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Pic and Leimer claim wins in Barcelona

23 May 2011

The GP2 series accompanied the F1 roadshow to Barcelona at the weekend, and demonstrated that without the flash toys of KERS and DRS, the Catalunya circuit is as doggedly resistent to an exciting race as it always has been.

Feature race

The feature race saw Giedo van der Garde pull away cleanly at the start ahead of iSport's Sam Bird and van der Garde's team mate Charles Pic.

But behind them, there had been drama involving Super Nova's Luca Filippi which had started even before the formation lap, when the mechanics had left it so late working feverishly on a problem with the car that left them late leaving the grid, and a team penalty was assured.

As it turned out, the point was moot: the gremlins with the car had not been fixed and Filippi was very sluggish away from the line, causing the cars behind to scatter and trying to veer right across the track. That left too many cars competing over too little track space, and Luiz Razia was the unlucky man out who was pushed out left by Jules Bianchi to clip the back of the sluggish Filippi. That spun Filippi round and across the track - miraculously not collecting anyone along the way - into a crunching impact with the pit all. Razia's front wing was also damaged, and he would eventually retire with mechanical damage.

That put the field behind a safety car for several laps. Dani Clos spent the last lap under the safety car frantically signalling at Max Chilton to pass him, after being advised that he had overtaken Chilton under the yellow flags at the start of the caution and needed to hand back the position. Chilton stayed put, knowing full well that if he did pass behind the safety car then he would be automatically penalised. The two eventually worked things out once racing resumed, but in the meantime had bunched up the field before the restart and allowed the leaders to break away when the safety car came in.

Van der Garde once again got a perfect getaway ahead of Bird, Pic and Romain Grosjean in fourth when the safety car came in. Bird was clearly not all that happy with the handling of his car and he struggled to stay ahead of the clearly fasted Pic, as van der Garde disappeared up the road.

The running order stayed the same until the mandatory round of pit stops, which saw an interesting mixture of two- and four-tyre strategies as the teams sought to learn from the lessons of Turkey where the new Pirelli compounds had surprised everyone with exactly what they could and could not do under race conditions.

Pic went for two rear tyres and got out before Bird after they both came in on lap 16; van der Garde was in next time around but opted for four. More seriously, there was a problem with the rear left tyre spinning while the tyre changer tried to get to work, and it proved a costly delay of some 5s over his team mate: it was all the difference Charles Pic needed to overtake him by the time van der Garde emerged from pit lane.

Technically he wasn't immediately in the lead: Kevin Mirocha was the last car to pit and found himself in the lead of the race just ahead of the Barwa Addax duo, but he politely let them pass as if he were lapped traffic rather than in the lead by rights. Ultimately his late pit stop and general inexperience would indeed lead him to fall a lap off the lead.

The unwillingness of the Catalunya circuit to allow overtaking (without the aid of the F1 toys) was once again in evidence; Michael Herck was particularly good at being an implacably immovable object, holding up a train of cars behind him while running in ninth before the pit stops. After the mandator tyre stop, he found himself in front of the two Lotus ART cars of Jules Bianchi and Esteban Gutierrez who were chomping at the bit waiting to get past. After several laps of sustained pressure, Bianchi finally pulled off a classy pass on Herck with a dummy through turn 1; unfortunately Gutierrez was less measured (he had nearly punted his own team mate off in the early laps of the race already) and tried a lunge where one wasn't on, went off over the kerb and onto the grass and lost handling, causing him to hit the back of Herck and spin the Coloni around. The two cars came to a stop with their noses locked together in the middle of the track, and a second safety car was required. Gutierrez would get handed a ten-place grid penalty for the sprint race for causing the accident.

There was no trouble for the leaders at the restart, and the race settled down to an orderly procession that only started to get interesting toward the end of the race when tyre wear became an issue and cars that had taken only two tyres finding themselves depressingly easy fodder for those who had taken four. Bianchi was one car to take advantage, while the most impressive of all was Fabio Leimer who - having had to start from the back of the grid after technical gremlins put him out of Friday qualifying - put in a flurry of four impressive overtakes down into turn 1 in the last ten minutes of the time-limited race. Sadly for him, the clock ran out while he was still too far back to make an attack on Bianchi for the all-important eighth place, and all that effort seemed to have been for scant reward.

