GP2: Grosjean takes first blood, Coletti triumphs in sprint

Romain Grosjean and Sam Bird were in a class of their own in the first GP2 feature race of 2011, while Trident’s Stefano Coletti claimed his first win in GP2 in the sprint race that also saw Bird on the podium for a second time, but Davide Rigon injured in a late accident.

Feature race

After the cold, grey and wet conditions on Friday, it was rather jarring to see the GP2 cars glittering in the bright sunshine and heat haze on the starting grid of the first GP2 feature race of 2011 at Istanbul Park, Turkey.

This track is renowned for producing some exciting, action-packed racing – and also for the way the “dirty” side of the track makes it very tough to start from second or fourth place on the grid. The Saturday GP2 race didn’t let us down in either regard.

Romain Grosjean got a great start from pole position, but Sam Bird in second struggled to get away as did Jules Bianchi starting immediately behind him in fourth. Luca Filippi got a decent get away on the other side of the grid, but it was Dani Clos who got the best blast off of all from fifth place, diving diagonally across the track to undercut Bird for the inside line into the first left hander. Filippi tried to go around the outside of Bird, sandwiching the Briton, but found he was forced wide and onto the run-off causing him to lose multiple positions and fall to sixth.

But behind them, there were problems. At the very back, Rodolfo Gonzalez – starting from the back row of the grid – managed to give a light tap on the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s Lotus ART and tip him into a slow spin right across the bows of Ocean’s Kevin Mirocha. It looked for a minute that it might be no more than an inconvenience, but then the tyres of the car briefly fused together and Gutierrez was popped up into the air at a forty-five degree angle before is slammed back down again amidst broken bodywork. Gutierrez was definitely out, parked at the end of pit road, but Mirocha’s suspension was mercifully unaffected and he could continue.

Meanwhile all eyes were on a far bigger – and scarier – accident unfolding in the exit of turn 2. Luiz Razia drifted wide on the run-off area, and as he tried to rejoin the track the car suddenly bucked on the transition between grass, paint and tarmac and sent his car sideways. Everyone around him reacted and avoided him, but Max Chilton ended up sideways himself and partially off onto the grass on the other side: at which point Fabio Leimer arrived with no time to react and ploughed right into the back of the Carlin car, which launched him sideways and rolled him completely over so that his Rapax car skidded over the width of the track balanced on its roll bar. As soon as it reached the edge of the track, the car’s suspension dug into the grass and suddenly Leimer was spinning like a top again and jolted right-side up before finally coming to a rest. At which point, Leimer cooly removed the steering wheel and walked away form the scene of the accident.

After a lengthy safety car to clear up the carbon fibre mess at both crash sites, the race restarted on lap 5 and Bird immediately set about putting his poor start to rights with a lovely smooth pass on Clos through turn 12. Bianchi was not having any similar joy at this point, and a move to try and pass Clos at the start of lap 8 ended with him running wide and allowing Luca Filippi to pass him for fourth instead.

Several cars had incidents affecting their front wings to various degrees – Jolyon Palmer and Davide Rigon all had damage, and the left hand side of Davide Valsecchi’s Team AirAsia was clipped by Trident’s Stefano Coletti at the restart. If didn’t initially appear to do Valsecchi any harm, but s the race wore on the wing started to disintegrate and eventually he was shown the black-and-orange flag calling him into the pits which put paid to any hopes of a recovery, after a post-qualifying penalty had dumped him down ten places on the grid to 18th.

Tyre wear and pit stop strategy started to become all important as the race progressed. The old GP2 playbook encouraged cars to come in as soon as the mandatory pit stop window opened (on lap 6 in Turkey) so that the car gets back out again in clear air and in open space to make the most of the fresh rubber and leap-frog those who slog around on older tyres for longer. Christian Vietoris was reading from this playbook and came in as soon as possible, but the other leaders all decided to take a wait-and-see approach.

Filippi was one of the first front-runners to come in for new tyres on lap 14, but unfortunately he came back out on track behind Johnny Cecotto Jr in the Ocean Racing Technology car. Cecotto ran wide coming out of turn 8 on lap 15 and spun across the track, collecting the unfortunate Filippi as he did so. Both cars were out of the race.

