The Circuit de Catalunya just north of Barcelona in Spain is a familiar test venue for the GP2 teams, but it turned out that even a track as well known to everyone as this could have some surprises up its sleeve to catch out many of the championship front runners.
For one thing, it was the first opportunity for the teams to run flying laps here using the soft compound Pirelli tyres, rather than the medium compound that is usually selected as the option to the hard compound prime tyres. That would give the cars a lot of grip - but at the cost of only one or at most two flying laps before the performance went off.
Added to that was a track covered in F1 rubber from the earlier free practice session, which added another unknown factor to the teams to contend with that they never had during off-season testing. That rubber would only provide extra grip for the first few minutes of the session before it was wiped away, which meant that virtually the entire field of cars streamed out onto the track to take advantage the minute the pit lane exit opened
The trouble with that was quickly evident: lots of cars and not enough clear space meant that everyone was struggling to leave a gap ahead of them for their qualifying laps without tripping over the man in front. When it all came together - as it did for early runners Trident's Stephane Richelmi and Carlin's Max Chilton - then it was enough to put them at the top of the initial timesheets.
But when it didn't, then it was a disaster - and just such a setback befell Esteban Gutiérrez (Lotus GP) and Davide Valsecchi (DAMS) on their one and only shot of using the fast-wearing soft tyres. After setting purple sectors early on, their final sectors were ruined by loval waved yellows for a spin on the penultimate corner by Tom Dillmann in the Rapax. They had to ease off, and that was that.
Gutiérrez went on to hold up the Coloni car of Stefano Coletti who was on his own qualifying effort next time around, and later on the Mexican would also hold up Valsecchi when the DAMS driver tried to carry out a damage limitation fightback on the harder compound in the closing minutes of the session. Valsecchi ended up in 7th place while Gutiérrez will start just outside the top ten in 11th place on the starting grid.
But Gutiérrez's rookie Lotus GP team mate James Calado demonstrated just how good it could be when it all came together. Among those making an early run on the soft options while the F1 rubber was still a factor, he didn't seem to be setting any scintillating individual sectors but at the same time he did not trip over anyone or get held up by the earlier caution flags for Dillmann which had now been withdrawn, and suddenly he was across the line 0.247s ahead of Richelmi's time to take provisional pole just seven minutes into the session with a lap of 1:30.655s.
With the conditions on such a knife edge it was no surprise that once the vital moment had passed, no one could better Calado's lap for the rest of the session. Not even Barwa Addax's Josef Kral, who had topped the morning practice and who was the only driver not to join the crush on track in the opening minutes and instead held back before finally gambling his option tyres in a mid-session run. It was a good plan, but Addax had underestimated the boost from the F1 rubber on the early runners: by now that grip was long gone, and so Kral ended up in 16th place in the final times.
Arden's Luiz Razia was another driver to hold back his option tyres deep into the half hour, but stumbling over inconveniently-timed slower traffic wrecked his chances of breaking into the top ten. Fabrizio Crestani had a similar strategy in the Lazarus, and found it no more successful.
Fabio Leimer meanwhile had played arguably the smarted game of anyone: he'd joined the early rush out onto the track and picked up a creditable fourth place. Moreover he'd done that on the harder tyres which left him the chance to come out later in the session on the soft tyres for another go in the quieter portion of the afternoon. He managed to improve a little and push his way into second spot a little over two-tenths off Calado's pole time, and by far the best run of the second half of qualifying.
Having had their best chance on sort compound tyres wrecked early on, a few cars came out toward the end of the session hoping that even on the hard compound tyres they might be able to improve on their compromised early runs. Coletti and Simon Trummer were among those to find extra pace, but Trummer then blotted his copybook by losing the back end of the Arden next time through turn 4 to leave the car beached in the gravel. The session ended under local waved yellows.
Full qualifying times and starting positions