GP2: Round 17/18 – Portimao, Portugal – 19/20 September

With the GP2 title decided in Nico Hulkenberg’s favour back in Monza, this final weekend for GP2 was something of an unwanted and unloved formality – and the lack of almost any spectators and even the pit lane itself looking deserted, it felt very much like an anti-climax for the official F1 support series.

The Portimao track has some definite things to recommend it – some sweeping corners and some breathtaking undulations as the track rises and falls. But the construction was rushed back in 2007, and it’s built on sandy ground that is now settling leading to the track degrading rather alarmingly for such a young venue. Most of all, however, the track seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and the background landscape about as appealing as an industrial estate. Shame, and no doubt impacting on the size of the crowd – or lack thereof.

Still, the on-track action is the most important thing: would Nico go out on a race-winning high, or would rivals Vitaly Petrov, Lucas di Grassi and Luca Filippi finish the season with a florish?

Feature race

Hulkenberg got off to a strong start, easily passing the sluggish Dani Clos starting from second on the grid; Clos also got swamped by di Grassi and Rodriguez. But despite being clearly quicker, Nico wasn’t able to get past Vitaly Petrov for the lead.

At the back of the pack, Edoardo Mortara and Javier Villa clashed and spun into the first turn, leaving Mortara’s car stranded in the middle of the track necessitating a safety car which lasted an inordinately long time as the marshals seemed poorly trained at coping with a routing situation – it’s the first time for months that GP2 hasn’t been at an F1 event and the difference in standards was glaring. By the time that the race got underway on lap 5, Karun Chandhok had come to a halt with engine problems – his car was left at the side with no attempt to move it.

Hulkenberg had a serious go at Petrov at the restart, but Petrov – despite clearly struggling to match the champion’s pace – was nonetheless able to hold him back, and so Nico settled ino to second place with a “watch and wait” brief.

The biggest opportunity would clearly be the mandatory pit stops, which the drivers held off on for a few laps in case the clouds overhead delivered more than the odd spot of rain apparent in the first few laps. Nothing came of it, however, and Filippi – having started from 13th place – was among the first of the cars to come in for a pit stop on lap 6. That put him out on fresh rubber in clear space, and he set about putting in a brilliant series of fastest laps in the hope of vaulting over a few cars when they came in later on.

Filippi’s strategy worked handsomely: when Nico Hulkenberg came in a few laps later after having been held up behind Petrov, he emerged only narrowly ahead of Filippi on track. Luca’s success was underlined when Petrov pitted a couple of laps later and came out behind them both; and Petrov’s misery was compounded by a poor out lap that saw Luca di Grassi able to emerge from his own pit stop ahead of the Russian.

Although Filippi struggled in the closing laps having stretched this set of rubber further than anyone else, he was still able to keep di Grassi and Petrov behind him as Hulkenberg sailed off into the distance – the top four spots were decided. But the fight was still very much on in the mid-field, especially after a clash between Alvaro Parente and Sergio Perez when neither driver refused to back off into the first chicane left the two cars stranded on track, and another safety car closed up the cars to make overtaking a very real opportunity.

Most of the action revolved around the positions from 5th on down. Pastor Maldonardo had flat-spotted his tyres with a massive lunge down the start-finish straight at the restart that had given him temporary custody of 5th from Roldan Rodriguez for a lap; Maldonardo’s tyre damage was causing everyone to bunch up behind him, drawing Michael Herck, Davide Valsecchi, Zuber, Clos, Davide Rigon, Javier Villa, Luiz Razia, Diego Nunes and others into a multi-way fight. In the end, Maldonardo’s tyres gave up the ghost and he was easy fodder in the closing laps for everyone to get past him. Dani Clos also lost his chance for points with a dramatic spin on the hill down to the hairpin, while Nunes was also tapped into a rather more innocuous spin and fell out of the fight.

But this was all great news for Kamui Kobayashi, a driver not known for being a big overtaker but who managed to pass multiple cars on successive laps in his best performance of the season. It should also have been a great afternoon for DPR’s Michael Herck who led the race for several laps by staying out longer than the leaders and showing genuine pace; but sadly for Herck, he was subsequently excluded from the results after finishing in 6th following a post-race inspection of the car that revealed that it was in breach of the ride height regulations. It was especially galling for the DPR team who have yet to score a single point all season – and no GP2 team has ever finished pointless before. Not a record any team wants! The exclusion elevated Andreas Zuber into the all-important 8th place which gives Zuber pole for the sprint race under the reverse grid rules.

Johnny Cecotto has had form of a different kind – of being one of the last retirements in both races at Monza, but this time he changed all that … by being the first to retire, before the race even began, after crashing while exiting the pits to join the dummy grid.