Jules Bianchi made his tyres reach almost to the midpoint of the race, and paid the price when he lost multiple positions to those on fresher rubber. Worse still he had a terrible pit stop and lost more time, but as soon as he got his fresh tyres he was immediately back in the hunt and able to move through the field in the right direction this time, as the other cars that had pitted earlier started to feel the effects of increasingly bad handling as the tyres started to grain.

Worst affected of all was Racing Engineering’s Christian Vietoris who had pitted so early in the race: the time the race was into its final ten laps he was in a dreadful state, no more than a mobile chicane bunching up crowds of cars behind him until they found a suitable place to surge past him and force him aside. He was losing half a dozen positions in a single lap, and the writing was on the wall: he had to return to pit lane to have his initial set of tyres (barely used; one previous owner) reattached so that he could make it to the end of the race sometime before the sun went down.

Seemingly the only people unconcerned and unaffected by the tyre shenanigans were the leaders, Romain Grosjean and Sam Bird. Bird had been staying in touch with the Dams until they both came in for pit stops on lap 16, but he lost time in pit lane and when they were back up to race speed Bird found himself over 5s off the back of Grosjean.

Bird wasn’t giving up, and over the course of the next ten laps he did all has could to close the gap. And it was working: setting the fastest laps, he was cutting several tenths of Grosjean’s lead so that by the start of lap 29 it was down to under a second and they were over 20s ahead of third place.

That was now Jules Bianchi, who had clawed his way back to third place with a nice move on Addax’s Giedo van der Garde who had been among those to pit early in the race. Bianchi’s move demonstrated his superior grip and ability to take a tighter, faster line through corners than van der Garde thanks to his later pit stop, proving that in the new era of Pirelli tyres the question of durability and tyre management will be as vital in GP2 as it’s proving to be in F1.

As if to prove the point about tyres, fifth placed Dani Clos tried braking into turn 12 with four laps to go and found there was simply no braking capability left in the rubber, sending him sailing off into the run off area and allowing Trident’s Stefano Coletti and Team AirAsia’s Luiz Razia a free pass. He would also lose seventh place to Addax’s Charles Pic in the remaining laps, but that came with a silver lining as the eighth placed finished gives him pole position alongside Pic on the reverse grid for Sunday’s sprint race.

At the front, Sam Bird kept the pressure on right until the final lap, but Romain Grosjean simply seemed impervious, calling upon his F1 experience to keep the race nicely under control. But finally, even the Dams car’s tyres started to protest their punishment, and Grosjean drifted wide in turn 12 with Bird perfectly placed to take advantage and pounce in the final two corners. Grosjean cleverly positioned his car and practically parked it on the apex into those final turns, and the presence of a backmarker also limited Bird’s freedom of movement, and so the Frenchman just about made it to the chequered flag in the lead.

If there had been another lap to run then it would have been anybody’s guess who would have taken the first feature race victory of the new season, which is just how race fans like it. All in all, a very entertaining and successful return to duty for GP2.

Feature race results

Pos Driver               Team            Time/Gap
 1. Romain Grosjean      Dams          57:09.999s
 2. Sam Bird             iSport       +    0.332s
 3. Jules Bianchi        ART          +   35.856s
 4. Giedo van der Garde  Addax        +   45.933s
 5. Stefano Coletti      Trident      +   52.280s
 6. Luiz Razia           AirAsia      +   52.866s
 7. Charles Pic          Addax        + 1:03.117s
 8. Dani Clos            Racing Eng.  + 1:11.822s
 9. Marcus Ericsson      iSport       + 1:12.913s
10. Davide Rigon         Coloni       + 1:15.636s
11. Christian Vietoris   Racing Eng.  + 1:20.559s
12. Fairuz Fauzy         Super Nova   + 1:26.007s
13. Josef Kral           Arden        + 1:31.885s
14. Michael Herck        Coloni       + 1:43.492s
15. Kevin Mirocha        Ocean        +     1 lap
16. Davide Valsecchi     AirAsia      +     1 lap
17. Jolyon Palmer        Arden        +     1 lap
18. Pal Varhaug          DAMS         +     1 lap
19. Julian Leal          Rapax        +     1 lap


Rodolfo Gonzalez     Trident     16 laps
Luca Filippi         Super Nova  15 laps
Johnny Cecotto       Ocean       14 laps
Esteban Gutierrez    ART          0 laps
Max Chilton          Carlin       0 laps
Fabio Leimer         Rapax        0 laps

Sprint race

The weather was once again warm, sunny and dry at Istanbul Park in Turkey for the second race of the opening round of the 2011 G2 season, which saw a lengthy hold at the lights before polesitter Dani Clos got a perfect start and raced off into turn 1.

