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Bianchi takes first victory over Grosjean

11 February 2011

Jules Bianchi gave Lotus ART the best possible start to the GP2 Asia series in 2011 with victory in the first feature race of the year.

Bianchi was able to get a better start off the line and better pace in the run down to the first corner, so that by the time the cars entered turn 1 Bianchi was already firmly in the lead and polesitter Romain Grosjean had his hands full just keeping his Dams car in second place from Team AirAsia's Davide Valsecchi.

But even as the cars exited the corner, the safety car signs were already out on display: behind the leaders, there had been a massive accident on the start line triggered by Dani Clos stalling in his fourth position grid box. Most drivers had seen the problem and reacted fast enough to avoid him, including Jolyon Palmer who swerved to the right just before a potential collision.

Unfortunately that meant Luiz Razia, running just behind Palmer, reacted to the Arden's move and swerved left - straight into the right hand side of the stationary Racing Engineering car. There was a shower of carbon fibre as the side of Clos' car disintegrated, and Razia's AirAsia was tipped over on its side and would have rolled completely had it not then impacted on the barrier wall. As all this played out, poor Pal Varhaug arrived on the scene and had no where to go but be involved in the aftermath.

The safety car call then had its own effect on proceedings, as the cars started to lift off and brake as they headed into turn 4 - but Rodolfo Gonzalez didn't react fast enough and ploughed into the back of the slowing Charles Pic and was briefly launched into the air by Pic's shattered rear wing. And in a separate, less serious accident Fabio Leimer misjudged his braking and steamed down the inside into turn 1 and ended up losing his front wing.

All these separate incidents and associated debris meant that extensive clearing up and barrier repair was required, so the safety car became a red flag for the better part of half an hour, which was a blessing for Gonzalez, Leimer and Pic as it enabled them to return to the pits and have their respective collision damage attended to. The long delay also pushed the race well into the Abu Dhabi dusk, meaning that the race was far more of a floodlight affair than originally planned and would be time-curtailed at 33 rather than 36 laps in total.

At the restart, Bianchi calmly kept control and refused to get distracted by Grosjean's impatient antics behind him. Where Bianchi was inch perfect, the clearly faster Grosjean would lock up and run off the track as he tried in vain to find a way past. The two quickly pulled away from Valsecchi in third place, who didn't have the pace of the front-runners but had enough to keep the likes of Giedo van der Garde from being a major threat to his podium position.

Grosjean now had to rely on the mandatory pit stop to provide the opportunity to reclaim the lead. By the end of lap 12 it seemed that those cars on early stop strategies were some half a second faster on track than those on old rubber, so Grosjean came in for his stop hoping for an advantage over Bianchi. Unfortunately clutch problems hampered his getaway from the pitbox and the delay put him behind an incoming Max Chilton. When Bianchi reacted and pitted the following lap, it was clear that he had done enough to retain his lead over Grosjean despite his own less serious hassles with his clutch.

As the race wore on, Fabio Leimer and Charles Pic emerged as the final cars to come in for their pit stop and ran first and second place for much of the midpart of the race until they were caught in turn by Bianchi and Grosjean, and politely took that as a cue to come in to the pits. Interestingly their pace remained fairly strong despite the now very old rubber, the initial propitious drop in pace seemingly stabilising at about 0.7s thanks to the lightening fuel load - interesting data for future races.

Overall the new GP2/11 Dallara chassis performed extremely well for a brand new piece of equipment, although Esteban Gutierrez retired his Lotus ART in the pits after 18 laps, and Oliver Turvey's Ocean Racing car found itself stuck in gear in the final laps which meant he crawled round and dropped off the lead lap.

Otherwise it was a disappointing race in terms of overtaking, the shorter configuration circuit at Abu Dhabi not offering sufficient long straights to allow the cars to get a real advantage over their rivals. Turvey and Sam Bird had early success overtaking Nathanael Berthon, and Marcus Ericsson pulled off a successful move on a strangely acquiescent van der Garde on the final lap to steal fourth place, but other overtaking moves ended in frustration: Michael Herck was involved in two incidents that saw other drivers (Johnny Cecotto Jr and Jolyon Palmer) tipped into spins, while Fairuz Fauzy ended up punting Julian Leal off the track on lap 19 in a contact that left his own Super Nova Racing car limping to retirement by the side of the track shortly afterwards.

In a final lap attempt to steal eighth place from Stefano Coletti - which would put him on pole position for the sprint race under the reverse grid system - Max Chilton made a strong push in one of the final corners only to find that the Trident driver had the line covered: Chilton was forced completely off the track and cut the chicane to avoid contact, and in doing so popped up in front of Coletti after all. Chilton was duly credited with eighth on the timesheets, but there was little prospect that he would be allowed to keep it once the stewards got to work and reviewed the move: he was handed a 20s penalty which dropped him to 12th place and handed the sprint race pole back to Coletti.

At the chequered flag, Bianchi had done more than enough to keep Grosjean under control and indeed in the final laps had put in a burst of speed to claim the bonus for fastest lap, just to show that things weren't as close as they looked on track and that he was driving well within himself the entire time.


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