Alexander Rossi made a strong start to the 2015 GP2 Series with a podium in his first race with Racing Engineering and plenty of valuable points towards the title.
After a strong pre-season test in Bahrain just a few weeks ago, Rossi and Racing Engineering were in positive mood for the first race of the year, and Friday's practice provided added proof of the combination's potential as, once race strategy and longer run programmes were completed, the American produced a lap good enough for P2 behind team-mate Jordan King.
Qualifying took place in the relatively cooler temperature of the evening, with the team hoping to capitalise on their earlier success from the morning, and Rossi immediately set the early pace, with a 1m 40.292secs lap putting him fourth fastest. However, as the final laps drew to a close, he was able to better his time, putting in a 1m 39.872s effort before getting caught in traffic, seeing him finish in P8 on the grid ahead of Saturday's feature race.
"The weekend started well, with the team finishing the first practice session in P1 and P2, but qualifying was a little more tricky,” he recounted, “We were missing a little bit from the cars, and although we were incredibly close in terms of time, getting caught in traffic meant I would start the first race from P8 on the grid.”
The first race saw high track temperatures of 49C and strong wind to contend with, bringing dusty conditions into the mix, but Rossi made a great start to move up one spot to P7 by the end of the first lap. An incident on lap four brought out the safety car, and the American decided to complete his mandatory pit-stop, rejoining the field in 13th place, but with an advantage over those who chose not to stop. Racing began again on lap nine, and although hit from behind by rookie Alex Lynn, Rossi was able to fight through the field, reaching fifth position by lap 19. As the cars ahead made their compulsory stop, the American took the lead on lap 23 and appeared to be on course for victory.
However, despite being nine seconds ahead with just four laps remaining, Rossi's medium tyres were beginning to heavily degrade, and polesitter Stoffel Vandoorne began to close the gap with his fresher soft tyres. Eventually, having seen his advantage diminish, Rossi finally had to yield the lead to the ART car on lap 30 and, on the final lap, also had to give up second place to Rio Haryanto, who was also on fresh softs.
"For Saturday, I was pleased to be on the podium for the first race of the season, especially since I was a little disappointed after our qualifying result,” Rossi insisted, “To get a podium is a good thing, however when you lead the race, it's quite difficult to accept finishing only third. But I believe we got the best result we could get with the strategy that we chose and, in the end, it's a good race for the team.
“We were never planning on stopping so early on, but obviously had to due to the safety car, so I knew the position we were in and that we had to make the most of it. I think the hardest part of the race was when Alex [Lynn] was behind me. We were coming into the traffic and I knew I had to stay in front of him, but it probably took a bit too much off the tyres going around people. I'm not sure it would have made a difference for the win, but it did hurt the tyres.
“I knew that Stoffel had clean air and I didn't want to sit behind too much, but I could not let the gap get too big for when he stopped. It's a very fine line. In hindsight, I should perhaps not have pushed as much but, in the heat of the moment, when you realise he's in front, and you're stuck in traffic, you just have to go for it.”
After a tricky start to Sunday's sprint race, which saw him drop from P6 to P11 on the first lap, Rossi was able to quickly carve his way back up through the field, combining overtaking moves with managing the degradation of his tyres. With just a lap to go, he had fought back to P3 and was in a podium position once again, only to be caught by Nathanaël Berthon in the final DRS zone, finishing the race in P4.
"The final sprint race was disappointing for me, as we came very close to a double podium this weekend and P4 is not where I want to be, ultimately, when I'm in contention for the win,” he lamented, “To lose a podium position on the last lap is very frustrating!
“However, we made a good recovery after the initial start, where we dropped a few positions, and were able to fight our way through the field strongly, so I'm pleased that we were able to manage the tyres well and bring home some valuable points.
“I feel there is a serious amount of potential for me in this car, so I'll be looking forward to Barcelona and the second race of the season to see what we can do."