Behind him, Charles Pic got a decent start off dirty side of the grid, as did Stefano Coletti behind him, both cars beating Luiz Razia into the first turn after the AirAsia bogged down and struggled to get away. Coletti briefly got in front of Pic into the first corner but then ran out of track and had to pull back, temporarily dropping the Trident back into the clutches of the battling duo of Razia and Giedo van der Garde.

Coletti’s setback was purely temporary, and with a clearly faster car he was able to slingshot round the outside of a long right hander to take second place from Pic just a few turns later, while van der Garde got the better of Razia for fifth place.

Behind them was the battling pack of Saturday’s feature race winners: Sam Bird had fallen behind Romain Grosjean and Jules Bianchi, and the two were having a fierce battle that included Bianchi giving the back of the Dams car a light tap through the first corners. They were still battling toward the end of the lead lap, with Bianchi aggressively forced Grosjean into conceding position into the final corner, and Romain having none of it.

Contact was inevitable: the right side of Grosjean’s front wing caught Bianchi and tipped the Lotus ART into a spin right across the track. The following cars did incredibly well not to run straight into Bianchi or into one another, and he was able to get back underway albeit down in 22nd place; Grosjean carried for a few minutes but his front wing was trashed and he was easy prey to faster cars, so he had to pit for a new nose unit that dropped him down to the back of the field.

Two of Saturday’s polesitters were effectively out of contention, and that left Sam Bird the major winner up into sixth place ahead of Clos’s Racing Engineering team mate Christian Vietoris, Razia’s AirAsia team mate Davide Valsecchi, Bird’s iSport team mateMarcus Ericsson, Super Nova’s Fairuz Fauzy and Arden’s Josef Kral.

Vietoris was next to exit the race with a high speed accident off into the gravel trap and into the tyre wall at turn 3 on lap 4 after battling with Davide Valsecchi.

Up front, Dani Clos had pulled out an initial big lead, but once released into second Coletti was by far the faster car and was quickly up to the back of the Racing Engineering car. Coletti finally mode a move for the lead going down into turn 12 on lap 6, which didn’t quick come off but put the two cars into the final corners side-by-side and set Coletti up nicely to dive to the inside line off the final corner for a chance of outdragging Clos down the start/finish straight. Clos tried to play an intelligent game and let Coletti take it, relying on the Trident outbraking himself into turn 1 of lap 7, but Coletti held it together and the two cars went into turn 2 side-by-side before finally Clos lost momentum and had to yield, dropping back into second place.

Coletti was never troubled again, but it was the start of a major decline for Clos. Just as had happened on Saturday, the Racing Engineering seemed extremely fast on fresh tyres only to have performance drop off the proverbial cliff after the midpoint of the race. Even so, Clos’ fall to 15th place by the chequered flag was astonishing, as he was overtaken by just about everyone lap after lap for the final half of the race.

With the battle for the lead resolved, attention turned to the fight between Luiz Razia and Sam Bird for fifth place. AirAsia had an almost identical situation to Racing Engineering: fast initial pace but no durability. As Razia started to slither all over the track, Bird picked his time and passed him with ease on the run down to turn 12 on lap 9; behind them, Bird’s team mate Ericsson picked off Razia’s team mate Valsecchi just a few minutes later, the Italian subsequently running wide through turn 8 with his deteriorating handling and losing more positions.

With eight laps to go, Bird had closed right up on the back of Charles Pic and looked determined to get past the French driver for third, for his second podium position of the weekend. It was a fast and furious battle – literally nose to tail and wheel to wheel – but Pic just had enough to keep Bird at bay as the laps clicked down.

