Giorgio Pantano duly collected the GP2 Series title in the opening race of the weekend at Monza, but again tried to make it hard for himself after an uncharacteristic error while leading.

The Italian could have taken a fourth win at Monza in five years, but erred exiting the pits after his mandatory tyre stop and crossed the white 'blend' line approaching the turn one chicane. That incurred the wrath of the stewards, despite there being no traffic for the Racing Engineering car to interfere with, and Pantano was called for a drive-thru' penalty that dropped him out of the points.

In truth, his chances of taking victory had already began to recede as the #12 car did not appear as quick on slicks in drying conditions as those of the pursuing Lucas di Grassi and Pastor Maldonado, and the Brazilian had already taken the lead when Pantano took his punishment. The Italian rejoined in ninth, slipping to tenth by the flag, but sole title rival Bruno Senna could not make up enough ground from his sixth row grid slot, rising only as high as fifth, leaving him short of points ahead of Sunday's sprint event.

di Grassi went on to fend off a typically spirited Maldonado to take the win, with Sebastien Buemi completing the podium.

For the second week in a row, the feature race began behind the safety car, which 'led' for three laps before retiring to the pits and unleashing the pack towards the Rettifilio. The wisdom of starting at a controlled pace was immediately underlined as Pantano's Racing Engineering team-mate, Javier Villa, slammed into the back of the luckless Andi Zuber, riding over the Piquet Sports car and pushing it into Vitaly Petrov, removing all three from the action.

Remarkably, there was little other incident on the 'opening' lap - although ART's Sakon Yamamoto had already crawled the final lap behind the safety car - despite the desperate Senna and Romain Grosjean swapping places, and Grosjean going on to dispense with the other iSport machine of Karun Chandhok.

At the front, Pantano had held his advantage to lead di Grassi, Buemi and Maldonado - the Venezuelan having already taken advantage of the misfortune for Petrov and Luca Filippi to move into fourth. He was not to be denied another spot either, waiting only until the next lap to sweep around Buemi at the Parabolica in a move reminiscent of those he used to good effect at Les Combes last weekend.

Needing to get close to the podium in the event that more misfortune beset rival Pantano, Senna was making slow progress, and wasn't helped by being momentarily delayed by team-mate Chandhok as the Ascari chicane. The Indian, perhaps realising who was behind him, the made it easy for Senna at the Parabolica, as Ho-Pin Tung and Marko Asmer went off in their wake.

The Brazilian had some way to go before approaching the next battle on the road, where Roldan Rodriguez held Grosjean at bay until lap twelve, when the GP2 Asia champion got through at the Rettifilio. Rodriguez then slowly fell back towards the chasing iSport car, but Senna was already showing signs of not having the pace to achieve his aim....

Mike Conway was among the first to make their mandatory tyre stop, but opted for further wets as the track remained damp - and very damp - in places, despite the main straight and other area exhibiting a broad dry line. Filippi, with little to lose after running 17th in the opening stages, was the first to take a punt on slicks, although lap 14 was probably still a little early to make the most of them. The Arden car crabbed out of the pits as it struggled to find grip, and Filippi's lap times took several laps to even approach those of the leaders.

The race arrived at its half-way point with Pantano enjoying a small, but comfortable, advantage over di Grassi, who had Maldonado bearing down on him. Buemi had a cushion over Grosjean, with Rodriguez still separating Senna from sixth, as Davide Valsecchi and Chandhok rounded out the important places.

The return of the safety car was threatened when Kamui Kobayashi went off approaching the Parabolica, but was quickly stood down as the stewards made their first ruling of the weekend in making a note to summon Alberto Valerio to talk over his part in Kobayashi's exit. The Brazilian left his Japanese rival no room as they sped towards the final turn, and even gave the DAMS man a tap for his 22nd birthday.

After the furore of Spa-Francorchamps' F1 event last weekend, the various Monza chicanes come in for scrutiny, but that did not prevent drivers from taking to the run-off areas within as they overstepped the mark - and, on occasion, appeared to follow those that had cut through, determined not to lose touch in the heat of battle. Pantano and Senna were both among those who appeared to use their 'get out of jail' card on more than one occasion but, without gaining a significant advantage, no action was taken.

Even Andy Soucek, who appeared to defend his place by bypassing the Rettifilio, escaped censure after handing the spot to Jerome d'Ambrosio next time around, even though it eventually cost the Spaniard a couple of valuable points and pole for Sunday's sprint event.

Pantano and di Grassi caught and passed the still struggling Filippi on lap 18, but the leader's advantage was now down to half a second as the track continued to dry out. The most significant gap was the 22 seconds between Pantano and Senna, however, as the Brazilian continued to toil behind Rodriguez - who he has beaten with both regularity and ease all season - in seventh.

No doubt sensing that its driver was going to struggle to make up any further ground, iSport called Senna in next time around, fitting slicks to the red-and-blue machine. The Brazilian rejoined in 13th, and quickly lost another place to Conway while he got his rubber up to temperature. Rodriguez, and Grosjean, pitted a lap later, with Buemi in next, and di Grassi and Maldonado waiting until lap 24.

Pantano's chief pursuers had already come to blows, touching at the Parabolica on lap 22 after di Grassi professed not to have seen his rival making a move for second. The Venezuelan, undeterred but fired up, then dived to the inside of the Campos car heading down the start-finish straight, reining in his speed in time to take the Rettifilio correctly. They pitted in that order, but were a lot closer when the Piquet Sports team released their man into di Grassi's path. Again, no action was taken...

As Senna began to set fastest laps and edge his way back up the order, Pantano finally made his mandatory stop. Such was the Italian's advantage, he returned at the front, but it quickly became clear that the stewards had woken up, as they spotted that the left-hand wheels of the #12 machine had wandered across the line dividing pit exit from racetrack.

It took a couple of laps for the penalty to be called, and Pantano had already ceded the lead to di Grassi - deliberately, he would later point out - when he ducked back into the pits to crawl its length as punishment for his indiscretion.

The podium was long gone by the time he emerged at the far end, and so, too, were any points, with the Italian slotting back into ninth spot. Senna, however, was still struggling to pass Rodriguez, whom he had recaught after their respective stops, and was sixth, still at least a couple of places shy of the points required to take the title fight into Sunday.

Although he eventually got his man, and Pantano dropped back to tenth, it was still too little too late for Senna, who ended the race in fifth place. Pantano's eleven-point pre-race advantage, subsequently bolstered by the two bonus marks for pole and the Brazilian's twelfth on the grid, meant it was nigh-on impossible for the iSport man to keep things alive - even though the champion-elect attempted to help out.

Senna's attention will now turn to preserving the second place that he has occupied for most of the season, for di Grassi - having disposed of Maldonado for P2 on lap 27 and then inherited Pantano's lead at the end of the same lap - went on to claim his third win of the year, allowing him to close to within a point of the overall runners-up spot he occupied behind Timo Glock last season. It would have been level-pegging had Maldonado not pipped him to the fastest lap bonus by a thousandth of a second - although both slower than various others outside the top ten - but, having missed the first three rounds of the year, the RDD prot?g? must be wondering just how much further he could have gone...

Maldonado duly accepted second, and di Grassi's apologies, to add another eight points to his tally for the year. Buemi was a distant third, with Grosjean claiming fourth. Rodriguez added to his account with FMSI in sixth, coming home ahead of d'Ambrosio and local favourite Valsecchi, who will lead the field into the final race of the summer on Sunday morning.


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