Chris van der Drift left a strong imprint on the opening round of the second GP2 Asia Series at the weekend, the rookie claiming points in both races on the Shanghai International circuit.
The 22-year old New Zealander was competing for the first time at GP2 level, having 'graduated' with Italian team Trident Racing after winning the Formula Master title just a couple of weeks earlier. Having already shown promising pace in testing, van der Drift was being tipped as a potential dark horse, and he did not disappoint, despite qualifying lower than he would have wanted.
The weekend in Shanghai began with much head-scratching in the Trident camp as, during the 30-minute free practice session on Friday morning, it was clear that something was seriously amiss with the Kiwi's car.
“When I drove out of the pits for the first time, I noticed a problem with the handling in the corners," he revealed, "It turned out later to be a faulty shock damper, but there was nothing that could be done quickly to rectify this [during the session], so I just kept out on the track to get laps in.
“After the session, the team changed the damper and other parts in order to prevent further problems but, as the session was only 30 minutes long, we didn't have the opportunity to improve the set-up for qualifying, as the problem with the damper would affect anything we did. We went into qualifying not properly prepared, but there was nothing we could do.
“Unfortunately, the qualifying session then brought with it a new problem, as this time the car wanted to constantly keep turning right, so I had to continuously hold the steering wheel to the left down the straights. Later on, we found the weight distribution in the front was wrong, but my mechanics did a good job disassembling and reassembling a large part of the car, checking for anything that could be a problem in the race the following day.”
Having posted the 16th-best time in a competitive 26-car field, van der Drift knew that he would have his work cut out if he was to score points, but was on a mission from the start. Within a very short time, he was in eleventh, before a faultless mandatory pit-stop vaulted him into seventh. From there, he had to resists several more experienced drivers attacking from behind, especially after the two safety car phases, but the New Zealander managed to defend his position, even on the long straights where slipstreaming was a real possibility.
“I really didn't know how the car would handle for a race of 34 laps, as we hadn't done any long runs, but fortunately it handled very well and, thanks to a great start and a good strategy, we finished in the top eight, which is what we had been aiming for,” the driver noted.
The reversed grid saw van der Drift start from the outside of row two but, despite a good start that got him momentarily alongside pole-sitter Davide Valsecchi, he was unable to make the attempted pass stick and fellow Kiwi Earl Bamber capitalised by running around the outside of turn one to hold the inside for turn two, where he slotted into second place.