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Bianchi finally clinches maiden GP2 victory

9 July 2011

Jules Bianchi converted pole position into a commanding lead by the middle of the GP2 feature race at Silverstone, but then things got really fraught as Bianchi suddenly found himself being passed by Christian Vietoris.

The race had got underway ten minutes later than scheduled and behind the safety car, after Silverstone was hit by a sharp shower as the cars circulated their way around to the grid area. Another heavy shower drenched the track and left it covered in patches of deep standing water.

That resulted in race control opting to start the race behind the safety cars and allow three laps of running under yellow to allow the wet tyres to shift some of that standing water by throwing it up into the air in blinding plumes of water spray. With the rain now having stopped, the conditions quickly improved until finally the safety car pulled in and racing got underway, Bianchi smoothly pulling ahead of Alvara Parente at the front of the field to finally successfully lead his first lap in GP2 in a year.

The iSport drivers were quick to go on the attack, Sam Bird passing Esteban Gutierrez for seventh through Becketts after having initially lost the position at the start of the race, and Marcus Ericsson also pulling a nice pass on Max Chilton for fifth place. Another driver quick to go in search of positions was Romain Grosjean, who had qualified in third but then started 13th on the grid after serving a ten-place grid penalty for causing an avoidable accident at the start of the Valencia sprint race a fortnight ago. The championship leader was quickly up three places and then moved smartly passed Johnny Cecotto for ninth position.

The weather had been transformed, with the rain long gone and Silverstone now starting to be bathed in sunshine. While the track was still very greasy in the crossover period, it meant lap times were coming down with every circulation. Jules Bianchi was enjoying the clear air and better visibility in the front as he pulled out over a 3s lead from Parente, with Christian Vietoris, Dani Clos and Marcus Ericsson filling out the top five.

But as the wet tyres increasingly started to overheat and go off, the balance of performance started to shift among the drivers as well. By lap 8, Vietoris was all over the back of Parente - ironically the man who subbed for him at Racing Engineering when he himself was recovering from a crash in the Turkey sprint race - for second place and in a lovely smooth move through the final corners of the lap, Vietoris did indeed manage to make good the pass out of Stowe.

Notably, it was the iSport cars that seemed to be suffering badly during this stage of the race: having been strong in the opening laps, now they were losing the positions they had earlier gained. Esteban Gutierrez was all over the back of Sam Bird for several laps, slithering around as he pressed every half-opportunity to get past. Bird was initially successful at holding him back, but it was clear that the Lotus ART had the raw speed and it was only a matter of time before the young Argentine finally pulled off the move; Bird would also lose eighth place to Grosjean a few minutes later confirming the iSport's problems.

Bird's team mate Ericsson was faring little better, becoming a clear road block as he put in the slowest laps of anyone out on track, with a procession of cars lining up behind him getting frustrated consisting of Max Chilton, Gutierriez, Bird, Grosjean, Ceotto and Jolyon Palmer all running within a tenth or two of one another because of the compression.

Gutierrez continued to demonstrate his speed at this stage of the race by passing first Chilton and then Ericsson on consecutive laps, and after Ericsson was also passed by Chilton and Grosjean he finally admitted defeat and headed for pit lane early on lap 12 for his mandatory tyre change, hoping that he had weathered the conditions long enough to make a switch to four slick tyres feasible and not race-suicide. In at the same time for the same gamble were Stefano Coletti (from 14th) and Luca Filippi (from 17th), although Filippi's stop was marred by an issue on the left front tyre which cost vital time. Ericsson's team mate Sam Bird came in next time around with Giedo van der Garde and would have been well advised to follow Ericsson's lead even sooner than he did, for the iSports' handling was shocking by the end of this first stint and the Briton even ran off the track at Copse before finally coming in.

While everyone waited to see whether these cars were able to keep it on the track and not go flying off, Dani Clos decided to throw everything into an attack on Parente for third place. He struck on lap 14, but had no traction out of the corner and ran wide which allowed Parente back in, but Clos then regrouped and succeeded with the move a second time through the next corner instead. Parente tried to fall into the slip stream of his rival for another fight-back but Clos had too much speed and quickly pulled away, putting an end to the battle and confirming himself in third.

