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Grosjean tightens grip on 2011 title

30 July 2011

If anyone was in any doubt that this was Romain Grosjean's year, then victory in the feature race at the Hungaroring in Budapest, Hungary should put those concerns firmly to rest. Not only did the win further extend his lead in the points, it was the manner in which the win was handed to him - by misfortune for longtime race leader Marcus Ericsson - that surely demonstrates that the gods of luck and chance are firmly backing the Frenchman for victory this year.

It was Ericsson who claimed the lead of the race through turn 1, after a sluggish start for Luca Filippi from the dirty side of the track held up Charles Pic, and left Ericsson clear to deal with pole sitter Luiz Razia. Filippi tried to recover by late-braking into the corner but found himself forced wide on the exit by a no-nonsense Grosjean; Pic would also lose out to Grosjean for third place a couple of corners later, while further back Fairuz Fauzy and Johnny Cecotto Jr. collided in turn 1 and were out of the race, fortunately without triggering a safety car interlude despite a shower of debris landing on the track from the contact.

Ericsson was soon pulling away from the clearly-slower Razia who was coming under pressure from Grosjean. Behind them was the Barwa Addax pairing of Pic and Giedo van der Garde, with Leimer sixth ahead of Filippi who was still trying to recover from that dreadful start but coming under heavy pressure himself from Lotus ART's Jules Bianchi behind him. Unfortunately Bianchi's team mate Esteban Gutierrez was not having the best of days, and on lap 3 he ran wide off the track. It was clearly not a simple matter of a driver error: he limped back to the pits at a crawl, emerging a few minutes later for one last circulation but then pulling over to the grass verge at the end of the pit lane exit to retire for good.

While Razia was up toward the front, his Caterham Team AirAsia team mate Davide Valsecchi was still having to overcome the two starting grid penalties that had dumped him down to last place for the start of the feature race. Figuring that some bold strategy was called for if he was to stand a chance, he opted to come in for his mandatory pit stop and tyre change as soon as the window opened on lap 6. That left him in clear air and running faster lap times than everyone else who would still have to visit pit lane over the next dozen or so laps.

Another driver in serious need of a bold pit strategy was Sam Bird, who despite running up in tenth position in the opening laps was soon clearly struggling, some 2s a lap off the pace of the rest of the leaders and soon falling prey to the likes of Racing Engineering duo Christian Vietoris and Dani Clos and beginning to haemorrhage places as early as lap 9. He decided to take his chances and pit for fresh rubber, emerging down in 22nd place but ahead of fellow early-stopper Valsecchi and now lapping up to a second a lap faster than his iSport team mate Ericsson could manage in the lead.

It was still several laps before the majority of cars came in to pit lane. Jolyon Palmer and Julian Leal came in on lap 10 and Luca Filippi took to pit road on lap 12 just after overtaking Fabio Leimer for sixth place and holding off a strong counter-attack from the Rapax driver. But it was a couple of laps longer still before the trickle become a flood and not until lap 15 that one of the leaders - Grosjean - finally opted to come in to pit lane.

It proved a crucial moment in the race, as Grosjean had a single lap to nail the undercut before Ericsson and Razia pitted from first and second next time around. There was nearly contact in pit lane when Ericsson was released into the path of Razia and the anti-stall kicked in on the iSport to make it a very near-miss, but Ericsson had a comfortable enough margin despite the hold-up to return to the track over 2s ahead of Grosjean, while Razia lost out badly and dropped behind not only the Dams car but also the Coloni of early stopper Luca Filippi.

Pal Varhaug stayed out the longest of anyone on the first set of tyres, and it wasn't until lap 20 then he finally came in and handed the race lead back to Ericsson. But by then, word had come down that Ericsson was under investigation for that near-miss with Razia in the pit lane, and sure enough he was ordered to do a drive-thru at the end of lap 31 that dumped him out of the lead and down to sixth place, handing Grosjean the race lead. He put it to good use by pulling away from the threats of Filippi, Pic and Razia who were snapping right at his and each other's heels, Pic having made use of traffic to gain a jump on Razia for position midrace.

