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Van der Garde on pole in scrappy qualifying

27 April 2012

After a laid-back Friday morning practice session just two hours before, qualifying ended up being the first time that many of the GP2 drivers hit the track in earnest, and it was clear that what they found there surprised many of the teams.

Five days on from the F1 Grand Prix and the track had already changed considerably from the state which they had left it last weekend, and the dusty, green Bahrain International Circuit proved to be a difficult beast for anyone to master.

There was a festival of lock-ups, slides and run-offs throughout the half-hour session, with rookies Tom Dillmann and Felipe Nasr surviving a scary near-miss early in the session as Nasr locked up while closing on the rear of the Rapax car, and a flying Marcus Ericsson subsequently narrowly missing piling into the back of a much-slower Coloni. Surprisingly the running didn't seem to improve as the session went on - indeed, once traffic was added to the issues the drivers had to contend with, it was difficult for anyone to improve their times as the chequered flag approached.

Emboldened by topping the practice session an hour earlier, Max Chilton tried to ride the momentum by being the only driver to come out on option tyres straight away. However, when his first stint yielded a best time of 1:42.628s still 0.032s off DAMS driver Davide Valsecchi's first flying effort of 1:42.596s on the harder prime tyres, it seemed that the Carlin driver had thrown away his opportunity with minor mistakes in sector 2 on his qualifying attempts.

In fact the expected improvement in performance as the session wore on didn't materialise - indeed, if anything the conditions seemed to resent the softer compounds and the error rate among all the drivers went sky-high even as lap times stubbornly refused to tumble.

Caterham Racing at least hit upon a strategic advantage for Giedo van der Garde, sending him out early for his second runs which meant that he popped out on an otherwise deserted track during the interval when his rivals were still on pit lane changing their tyres. That gave the Dutchman room to work with, and while he put in a scrappy lap - including running clean off the track at the exit of the final corner - it was still good enough to go top with a 1:42.451s, over a tenth better than Valsecchi.

A post-session review of van der Garde's pole lap by the stewards was called, investigating whether the Caterham had gained an advantage by failing to respect track limits on his fast run. Fortunately for Caterham tte stewards concluded that their man had not done so, and the time was allowed to stand.

To everyone's growing surprise, no one could match van der Garde's benchmark time for the rest of the session. Even Valsecchi - who has been the man to beat throughout GP2's stay in Bahrain - found it impossible to get a clean lap sufficiently devoid of errors or traffic to get closer, and finally pulled back onto pit road early seemingly settling for second place on the grid having been unable to improve on his first time.

Fabio Leimer was one of the few drivers to improve late on, his time of 1:42.619s putting him into third on the grid by just nipping in front of that early laptime from Chilton, whose oddball strategy of early option running had turned out to be rather cunning and something of a success after all.

Less so was the Lotus GP strategy of skipping practice running. That seemed to leave them with insufficient knowledge of the current state of the track, and both Esteban Gutierrez and James Calado struggled with repeated off-track excursions during their flying lap attempts.

Calado ended up a very disappointing 22nd place on the starting grid, while Gutierrez finally managed to haul himself back up to 13th place by the end, after earlier having just missed running into the back of pair of dopey Trident Racing cars on their outlaps.

The session avoided any red flags, although Jolyon Palmer - who had caused a stoppage in the earlier practice session - came close to rolling to a halt ten minutes in before managing to coax his iSport back to the pits. The car clearly has an ongoing issue, however, and eventually stopped out on track following the chequered flag.

Where normally the GP2 teams would have the rest of the day and evening, and all of the next morning as well in which to work on their cars, today they have just four hours before the start of the feature race at 2pm BST, meaning that just avoiding going off into the barriers was an achievement not to be taken lightly in Sakhir.

Full qualifying times and positions.


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