As ever, the results were subject to heavy editing by the race stewards after the event: Michael Herck, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Davide Rigon and Ricardo Teixeira, were penalised for cutting the first chicane; with Herck already excluded and D’Ambrosio an early retirement, the other two received 25s dropping them to 14th and 15th. D’Ambrosio gets a five place grid penalty for the sprint race instead, as does Giedo van der Garde, who also failed to finish, for not giving back a position that he gained by cutting the chicane at the start.

Race result

Pos  Driver               Team                    Time/Gap
 1.  Nico Hulkenberg      ART                 1h03m43.837s
 2.  Luca Filippi         Super Nova              + 9.730s
 3.  Lucas di Grassi      Racing Engineering      + 9.936s
 4.  Vitaly Petrov        Addax                  + 10.360s
 5.  Roldan Rodriguez     Piquet                 + 15.095s
 6   Kamui Kobayashi      DAMS                   + 24.097s
 7.  Davide Valsecchi     Addax                  + 29.337s
 8.  Andreas Zuber        Coloni                 + 32.301s
 9.  Dani Clos            Racing Engineering     + 34.473s 
10.  Luiz Razia           Coloni                 + 35.096s
11.  Pastor Maldonado     ART                    + 37.551s
12.  Diego Nunes          iSport                 + 38.478s
13.  Javier Villa         Super Nova             + 40.020s
14.  Davide Rigon         Trident                + 58.012s 
15.  Ricardo Teixeira     Trident                + 63.143s

Retirements:
     Michael Herck        DPR                Excluded
     Alvaro Parente       Ocean              22 laps
     Sergio Perez         Arden              22 laps
     Giedo van der Garde  iSport             22 laps
     Alberto Valerio      Piquet             4 laps
     Jerome d'Ambrosio    DAMS               4 laps
     Karun Chandhok       Ocean              1 lap
     Edoardo Mortara      Arden              0 laps
     Johnny Cecotto       DPR                0 laps

Sprint race

It’s just as well the crowds weren’t out in force for the final GP2 weekend of 2009, because the start – or rather, series of starts – were something of a disaster.

The first attempt at a start was waved off after Johnny Cecotto stalled as the cars lined up on the grid – so far, so normal. But at the next attempt at a start, Vitaly Petrov jerked forward as the red lights went out – and then stalled. It was too late to abort the start so all Petrov could do was sit there and hope no one ploughed into the back of him. It almost worked, but then along came Michael Herck, starting form the back of the grid and theefore now moving too fast to react when he saw the Addax car sat right in front of him. He tried to pull right but hit the back of Petrov’s car in a violent explosion of carbon fibre that flew all over the start-finish straight.

A safety car was inevitable, and in fact the stewards went to the ultimate level and red flagged the race while Petrov and Herck were extracted and the considerable wreckage cleaned up: Petrov walked away albeit unsteady on his feet, but Herck was another matter and needed to be carefully removed and dispatched to the local hospital. By the time the race was underway again and the cars circulating behind the safety car for a lap before the green was given, it was announced that the race would now be time-limited.

Surely they could get the race going with a rolling restart? No, even this was screwed up. Andreas Zuber led the field into the restart, giving the safety car what he felt was the usual amount of time to get into the pits ahead past the blind corner on the start-finish straight. Unfortunately when he and the rest of the pack rounded the corner, the safety car was still on track, apparently dwardling its way into the pit lane. Thankfully no one hit the safety car, but a half dozen cars all passed it before the pit lane entrance – a serious breach of the rules.

Who was to blame for the debacle? The safety car driver should have been going faster and clearing off the track; the track was also designed in such a way that the cars behind couldn’t see the pit lane until it was too late, and to suddenly check up through the final corner would have been to trigger a massive accident. If it was any driver’s fault then it had to be polesitter Zuber, since he set the pace once the safety car disappeared and everyone else was supposed to be following his lead. But of course the stewards, as is increasingly their way in GP2, chos the most pedantic by-the-rules race spoiling interpretation of all and handed down drive-thru penalties to all the cars that had passed the safety car before the pit entrance.

That effectively torpedoed the entire race. Zuber, Davide Valsecchi, Kamui Kobayashi, Nick Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonardo and Lucas di Grassi all crawled through the pit lane, their sprint race destroyed. It left Luca Filippi in the lead, for nothing more than blind luck – he had been car enough down the running order that by the time he arrived at the scene of the crime, the safety car had indeed been in the pits.

As it turned out, Filippi thoroughly deserved his first win of the season for entirely unrelated reasons. After the green flag – but before all the penalties – he had pulled off a peach of an overtaking move on Hulkenberg, catching the GP2 championship leader completely unawares. And then a couple of laps later he had watched di Grassi and Kobayashi fighting their way through the first chicane and getting out of shape, and needed no second invitation to pounce and slice past them both. Definitely the moves of the day.

