructure that I need to do the job on track.”
Team boss Alessandro Alunni Bravi was ebullient: “The arrival of Mike Conway represents a really special moment in the history of Trident Racing, and a starting point for the team’s 2008 ambitions. He was definitely our first driver choice since the end of the season, and we did the best we could to secure his services.
“We know that [the 2008] season will be vital for Mike’s bid to build a successful future in Formula One. Trident Racing will do anything possible to provide Mike with the best technical material, and to help him in the best possible way.”
A challenge that faded fast
So, how did 2008 work out for Conway and Trident? Sadly the pre-season high spirits of the team very quickly turned out not to be justified. Conway was forced to retire in his very first race after an accident on the second lap.
In fact, he only managed a single podium – a win in the Monaco sprint race where he also put in his sole fastest lap – and his second-best result was a fourth place in the Hockenheim sprint.
He had been on for a win in the Monaco feature race until Javier Villa hit him on the final trip through the notorious tunnel, sending Conway spinning out of the race. He was classified eighth and thus acquired the sprint race pole, to impressive effect.
He amassed a total of 20 points, which allowed him to finish 12th in the drivers’ championship, and his season seemed beset with frustrations caused by both mechanical problems and on-track incidents.
As a result he notched up five retirements from 20 races – or a quarter of those he took part in.
His average position for those feature and sprint races that he did finish was seventh. Still, at least he managed to beat his rookie team-mate Ho-Pin Tung, who scored seven points to come 18th overall.
Trident finished the year ninth out of the 13 teams taking part in GP2.
A launching-pad for F1?
If, as Bravi suggested, 2008 was a crucial year for Conway to build a career in F1 then the omens don’t look particularly good.
In February this year it was confirmed that he had won a testing role with Honda alongside his old team-mate Filippi, who had also left Super Nova to join front-runner ART.
This meant a set number of days with Honda assigned by the FIA for evaluating new drivers while developing its car – a recent example was Conway’s appearance at the Jerez test that followed the Italian Grand Prix.
At the time he said: “I am really pleased to be continuing my association with the Honda Racing F1 Team and very much looking forward to this year.
â€œI have already learnt so much from working with the team and it will be very rewarding to be able to contribute to the development of the car this year.”
Ron Meadows, head of Honda’s young driver programme, said he was very impressed with Conway, but the driver appears to be no nearer to converting the relationship into a F1 race drive.
Almost no team has more promising but under-utilised drivers associated with it – and Takuma Sato, Anthony Davidson, Luca Filippi and James Rossiter all provide competition in this regard. Testing duties are covered by old hand Alexander Wurz.
If the team decides to change its race drive lineup, the chances are that Rubens Barrichello or Jenson Button would only make way for a big name – the one most frequently mentioned is Fernando Alonso’s – not a rookie. The team has enough troubles at the moment without adding inexperienced drivers as well.
Therefore it seems fair to assume that Conway is not particularly close to an F1 breakthrough – unless the exposure he gets testing with Honda brings him to the attention of another team, as happened for Jenson Button and Robert Kubica.
Conway’s experienced a hell of a season with Trident which certainly came nowhere close to fulfilling team and driver expectations.
Some of this was undoubtedly the rough and tumble of racing – on-track incidents over which they had no control. But Conway also experienced some setup problems and mechanical failures and it may be fair to conclude that the team simply did not prove to be as competitive as both had hoped.
It is, of course, far too early to say what will happen next year but we would not be surprised to see a parting of the ways, since Trident tested Narain Karthikeyan and Dutchman Chris Van Der Drift last month in preparation for GP2 Asia.
In fact, 2008 has been the season where Conway’s charge to the elite pinnacle of motorsport simply stalled on the grid. It is sadly possible that his loss of momentum will cause him problems in securing a competitive GP2 drive next year.
As regards F1, we are reminded of some wise words from Honda supremo Ross Brawn: “I think Mike can make it to Formula One, he is a good driver and has been doing reasonably well this year in GP2. He has been doing a great job for us in testing, and I have been very impressed with him.
“The difficulty, however, is that Formula One is such a high standard and very few drivers make it, I hope he can get there.
“His win at Monaco impressed a lot of teams, but there are only one or two drivers who make it out of GP2 for next season. You almost need to decimate the championship to become part of a Formula One team. You really have got to be quite exceptional to get there – but I wouldn’t turn my back on Mike at Honda.”
Across the pond?
However, all is not doom and gloom. Conway’s performances at Monaco show that he’s capable of rising to the occasion – and there may be other opportunities on the horizon apart from F1. Earlier in the season Conway’s Honda colleague Anthony Davidson was offered a test with American Indy Racing League (IRL) team Panther and was unable to accept due to injury.
He suggested Conway as a replacement, leading to his testing a Panther car at the Infineon Raceway near San Francisco where he topped the timesheets. Panther owner John Barnes said of him: “He actually came to the race in Kentucky, when we finished fourth, and was blown away by the ovals. He couldn’t wait to get a test and see how that came out.
“When he left… I think we’ve gotten about 25 emails and texts saying keep in touch. So he did a great job for us, and what a great young man.”
Now, this is clearly not even approximateley the same as a race drive. And Panther has recently filled seats in the junior Indy Lights formula with two entirely different British drivers, Pippa Mann and Martin Plowman.
However it’s arguable that a driver of Conway’s experience is far too senior for Indy Lights. And, if things are looking bleak in Europe, it does prove that there are at least other options out there – at a time when the arrest of leading driver Helio Castroneves for tax evasion could mean all kinds of upheavals on next year’s grid.