Pierre Gasly looks like being the man to beat for pole position at Monza, after he was able to put himself comprehensively ahead of the rest of the field in practice in Italy on Friday morning.
The DAMS driver ended up 0.317s ahead of Alexander Rossi, while the same margin was sufficient to cover the next eight closely-packed positions on the timing screens following a fast-paced but relatively incident-free session.
CLICK: Full GP2 Friday practice times from Monza
Rapax's Robert Visoiu led the entire 25-car field out onto the 3.6-mile (5.793km) 11-turn Autodromo Nazionale Monza for the start of the 45-minutes of track time, but it was Visoiu's team mate Sergey Sirotkin who set the first flying lap opening his account with an effort of 1:36.233s. However, he then quickly reversed out of the top ten as his time was convincingly beaten by a plethora of quicker cars.
In his first outing for MP Motorsport in place of Daniël de Jong - who is recuperating from back surgery following his big crash at Spa - Rene Binder celebrated his return to action after a recent viral infection by briefly going top with a new target time of 1:33.502s. Top that is until Sirotkin's next effort, which took a full second out of that and put the Russian back on top with a lap of 1:32.500, 0.368s ahead of Arden's Norman Nato and Lazarus' Sergio Canamasas.
While Sirotkin wasn't able to improve his time further with his next run it was still enough to keep him ahead of improved efforts from DAMS' Alex Lynn and Racing Engineering's Alexander Rossi. Sirotkin was finally deposed by an impressive counter bid of 1:32.093s from Binder, and moments later Lynn's team mate Pierre Gasly was the first man to go under 1:32 to pip Binder by 0.163s. Status Grand Prix's Richie Stanaway also improved, slotting into third place behind Binder and just six hundredths of a second faster than Rossi's latest run.
Notably absent from the top ten early on was championship leader Stoffel Vandoorne, who clearly didn't have his ART where he wanted it as not for the first time today he clattered over the kerbs at the first chicane. As a result, 15 minutes into the session the Belgian found himself in unfamiliar territory in 20th place on the timing screens, but his next effort was cleaner and he was finally able to bounce up to sixth place albeit still half a second off Gasly's latest improved pace-setting effort of 1:31.669s. Next time round was better still for Vandoorne who put himself into second now just 0.371s off the Frenchman, much more where he would hope and expect to be.
As the traffic out on track thinned for a spell with drivers heading down pit lane for their first round of set-up tweaks, Gasly still had a commanding lead over the rest of the field and remained the only man under 1:32. The top ten was rounded out by Vandoorne, Binder, Rio Haryanto (Campos Racing), Stanaway, Rossi, Lynn and the second Campos driven by Arthur Pic ahead of Sirotkin and Nato. With teams using the middle stint of the session for race simulations rather than timed runs, the order remained unchanged for a spell until Haryanto muscled ahead of Vandoorne by two tenths to improve to second and Sirotkin found some extra pace to move up to fifth, while Russian Time's Mitch Evans finally joined the party by usurping Nato for tenth with a little over 12 minutes remaining.
After the second round of pit stops, Gasly was one of the first drivers to come back out on track for his final set of runs but it seemed that there was no more speed to be wrung from the DAMS. Rossi alone was able to find something extra in the final minutes to go into second with a lap of 1:31.986s - still more than three tenths away from Gasly's best - but a promising first sector for Vandoorne slipped away and left the McLaren F1 test and development driver in fourth behind Haryanto as the chequered flag came out to signal the end of the session.
Despite his hiatus and change of team since Hungary, Binder finished the session in fifth ahead of Sirotkin, Stanaway, Lynn, Pic and Evans. Binder's new team mate at MP Motorsport Meindert van Buuren was 22nd fastest in the session, the best of the drivers making their GP2 Series début this weekend.
Patric Niederhauser's first appearance in the feeder series - replacing Nathanaël Berthon at Lazarus - came to a premature end when he stalled the car at the end of pit lane and had to be rolled back to his pit stall meaning he ran only 14 laps during the session. He was placed 23rd, while fellow débutant Jann Mardenborough (in at Carlin in place of Sean Gelael) was slowest and 2.222s off Gasly's top time as the young Briton got to grips familiarising himself with the unfamiliar GP2 car and its DRS capabilities.
Swiss driver Simon Trummer was the cause of a late yellow at the exit of the first Lesmo when the brakes on his Hilmer Motorsport car emitted an alarming cloud of black carbon fibre dust. He finished the session in 24th between the two rookies in his first race in the series since his one-off for the team at Austria; Hilmer is running only one car this weekend
Johnny Cecotto Jr. - another series returnee this weekend with Trident - was 21st in the practice times in the #12 car after taking over the seat at Monza from Gustav Malja.
Next up is qualifying which will get underway this afternoon at 3.55pm local time (2.55pm BST) following the end of Formula 1 Free Practice 2. The 30-lap feature race is set for Saturday afternoon at 3.40pm (2.40pm BST) following F1 qualifying, and the 21-lap sprint race is on Sunday morning at 10.35am (9.35am BST).
The GP3 teams are also in action at Monza, with practice scheduled for Friday evening at 5.50pm (4.50pm BST) and qualifying on Saturday morning at 9.45am (8.45am BST). The 22-lap race 1 will start at 5.20pm (4.20pm BST) and the shorter 17-lap race 2 on Sunday morning at 9.25am (8.25am BST).
See full GP2 Friday practice times from Monza