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Davide Valsecchi gives AirAsia maiden win

27 May 2011

Despite a clash between their two drivers during Thursday qualifying, Friday dawned bright for iSport with their man Sam Bird on pole position. Bird had been gifted pole position by the five-place grid penalty handed to the fastest man in qualifying, Giedo van der Garde, for causing an accident during qualifying.

But Bird then went and squandered the opportunity it presented him for a strong result by stalling on the grid: although he did finally rejoin the race, it was in dead last position. Not that this would be the last bit of bad news to come for iSport ...

Instead, it was Davide Valsecchi leading the field away when the lights went out, under heavy pressure from Alvaro Parente, who in turn made slight contact off the grid with local boy Stefan Coletti as they sought to avoid the motionless Bird. There was also an impressive flying start from van der Garde off the grid into fourth as he sought to make up for that Thursday penalty, while at the back of the grid Romain Grosjean was also cutting his way past the backmarkers as he struggled to recover from an utterly disastrous qualifying session.

After a closely fought half dozen opening laps, the top three - Valsecchi, Parente and Coletti - started to stretch out and put some safety distance between each other. Valsecchi was careful not to over-drive the Air Asia in the opening stages because of the unknown nature of the supersoft tyres on which the cars were running for the first and only time at Monaco; the possible high rate of tyre wear made everyone wary.

It didn't stop some of the drivers seeking tactical advantage by coming in for early mandatory pit stops as soon as lap 7, when Charles Pic, Dani Clos, Jolyon Palmer, Kevin Mirocha and Michael Herck all piled into to Monaco's cramped pit lane are. That helped Romain Grosjean's campaign, clearing the road ahead and allowing him to target Oliver Turvey for what would be 12th position.

Up ahead, the weakest link of the leaders was now exposed as being Coletti, who not only started to lose touch with the leading duo but was also holding up the cars behind him, causing everyone to run very close together and to start getting some unfortunate ideas.

Sure enough, Jules Bianchi's impatience trying to get past Giedo van der Garde for fourth ended up with the Frenchman running into the back of the Barwa Addax, forcing Bianchi to pit for a new front wing immediately afterwards. The damage to the nose caused problems for the ART pit crew and Bianchi was left shaking his head in exasperation as he sat for an eternity in his pit box; and then to rub salt in the wound, word came down that he had been handed a drive-thru penalty for causing the collision, showing once again that the stewards were taking a very dim view of anything they deemed to be "amateur hour" driving.

In fact it was redundant: the damage from the collision was found to be too severe and Bianchi never made it past the pit lane exit. Which is just as well for Bianchi, otherwise he would almost certainly have had a second drive-thru penalty to contend with, having been under investigation for a jump-start along with Oliver Turvey and Fairuz Fauzy - who did indeed receive drive-thrus, although for some reason Turvey never came in to pit lane to serve his, which would prove costly after the race.

Van der Garde didn't entirely escape damage from the earlier collision with Bianchi either, which result in him being shown the black and orange flag requiring him to come in for repairs. Fortunately this fitted within the pit stop strategy and he came in around the same time as Coletti and Parente, but the car was more seriously injured than initially realised and he would retire on lap 26.

The leader, Davide Valsecchi, came in on lap 14 and got a decent stop, returning to the track ahead of Parente. The lead was taken by Luca Filippi and Romain Grosjean who both still had yet to stop, and they were putting in the fastest laps they possibly could to take advantage of the overlap in pit stops. Filippi, who had been 11th on the grid, was putting in the fatest laps of anyone on the circuit despite running on relatively worn tres by this point. Impressive stuff indeed.

Further back, the pit stops had left the order somewhat jumbled, with Kevin Ceccon notably out of place in the running order and proving to be an annoying mobile chicane to the likes of Dani Clos, Fabio Leimer, Josef Kral and Oliver Turvey who had to find a way past him before they got left for dead by the cars further ahead; Ceccon finally called it a day and came into the pits on lap 20, releasing the frustrated pack that had been jockeying for position behind him.

Filippi and Grosjean finally pitted on lap 21, handing back the lead of the race to Valsecchi and Parente; despite struggling with a sticking left rear tyre, Super Nova still managed to return Filippi to the track in third, which was only fair reward for all his efforts in that storming middle section of the race. Grosjean had also come out in fourth, an amazing comeback for the Frenchman who had started last after failing to set a time within the 107 per cent cut off in a traffic- and accident-packed qualifying on Thursday afternoon. Best of all form their point of view, Filippi and Grosjean both had considerably fresher tyres than the leaders and could reasonably expect to close on them in the final laps and possibly even force a mistake that would result in an overtaking opportunity for the podium - or the win.

At this point, Valsecchi had a 5s lead over Parente, who in turn had 3s over Filippi. But Parente was already showing signs of wear and tear and was the slowest of the top five runners - slower even than Stefan Coletti, who had lost out the most during the pit sequence after emerging back on track just behind the still-to-pit Julian Leal at the critical point of the race.

Perhaps the most controversial and potentially far-reaching incident of the race came on lap 30. Sam Bird - still trying to recover from that starting line stall - had been found himself stuck behind his team mate Marcus Ericsson for several laps, despite being clearly faster. Finally he made a move through Anthony Noghes: Bird went through, but Ericsson hit the wall and bounced back to make contact with Bird on the run down to Mirabeau. Both iSport cars were damaged; Bird had a puncture and promptly went into the wall, while the damage to the rear of Ericsson's car made itself known when the rear wing promptly fell off at the exit of the tunnel.

In the short term, the immediate repercussion of the iSport family feud was the appearance of the safety car to allow Ericsson's rear wing to be recovered from the middle of the track, and a general sweep-up of iSport debris. That packed up all the cars close together on track once more and wiped out any lead Valsecchi had thought he had over the likes of Parente, Filippi and Grosjean: he would have to control them at the restart if he wanted to keep this win.

He did it, and comfortably at that: in fact he showed his true pace at last after a whole race of playing it safe and finished with a flourish when he put in the fastest lap of the morning for good measure. There would be no challenge to AirAsia's victory at Monaco, an impressive (and prestigious) feat for a team in its very first year of GP2 competition. And despite his clear handling problems, Parente was also able to fend off Filippi for the remaining minutes of the race before the time-limit kicked in and the chequered flag came out to greet them.

Grosjean managed to hold on to fourth - an impressive run for the day from dead last - while Coletti held off a late challenge from Josef Kral to retain fifth place at his home pace. Max Chilton initially thought he had finished in eighth, which would give him the pole position on the reserve grid for Saturday's sprint race alongside his temporary Carlin team mate Oliver Turvey. However, Turvey was handed a 30s penalty for failing to take that drive-thru penalty for the jump start, which dropped him down to 15th position. As a knock-on effect Chilton got bumped up to 7th, losing him pole for the sprint race but still enough to put him on the front row alongside the new polesitter, Barwa Addax's Charles Pic.

Other retirements through the race included Pal Varhaug finding the barrier at Rascasse on lap 11 bringing out local waved yellows; Rodolfo Gonzalez also hit the wall and lost his front win on lap 20 having just failed to fend off Clos, while Clos himself hit the wall at Mirabeau on lap 23. Julian Leal managed to crash into the barrier at the restart on lap 34.

Full results and times available.


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