Scueria Coloni might be bowing out of GP2 after this weekend, but by bringing back Luca Filippi - last year's runner-up for the drivers championship - they've ensured that they're going out in some style by claiming the final feature race pole position of the season.
Heading into the first-ever floodlit session in GP2 Series history, it was a huge relief to the drivers to see a dry track, and moreover the weather radar showing no signs of any rain clouds in the area likely to threaten the 30 minute session. James Calado led the way out onto the track in the Lotus GP with Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton right behind him as almost all the drivers wasted no time in getting down to it.
Calado's first effort was 2:10.475s putting him almost two seconds clear of DAMS' Davide Valsecchi, but times quickly toppled from there and within minutes Coloni's Fabio Onidi was a full five seconds faster. Calado soon confirmed how much quicker the track was getting with a 2:02.802s on his own next effort, but almost immediately he was pushed well down the standings by a number of flying laps with Lotus GP's Esteban Gutiérrez (2:01.092s) going on top and DAMS' Felipe Nasr, Sergio Canamasas (Venezuela GP Lazarus), Max Chilton (Carlin) and Stephane Richelmi (Trident) all pushing in front of Calado.
Valsecchi then found another eight tenths off the provisional pole time to go top with 2:00.287s with Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer and Coloni's Luca Filippi also putting in strong laps to bounce Gutiérrez down to third place, Filippi pushing really hard on the supersofts and locking up his brakes multiple times on his next attempt to go faster still.
Valsecchi had already retired to pit lane for his mid-session break and final tune-up and change of tyres, when Jolyon Palmer ousted him from the top spot with a new benchmark time of 2:00.102s. More significantly for Valsecchi, however, was his title rival Luiz Razia slipping into third place right behind him in the Arden.
Arden's Simon Trummer was one of the drivers to have had an early scare and needed to resort to the escape road without harm, while Giedo van der Garde had an uncomfortable hop over the turn 10 chicane in his Caterham and Luiz Razia had a couple of uncomfortably close shaves with other dawdling cars not looking in their mirrors during the first minutes of the session, but there had been no major incidents during the first half of qualifying.
That all set up a crucial final ten minutes of track action: did any of the drivers have anything left over their early runs with which to challenge for pole? The Lotus cars had switched to the prime tyres while Valsecchi and Razia had remained on the supersoft options; provisional polesitter Palmer had switched to the options as well, after having set his earlier flying lap on the harder compounds. It was a question of whose strategy if any would bear fruit.
Fabio Leimer, Luca Filippi and Stefano Coletti all improved their times but had still not been able to oust Palmer, when Carlin's Max Chilton peeled off a massive six tenths of a second from the pole time to dip under the two minute mark for the first time with a 1:59.496s; Filippi then responded with an even better effort, pipping Chilton for pole by five hundredths of a second with a lap of 1:59.444s.
Esteban Gutiérrez had just become the third man to go under two minutes when Nigel Melker locked up and skidded deep into the wall in the tunnel under the grandstand. It was clear from the position of the Ocean Racing car and how deeply it was scrunched into the barrier that this would trigger an immediate red flag, even though Melker himself was quickly out of the car without requiring medical assistance.
With just under 90 seconds remaining in the session it was impossible for the cars to get out and start a flying lap before the end, and so qualifying was formally ended. That meant that Filippi had clinched pole position and would start alongside Chilton, while Gutiérrez' late flyer put him on the second row alongside Palmer. Meanwhile, Leimer would start alongside Valsecchi on the third row.
Valsecchi could afford to be happy enough with this outcome: his rival Razia had failed to get the 4pts on offer for pole position to narrow the gap between them in the championship, and would now start three positions behind Valsecchi on the grid. That gave the DAMS driver a "buffer" zone of Johnny Cecotto Jr. and Stefano Coletti on the fourth row between him and the Arden, and that could be counted a very satisfactory state of affairs indeed for the champion-presumptive going into Saturday's feature event.
The 34-lap race takes place tomorrow at 4pm local time (9am BST) while the 24-lap sprint race on Sunday is at 4.10pm local time (9.10am BST.) All sessions are due to be broadcast live in the UK on Sky Sports F1
. Thunderstorms are still possible at any point throughout the weekend, which could make things very interesting indeed.
Full qualifying times and positions