After the cold, grey and wet conditions on Friday, it was rather jarring to see the GP2 cars glittering in the bright sunshine and heat haze on the starting grid of the first GP2 feature race of 2011 at Istanbul Park, Turkey.
This track is renowned for producing some exciting, action-packed racing - and also for the way the "dirty" side of the track makes it very tough to start from second or fourth place on the grid. The Saturday GP2 race didn't let us down in either regard.
Romain Grosjean got a great start from pole position, but Sam Bird in second struggled to get away as did Jules Bianchi starting immediately behind him in fourth. Luca Filippi got a decent get away on the other side of the grid, but it was Dani Clos who got the best blast off of all from fifth place, diving diagonally across the track to undercut Bird for the inside line into the first left hander. Filippi tried to go around the outside of Bird, sandwiching the Briton, but found he was forced wide and onto the run-off causing him to lose multiple positions and fall to sixth.
But behind them, there were problems. At the very back, Rodolfo Gonzalez - starting from the back row of the grid - managed to give a light tap on the back of Esteban Gutierrez's Lotus ART and tip him into a slow spin right across the bows of Ocean's Kevin Mirocha. It looked for a minute that it might be no more than an inconvenience, but then the tyres of the car briefly fused together and Gutierrez was popped up into the air at a forty-five degree angle before is slammed back down again amidst broken bodywork. Gutierrez was definitely out, parked at the end of pit road, but Mirocha's suspension was mercifully unaffected and he could continue.
Meanwhile all eyes were on a far bigger - and scarier - accident unfolding in the exit of turn 2. Luiz Razia drifted wide on the run-off area, and as he tried to rejoin the track the car suddenly bucked on the transition between grass, paint and tarmac and sent his car sideways. Everyone around him reacted and avoided him, but Max Chilton ended up sideways himself and partially off onto the grass on the other side: at which point Fabio Leimer arrived with no time to react and ploughed right into the back of the Carlin car, which launched him sideways and rolled him completely over so that his Rapax car skidded over the width of the track balanced on its roll bar. As soon as it reached the edge of the track, the car's suspension dug into the grass and suddenly Leimer was spinning like a top again and jolted right-side up before finally coming to a rest. At which point, Leimer cooly removed the steering wheel and walked away form the scene of the accident.
After a lengthy safety car to clear up the carbon fibre mess at both crash sites, the race restarted on lap 5 and Bird immediately set about putting his poor start to rights with a lovely smooth pass on Clos through turn 12. Bianchi was not having any similar joy at this point, and a move to try and pass Clos at the start of lap 8 ended with him running wide and allowing Luca Filippi to pass him for fourth instead.
Several cars had incidents affecting their front wings to various degrees - Jolyon Palmer and Davide Rigon all had damage, and the left hand side of Davide Valsecchi's Team AirAsia was clipped by Trident's Stefano Coletti at the restart. If didn't initially appear to do Valsecchi any harm, but s the race wore on the wing started to disintegrate and eventually he was shown the black-and-orange flag calling him into the pits which put paid to any hopes of a recovery, after a post-qualifying penalty had dumped him down ten places on the grid to 18th.
Tyre wear and pit stop strategy started to become all important as the race progressed. The old GP2 playbook encouraged cars to come in as soon as the mandatory pit stop window opened (on lap 6 in Turkey) so that the car gets back out again in clear air and in open space to make the most of the fresh rubber and leap-frog those who slog around on older tyres for longer. Christian Vietoris was reading from this playbook and came in as soon as possible, but the other leaders all decided to take a wait-and-see approach.
Filippi was one of the first front-runners to come in for new tyres on lap 14, but unfortunately he came back out on track behind Johnny Cecotto Jr in the Ocean Racing Technology car. Cecotto ran wide coming out of turn 8 on lap 15 and spun across the track, collecting the unfortunate Filippi as he did so. Both cars were out of the race.
Jules Bianchi made his tyres reach almost to the midpoint of the race, and paid the price when he lost multiple positions to those on fresher rubber. Worse still he had a terrible pit stop and lost more time, but as soon as he got his fresh tyres he was immediately back in the hunt and able to move through the field in the right direction this time, as the other cars that had pitted earlier started to feel the effects of increasingly bad handling as the tyres started to grain.
Worst affected of all was Racing Engineering's Christian Vietoris who had pitted so early in the race: the time the race was into its final ten laps he was in a dreadful state, no more than a mobile chicane bunching up crowds of cars behind him until they found a suitable place to surge past him and force him aside. He was losing half a dozen positions in a single lap, and the writing was on the wall: he had to return to pit lane to have his initial set of tyres (barely used; one previous owner) reattached so that he could make it to the end of the race sometime before the sun went down.
Seemingly the only people unconcerned and unaffected by the tyre shenanigans were the leaders, Romain Grosjean and Sam Bird. Bird had been staying in touch with the Dams until they both came in for pit stops on lap 16, but he lost time in pit lane and when they were back up to race speed Bird found himself over 5s off the back of Grosjean.
Bird wasn't giving up, and over the course of the next ten laps he did all has could to close the gap. And it was working: setting the fastest laps, he was cutting several tenths of Grosjean's lead so that by the start of lap 29 it was down to under a second and they were over 20s ahead of third place.
That was now Jules Bianchi, who had clawed his way back to third place with a nice move on Addax's Giedo van der Garde who had been among those to pit early in the race. Bianchi's move demonstrated his superior grip and ability to take a tighter, faster line through corners than van der Garde thanks to his later pit stop, proving that in the new era of Pirelli tyres the question of durability and tyre management will be as vital in GP2 as it's proving to be in F1.
As if to prove the point about tyres, fifth placed Dani Clos tried braking into turn 12 with four laps to go and found there was simply no braking capability left in the rubber, sending him sailing off into the run off area and allowing Trident's Stefano Coletti and Team AirAsia's Luiz Razia a free pass. He would also lose seventh place to Addax's Charles Pic in the remaining laps, but that came with a silver lining as the eighth placed finished gives him pole position alongside Pic on the reverse grid for Sunday's sprint race.
At the front, Sam Bird kept the pressure on right until the final lap, but Romain Grosjean simply seemed impervious, calling upon his F1 experience to keep the race nicely under control. But finally, even the Dams car's tyres started to protest their punishment, and Grosjean drifted wide in turn 12 with Bird perfectly placed to take advantage and pounce in the final two corners. Grosjean cleverly positioned his car and practically parked it on the apex into those final turns, and the presence of a backmarker also limited Bird's freedom of movement, and so the Frenchman just about made it to the chequered flag in the lead.
If there had been another lap to run then it would have been anybody's guess who would have taken the first feature race victory of the new season, which is just how race fans like it. All in all, a very entertaining and successful return to duty for GP2.Full race results
, positions and times are also available.