GP2 tried out a split qualifying session for the first time in the series' history for Thursday qualifying at Monaco, and it certainly proved successful in reducing the number of collisions from last year's embarrassing outing - albeit at the cost of leaving people puzzling just how it was all working.
In essence, the field had been split into two groups of 13 according to their car numbers: following the results of a blind draw, the even numbered cars went out first for 14 minutes and the odd numbered cars got their turn a few moments later. The car with the fastest time in either group would take pole.
However the track was in a very changeable condition following the showers that beset the second F1 free practice session and washed much of the early grip away. The organisers realised that something had to be done to balance out the likelihood of different conditions affecting one or other of the groups. Hence the final starting grid would interleave the two groups, with the cars in the same group as the polesitter lining up behind him on the grid and the cars in the slower group starting line astern on the other side. A similar approach is used in the setting the lower positions of the grid in IndyCar events.
The draw dictated that the cars with even numbers would take to the track first, and local boy Stephane Richelmi was the most eager of them all as he took position at the head of the queue out of pit road. He was accordingly the first to set anything close to a representative time, going 1:23.772s after a couple of laps to activate the super soft tyres, but that was very quickly usurped by fellow Monegasque Stefano Coletti who went 0.230s faster with a lap of 1:23.542.
Lotus GP's Esteban Gutiérrez rebounded from his morning practice faux pas
to edge between the two Monaco residents, and Carlin's Max Chilton also posted a quick time for third. But then Caterham Racing's Giedo van der Garde lit up the timing screens with purples across the board, first to post a time of 1:22.833s and then to massively increase his advantage to 1:21.763s - almost a second faster than the best of the rest.
That almost looked like it had sealed the deal - iSport's Jolyon Palmer and Barwa Addax's Josef Kral along with Gutiérrez all gained ground on the Dutchman, but he was still three tenths ahead of them. It seemed that the supersofts had given their best work for the session and would go no further, and that the only question was whether van der Garde's time would be faster than the Group B leader in order to clinch pole or merely second place on the grid.
And then out of nowhere came Max Chilton: he'd been flying under the radar, keeping the tyres up to temperatures but not wearing them out, waiting until the moment the chequered flag came out when the most rubber had been laid down on the track. And then he found the pace to punch in a blistering lap of 1:21.320, to steal the provisional pole away from van der Garde by 0.155s.
That had been an entertaining qualifying session in its own right, but things were only half over. Most remarkably of all, there had not been a single on-track incident: what a difference a year (and a change in qualifying format) makes compared to the shambles of 2011.
Next up where the odd-numbered cars, and they included many of those who had performed well in the morning practice: Johnny Cecotto Jr. (Barwa Addax), Davide Valsecchi (DAMS), Luiz Razia (Arden) and Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering). Now that Group A had so obligingly laid down their rubber in the preceding quarter of an hour, logic dictated that the pole man would be one of these drivers.
Trident's Julian Leal was at the head of pit road when the lights went green, and soon laid down a reasonable first flying lap of 1:25.218s. But it was Rodolfo Gonzalez - whose Caterham team mate van der Garde had come so close to topping the first qualifying group - who was quickly making the running with a lap of 1:22.873s as Leimer, Razia and Scuderia Coloni's Fabio Onidi also put in fast laps to hustle Leal out of the way.
Gonzalez' next attempt to push times down was thwarted when he came up on the back of a slow Valsecchi, which allowed Leimer to go top instead with a new best lap of 1:22.053s and Cecotto slotting into second a little under two tenths behind.
But all the drivers had someway to go if they were going to challenge the earlier group for pole, and it was Marcus Ericsson who led the charge under the 82s mark with a lap of 1:21.863s and then bettered it to drive the time down to 1:21.249s - which meant that whoever ended this group fastest would now start from pole position with Group A's Max Chilton having to settle for second place.
Valsecchi was trying his best to take the top spot, getting very leery out of Rascasse on his flying lap but just managing to hold it off the barrier and going in the right direction to steel a narrow second place from Johnny Cecotto, but still a long way back from Ericsson's seemingly impregnable provisional pole effort.
And then with just three minutes to go in the session, with not a single incident or collision up to this point, there was a red flag: Rodolfo Gonzalez had pushed his luck beyond the reach of his talent and lost the Caterham coming through the chicane heading into the Swimming Pool. He hit the Armco with the rear of the car which then spun to clout the barrier a second time with the front, before coming to rest right in the middle of the track and leave the track workers no option but to call a break in proceedings to effect a recovery.
Once that was done, there was one last chance for drivers to come out and improve their times. Did anyone have anything to topple Ericsson? Certainly not Valsecchi, who had a bit of a moment through Ste. Devote and was lucky not to plant the DAMS into the barrier. Luiz Razia had enough juice in him to nip into third place ahead of Valsecchi as a result, but surely that was it for the day?
Johnny Cecotto Jr. had other ideas. Pushing for everything he was worth, he managed to hook up a last gasp lap of 1:21.195s to edge Ericsson by just 0.054s to steal his first-ever GP2 Series pole position even as the chequered flag flew. It seemed that after Barwa Addax had endured a bit of a damp squib for the first few races of the season, the 2011 championship-winning team was starting to reconnect with its undoubted form.
Perhaps an even bigger success had been the new-look qualifying format. While only introduced for this one session, more than a few people in pit road looked as though they were having a light bulb moment as they watched the highly entertaining session. It wouldn't be surprising if the idea of doing this format more often wasn't being discussed in GP2 circles for the next few days.
Full Group A and Group B qualifying times and feature race starting grid