And then the final laps of the race were marred by a nasty crash between Davide Rigon and Julian Leal down the start/finish straight with five laps remaining: the two had been battling out of the first corner and then tried to go double file down the straight itself. Both drivers were trying to outthink the other as to whether to take the inside or outside line, and as they jockeyed for position Leal clipped the back of Rigon’s Coloni and send him into a hard sideways impact with the pit lane wall.

Leal escaped with a sideways skid but no hard impact; Rigon, on the other hand, rebounded from his hit to slide across the track and settle on the grass verge on the outside. Although he stood up in the cockpit immediately afterwards, he was gesturing for support and the medical team was scrambled and needed to spend several minutes with him, as it became clear that a part of the car’s suspension had penetrated the driver safety cell and injured Rigon’s foot and ankle. Rigon was dispatched to hospital for immediate surgery, with fears that multiple fractures might put him out for much of the summer racing season.

With the work to clear up the debris on the main straight, the first and only safety car of the race was deployed for four laps and when it came in, there was just one lap to go before the chequered flag. It was no procession to the flag as far as Sam Bird was concerned. At the restart, he was hit from behind even before the start/finish line from an oddly dopey Marcus Ericsson – his own iSport team mate – that threatened to end in disaster for both drivers. Ericsson ran wide and struggled with a broken front win as he dropped out of the points to eighth, but Bird was able to shake this encounter off and keep his sights on Charles Pic ahead, finally pulling off the pass with a will-not-be-denied move down the backstraight to claim third.

Bianchi and Grosjean continued to try and come back from their first lap collision, and benefited greatly in the closing laps from the misfortunes of those teams suffering serious tyre wear like AirAsia and Racing Engineering: Bianchi narrowly missed getting back into the points and finished seventh, while Grosjean ended the race in tenth.

Rodolfo Gonzalez and Johnny Cecotto Jr. both received drive-thru penalties for jump starts, but neither were in contention for a top ten finish. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Herck appeared to stall in his grid slot and was lucky not to be collected from behind by Valsecchi at the start, but eventually got underway and finished a creditable 12th.

Sprint race results

1.  Stefano Coletti      Trident             41m40.571s
2.  Giedo van der Garde  Addax               +   2.184s
3.  Sam Bird             iSport              +   2.756s
4.  Charles Pic          Addax               +   3.243s
5.  Fairuz Fauzy         Super Nova          +   3.502s
6.  Josef Kral           Arden               +   5.038s
7.  Jules Bianchi        ART                 +   5.373s
8.  Marcus Ericsson      iSport              +   5.602s
9.  Jolyon Palmer        Arden               +   7.143s
10. Romain Grosjean      Dams                +   7.501s
11. Esteban Gutierrez    ART                 +   7.892s
12. Michael Herck        Coloni              +   9.261s
13. Johnny Cecotto       Ocean               +  10.697s
14. Luca Filippi         Super Nova          +  11.862s
15. Dani Clos            Racing Engineering  +  12.140s
16. Davide Valsecchi     AirAsia             +  12.237s
17. Max Chilton          Carlin              +  12.359s
18. Luiz Razia           AirAsia             +  12.826s
19. Kevin Mirocha        Ocean               +  12.950s
20. Fabio Leimer         Rapax               +  13.708s
21. Pal Varhaug          DAMS                +  14.195s
22. Rodolfo Gonzalez     Trident             +  15.582s


Davide Rigon       Coloni              5 laps
Julian Leal        Rapax               5 laps
Christian Vietoris Racing Engineering  20 laps

Championship standings

1  R. Grosjean       13
2  S. Bird           13
3  S. Coletti        10
4  G. Van Der Garde  10
5  J. Bianchi        6
6  C. Pic            5
7  L. Razia          3
8  F. Fauzy          2
9  J. Kral           1
10 D. Clos           1

1 Barwa Addax Team      15
2 iSport International  13
3 DAMS                  13
4 Trident Racing        10
5 Lotus ART             6
6 Team AirAsia          3
7 Super Nova Racing     2
8 Arden International   1
9 Racing Engineering    1

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