Tyres weren't an issue for Charles Pic, however, who managed to control the race and his tyre wear to lead home an impressive 1-2 ahead of van der Garde, with Bird coming in right behind them after a quite afternoon's work which once again collected a nice handful of GP2 championship points.

Speaking at the press conference after the race, Pic said that "My start was okay, I conserved my position during the first 8 to 10 laps until Sam's tyres began to degrade, I then tried to overtake him but it was very, very hard!

"So I preferred to save my tyres and he decided to pit, so the pit had the right strategy to stop me directly, and so we passed him during the pitstop. After that Giedo had a little problem in his pitstop so we passed him, and I wasn't expecting to be in first position!," he said with a laugh. "After that I was trying to manage the degradation, and that's it!"

"I'm happy, but the win was there," said van der Garde of his near-miss. "The strategy was not planned, we had an option to go for two or four tyres, but because we had a big gap we said let's go for four tyres because we will make it: we did it, but we struggled on the left rear, I let of the clutch a little early too, so we lost two or three seconds. It can happen but it's a pity, because this was our race."

A surprisingly low-key and anonymous Romain Grosjean finished in fourth, but in the hours after the race word came down that the Dams car had failed technical inspection and would be excluded from the race. Not only would he lost his points (handing the championship advantage to Sam Bird, with whom he had been tied on points in the lead of the GP2 title battle coming into Barcelona) but he would also have to start from the back of the grid for the sprint race. His weekend was effectively wrecked.

But it proved to be excellent news for Fabio Leimer: all that hard work scything through the field in that closing stint had paid off after all. He inherited eighth position after Grosjean's disqualification, gaining a solitary point but more importantly the pole position of the sprint race under reverse grid rules. Not bad for the guy starting at the very back of the grid!

Full results and times available.

Sprint race

Fabio Leimer led the field away at the green lights for the Sunday morning GP2 sprint race, but just as on the previous day proceedings were quickly curtailed by a safety car following a crash on the starting grid. And for the second day running, Jules Bianchi was involved.

This time, it was Bianchi who bogged down and got a terrible start, leaving him on the extremely defensive on the run down to turn 1. Marcus Ericsson got past on the inside and Dani Clos on the outside, leaving Bianchi desperately struggling as the meat in a very uncomfortably sandwich.

Further back, other cars had been sluggish to react to the lights as well, but not the Barwa Addax duo of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. Van der Garde flew off the fourth row of the grid, threaded his way down the middle and almost slotted right between Bianchi and Clos to take second before the gap abruptly closed. Clos then pulled ahead of Bianchi into turn 1 and van der Garde attempted to follow the Racing Engineering car through and past the ART - but Bianchi wasn't having it.

He jinked left once to warn van der Garde off, and the two banged wheels. Fortunately the contact was side-on and no harm was done; van der Garde lost a little momentum and fell back, but Bianchi wasn't happy and tried a second time to barge van der Garde wide, but this time the contact wasn't side-on and as a result it jerked Bianchi round to the left and into nose-on contact with the outside wall. Van der Garde was collected as well as the two bounced across the grass and into the gravel.

The accident kicked up a storm of debris from their collision that ended up catching out the poor innocent bystander Charles Pic, whose front wing was wrecked by some flying bodywork. That put Pic into the pits for a new wing after being shown a black-and-orange flag, leaving him marooned at the back of the field for the remainder of the sprint race.

An extended safety car period followed: after the serious injuries sustained by Davide Rigon in Turkey from a seemingly innocuous crash, the medics were taking no chances and erring on the side of caution when it came to extricating Bianchi from his car. It was rather disconcerting seeing him strapped to a stretcher and being given oxygen, but he gave the thumbs up and the news later in the day was that he had simply suffered slight bruising to the rib cage and would be fine to drive in next weekend's round in Monaco.