Once all the penalties had cycled through, the top drivers were mired well back in the pack, not helped by the bottleneck caused by Karun Chandhok who had already managed to spin his car in the early laps and now was simply not terribly fast. Hulkenberg and di Grassi had a nice extended battle, but the zest had gone out of the day and frankly it was a relief when the time limit brought out the chequered flag and put the top on this GP2 season.

The racing in GP2 can be every bit a match for F1, but they really need to get some of the stewarding sorted out because it’s getting to the stage when you know that whatever the order at the end of the race, the stewards will be along to rewrite it later on – which is no way for a sport to work. Typically, then, the stewards had one final little jab – handing second-placed Sergio Perez a 25s penalty after a review of video evidence showed that he too had overtaken the safety car at that restart.

That left Filippi’s Super Nova team mate in second place, giving the team a startling but gratifying one-two. At least someone was happy with how the final race of the season had gone!

Race result

Pos  Driver               Team                    Time/Gap
 1.  Luca Filippi         Super Nova          1h01m55.822s
 2.  Javier Villa         Super Nova              + 8.351s
 3.  Dani Clos            Racing Engineering      + 9.026s
 4.  Alvaro Parente       Ocean                   + 9.430s
 5.  Diego Nunes          iSport                 + 13.646s
 6.  Giedo van der Garde  iSport                 + 13.932s
 7.  Alberto Valerio      Piquet                 + 19.357s
 8.  Edoardo Mortara      Arden                  + 21.674s
 9.  Davide Rigon         Trident                + 21.882s
10.  Jerome D'Ambrosio    DAMS                   + 24.031s
11.  Sergio Perez         Arden                  + 29.141s
12.  Andreas Zuber        Coloni                 + 30.244s
13.  Karun Chandhok       Ocean                  + 33.425s
14.  Davide Valsecchi     Addax                  + 33.869s
15.  Lucas di Grassi      Racing Engineering     + 34.790s
16.  Nico Hulkenberg      ART                    + 35.036s
17.  Luiz Razia           Coloni                 + 39.546s
18.  Johnny Cecotto Jr    DPR                    + 50.684s
19.  Kamui Kobayashi      DAMS                   + 51.728s
20.  Pastor Maldonado     ART                    + 52.557s
21.  Ricardo Teixeira     Trident                  + 1 lap

Retirements:

     Roldan Rodríguez     Piquet              5 laps
     Michael Herck        DPR                 0 laps
     Vitaly Petrov        Addax               0 laps

Final GP2 championship standings

The post-race penalty for Sergio Perez might have seemed a technicality, but it had a knock-on effect for the final team standings: Super Nova’s one-two put it ahead of Racing Engineering for second in the championship on a countback of second places.

Nico Hulkenberg – the only real ‘rookie’ among the front runners – wins the GP2 championship easily. With strong records in other series – notably A1GP a couple of years back – surely this latest evidence of sustained all-round form will see him in F1 next year?

Less rosy are the prospects of Filippi, di Grassi and Petrov. All are old hands in GP2, a series that’s not intended for longevity of service, and now that they have been eclipsed by Hulkenberg the question has to be: can they afford to stick around any longer in GP2? Has their moment well and truly gone?

Pos Driver           Points
1   Nico Hülkenberg     100
2   Vitaly Petrov        75
3   Lucas Di Grassi      63
4   Romain Grosjean      45
5   Luca Filippi         40
6   Pastor Maldonado     36
7   Giedo van der Garde  34
8   Álvaro Parente       30
9   Jérôme D'Ambrosio    29
10  Javier Villa         27
11  Roldán Rodríguez     25
12  Sergio Pérez         22
13  Andreas Zuber        21
14  Edoardo Mortara      19
15  Alberto Valério      16
16  Kamui Kobayashi      13
17  Davide Valsecchi     12
18  Karun Chandhok       10
19  Luiz Razia            8
20  Diego Nunes           8
21  Daniel Clos           4
22  Davide Rigon          3
23  Michael Herck         0
24  Nelson Panciatici     0
25  Stefano Coletti       0
26  Ricardo Teixeira      0
27  Giacomo Ricci         0
28  Franck Perera         0
29  Rodolfo Gonzalez      0
30  Johnny Cecotto Jr.    0
        
Pos Team                Points
1   ART Grand Prix         136
2   Barwa Addax Team       122
3   Super Nova Racing       67
4   Racing Engineering      67
5   iSport International    42
6   DAMS                    42
7   Piquet GP               41
8   Telmex Arden            41
9   Ocean Racing Technology 40
10  FMS International       20
11  Durango                 10
12  Party Poker - Coloni     9
13  Trident Racing           3
14  DPR                      0
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