Behind them was a gap of some 5s to Sam Bird - and it was a gap that was getting bigger and bigger as the iSport car's tyres deteriorated fast, the British driver paying for daring to go for such an early pit stop. Giedo van der Garde was running immediately behind him on track and could see the opportunities to pass present themselves, and he tried passing Bird at turn 1 on lap 24 only to be rebuffed; he tried again next time around and failed again in a move that cost him a piece of his front wing; but by the time they were back at turn 1 a third time, Bird's rubber was so bad that he could no longer fend off the Dutchman and the Barwa Addax car successfully made it though, giving Dani Clos a cheeky opportunity to follow straight through in his wake.

The floodgates were open and after this Bird was once again haemorrhaging positions as he had done earlier in the race; after Bianchi, Leimer and Vietoris all passed him, Bird had had enough and came into the pits for new tyres at the end of lap 28; it meant he would drop to last place and didn't have nearly enough time to make many of those positions back, but at least it was more fun overtaking people and setting fastest laps (even if they wouldn't count for the bonus championship point as he would never get back into the top ten) and less soul-destroying than serving out the rest of the race as a mobile chicane for everyone to practice their overtaking moves on - if he could even keep it out of the barriers in the process.

Where Bird led, Filippi was soon to follow: another relatively early stopper, he would find his tyre performance abruptly fall away in the final ten laps. That released Grosjean into the distance while Filippi tried to hold back Pic and Razia. It wasn't long before they want past the Coloni at successive runs through turn 1; a few minutes later and he also succumbed to van der Garde and also to Ericsson in the final minutes as the iSport driver fought his way back from the drive-thru penalty.

Having run in second place, Filippi would end up limping home in a disappointing sixth place, just ahead of Jules Bianchi and Christian Vietoris. Immediately behind, Vietoris' team mate Clos succumbed to Josef Kral for ninth place in the final minutes, but Vietoris himself held on for the all-important eighth place he had gained after seeing off Fabio Leimer in order to secure pole position for Racing Engineering in the sprint race under the reversed grid system

As the driver who stopped earlier than anyone by some margin, Davide Valsecchi was an obvious candidate for the same handling woes that had taken out Bird and Filippi. For a while he loked as though he was bucking the trend and was running reasonably well in 12th place - not bad given the back row starting position he'd been left in after all those penalties. But the tyre wear in the final laps did indeed finally catch up with him and he fell back to 16th place, just ahead of Sam Bird and right behind Carlin returnee Mikhail Aleshin.

Other than Ericsson's drive-thru penalty, Rodolofo Gonzalez was handed a drive-thru for overtaking under yellow flags (before he finally pulled over midrace with evident mechanical problems). Jolyon Palmer was delcared under investigation for not respecting track limits after cutting the chicane; however no further action was deemed necessary, and with Palmer running dead last and a lap off the lead it was all rather irrelevant to the race results.

At the end of 38 laps (the race losing one lap when time-capped to one hour), Pic had halved Grosjean's lead - but it was still a perfectly comfortable 2.6s comfort margin that Grosjean had as he crossed the finish line, with Pic well ahead of third-placed man Luiz Razia who had experienced an up-and-down afternoon on his travels from pole position.

Grosjean's fifth win of the year opens up an even bigger GP2 championship lead over Giedo van der Garde, who finished in fourth place ahead of a frustrated Marcus Ericsson who was still fuming over the penalty that had cost him a near-certain race win.

It was proof that however much skill you need to win a motor race, you also need your fair share of luck as well. And this year the luck seems to be going all Romain Grosjean's way, as the clouds ahead part for the young Frenchman and a return to F1 appears ever more likely in his immediate future ...

Full results and positions available.


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