Meanwhile the cars already on slicks were faring well - very well - and their faster times sounded the starting gun for everyone to come into the pits for their mandatory stop and a relieved change to slicks. Christian Vietoris was in on lap 15 together with the complete pack of cars comprising fifth the ninth positions - Gutierriez, Grosjean, Charles Pic, Cecotto and Palmer.

Bianchi, Clos and Parente were in a lap later, the last of the field to come in. It was clear that their hesitation had been costly when Bianchi returned to the track to find his lead had disappeared and Vietoris was right on his tail. After a lap of sizing Bianchi up and going wheel-to-wheel and even briefly pulling ahead out of Luffield before Bianchi reaserted himself into Copse, Vietoris then tried his move through the sweeping right hander of Stowe, the two banging wheels in a thrilling moment which seemed to have put Vietoris in the lead by pulling off the bold manoeuvre as they exited and swept down the hill to the next left hand turn. But Vietoris was outbraked by an on-the-edge Bianchi who forced his way back in front when Vietoris backed off to avoid a costly collision. This time it seemed that Vietoris' bolt was shot and while he tried to stay in touch with the Lotus ART, Bianchi slowly started to pull away and rebuild some of that safety margin he had enjoyed earlier in the race.

Toward the end of the race, Vietoris paid for those mid-race antics with the tyres wearing painfully thin and leaving him wide open for an attack from Marcus Ericsson in third place. Both he and Sam Bird were back on strong form after the switch to slicks, and they ended up sandwiching the Dams car of Romain Grosjean in third, fourth and fifth, the three of them trading fastest laps in the final moments as they fought hard for any opening to gain another position amongst themselves.

Dani Clos paid for the delayed pit stop with a drop to sixth place after being overtaken by Bird with seven laps to go when he went too wide under pressure from the iSport driver. Parente similarly fell back to ninth, while Stefano Coletti was the poter boy for the success of the early stop gamble with seventh place after starting from a lowly 21st on the grid. Almost as successful was key GP2 title contender Giedo van der Garde, who was caught out by the Friday afternoon rain during qualifying and started from 19th place only to emerge in eighth place in the closing laps of the race which put him in line for sprint race pole position under the reversed grid rules. That gave Parente something to aim for and he pressed the Barwa Addezx car hard in the final minutes, but van der Garde soaked up the pressure and claimed the solitary point and the far more valuable presumtive pole.

While his Lotus ART team mate was out in front, Esteban Gutierrez was finding things far less to his liking after losing positions during the pit stop sequence, he ran slightly off onto the grass verge and lost momentum, and was then the target of a opportunistic strike down the inside by Jolyon Palmer that took both of them off into the grass and for a quick run through the gravel before rejoining. Both cars were able to carry on and Palmer made up a position as a result of the collision, although stewards did later confirm that Palmer would be given a 30 second time penalty for causing the collision and running Gutierrez off the track, which demoted him to 20th position in the final results.

The only actual retirement was Carlin's Max Chilton on lap 15. He had tried to slide down the inside of Charles Pic into a left hand hairpin after the two emerged together from their mandatory pit stops, only to make contact with the Barwa Addax and spin it. Chilton seemed to have got away with it, but he ground to a halt shortly afterwards in turn 7 bringing out local waved yellows while the car was retrieved. Pic himself was able to get going again and finished the race in 12th.

Michael Herck had a frustrating race, stalling at the start and immediately going effectively a lap down. He was later handed a penalty for speeding in the pit lane, and unusually this was a 10s stop-go penalty because the nature of the newly remodelled pit lane at Silverstone is such that going through even at low speed is almost the same as completing the final corners on-track. Herck did not seem to know this and did not appear to actually come to a stop for the required time to the confusion of the Coloni pit crew. heck was already dead last and a lap down so the fumble made no difference to proceedings.

As the GP2 field celebrated, the GP3 field headed out for their turn in the sun. Except that Silverstone, in its usual perverse way, abruptly withdrew the sunshine and sent the rain in again, making the GP3 race even more bizarre and topsy-turvy.

Bianchi, watching on in his champagne-soaked firesuit, would doubtless have been more than happy to have all that behind him and moreover his first GP2 main series victory under his belt at long last, his season campaign finally back on track after all the accidents and happenstance.

Full times and positions available.


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