At the restart, Leimer was comfortably in the lead ahead of Dani Clos, Marcus Ericsson, Sam Bird, Davide Valsecchi and Stefano Coletti (who had got the best start of anyone save for van der Garde), while Josef Kral headed a densely-packed midfield block. From there, Leimer was able to check out somewhat and control the race from there to finish over 10s ahead with no major dramas.

The race settled down into an extended period of rather processional activity. Withut the F1 toys, the field were defeated by the Catalunya track's perverse resistance to overtaking moves: as graphically illustrated by a lengthy battle between Valsecchi and Coletti over fifth place, it would allow Coletti to get alongside and even put a nose in front, but then insist in switching direction to give positon back to the original car in front.

There were a couple of incidents, such as Carlin's Max Chilton making a move on Trident's Rodolfo Gonzalez for 12th around the outside of turn 1 only to get swept off the track and lose a position instead as he recovered from the lose of momentum and now-dirty tyres; and Coloni's Michael Herck got punted out of 18th position by none other than ART's Esteban Gutierrez, with whom he came to blows in the feature race the previous day. This time, Gutierrez escaped any sanction for his involvement in Herck's spin and retirement.

Having endured the early pressure from Coletti, Valsecchi came good in the closing laps and not only became more secure in fifth but also get the upper hand over Sam Bird in front who was suffering badly from tyre wear on an iSport car that had never had the best of handling in the first place. Finally Valsecchi was able to hold a better line and take the position, bumping Bird from the podium for the first time this season.

Behind them, Stefano Coletti was paying the price for his fruitless early assaults on Valsecchi and now had no grip left, the car squirming around as Josef Kral bore down on him. Kral attempted to go around the outside of Coletti through the first turn with two laps to do, but should have factored in that squeezing Coletti at the apex was likely to be a very bad idea: with no grip, Coletti had no chance of holding the line and drifted wide right into the side of the Arden, putting them both out of the race.

Another driver who came alive in the final laps was Romain Grosjean, who had started from the back of the grid after his exclusion from the feature race. He was a distant 19th place with seven laps to go, but suddenly the tyre wear of those in front kicked in and Grosjean - who had patiently preserved the rubber on his own Dams - was able to fire up the turbo booster to make mincemeat of the midfielders with sweeping moves, including overtaking three cars in the space of two corners on lap 22 in a lovely single sequence.

Unfortunately Grosjean would finish in ninth place - much effort for no reward - and the final lap saw him bang wheels with his team mate Pal Varhaug, pushing the youngster out wide off track. Vargaug was able to use the run-off area and sweep back onto the track ahead of Grosjean, no love being lost between them even though the position didn't carry any points with it - merely pride.

It was an easy win in the end for Fabio Leimer by some ten seconds over Dani Clos, but that's not to undermine how well deserved it was after all that hard work on Saturday to put himself at the head of the reverse grid for Sunday's sprint race. It's Leimer's second consecutive sprint race win at Barcelona.

"I just thought to get a good start and get away," he said. "I made a quite good start, and then it was quite easy because you can manage the tyres, watch in the mirrors for Dani Clos, and I actually drove the first 15 laps quite slowly to save the tyres. Later when I saw he was struggling I pushed a little bit, I tried to be very consistent, and I think it was perfect!"

"There was a bit of trouble at the start," said Dani Clos. "I got hit from behind, something small, and then the safety car: I think it was good that we had the safety car for the tyre wear, because we had 2 or 3 extra laps at the end! Now with the tyres it's really difficult to make a show: at the end we can only maintain and try to drive as smooth as possible, and it's really tricky to keep the car at the track and not have a big drop off."

Marcus Ericsson made good on that start and circulated in third without incident ahead of his iSport team mate Sam Bird - which didn't worry him, Ericcson insisted, despite some previous history between them. "Not at all, to be honest. We've had some incidents in the beginning of the season but we're good mates, I think we trust each other now, and what happened before is put behind us, so not at all: it was just like anyone else."

The disastrous weekend for Grosjean (despite that impressive recover drive in the last ten laps of the sprint race) drops him to fourth in the points standings, while Sam Bird remains in the join lead only now his companion on 21pts is Giedo van der Garde. His Barwa Addax team mate is in third on 15pts.

Full results and times available.


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