Britain's James Calado finished off a successful year of racing in 2011 with victory for Lotus ART in the GP2 sprint race on the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, always out in front after successfully converting his pole position into a first corner lead.
But it was far from a walk in the park for Calado, who had already finished as runner-up in this year's GP3 championship. First up he had fellow GP3 graduate António Félix da Costa trying to get past him after the two had started alongside each other on the front row, but soon the Ocean Racing Technology driver came under intense pressure of his own from iSport's Marcus Ericsson who had got a good start and jumped from fifth to third off the grid.
Up until then, Calado had been unable to pull away from his pursuers - three seconds covered the top five at the end of lap 4 - but da Costa's preoccupation with Ericsson now allowed Calado to build up something of a cushion. But inevitably da Costa could finally keep Ericsson behind him no more, and the Swede got past him through the turn 8 chicane on lap 8 and promptly started cutting through the gap between him and the leader at an alarming rate: on one lap he wiped out 0.4s in the first sector alone.
But as the old saying goes, catching is one thing and overtaking quite another: while Ericsson got to within half a second of the leader on lap 14, this seemed to be as good as he could manage. Tyre wear from his battle with da Costa and from setting such fast laps since then proved to be a quite possibly literally blistering pace, while Calado had been able to preserve his rubber rather better with the benefit of the lead. As a result, Calado would calmly pull out a small comfort margin in the lead over the closing laps to win by 1.7s.
Not that there was a deficit of drama further back, however. Once bested by Ericsson for third, da Costa had come under immediate pressure from feature race runner-up Luiz Razia in the Caterham Team AirAsia who himself had his hands full with Tom Dillmann. Razia managed to overtake the apparently spent da Costa on lap 9, but then the Portuguese driver fought back and retook the position - alas, at the cost of cutting a corner. The race stewards were not amused and handed da Costa an immediate drive-thru penalty for his cheek, robbing him of any chance of a podium position.
Other visitors to pit lane during the race included Razia himself on lap 15, when along with Julian Leal and Giacomo Ricci he was deemed to have ignored local yellow flags during the race - Ricci had now done this more than once and was handed a more serious stop-go penalty as a repeat offender. Nathanael Berton, Nigel Melkur and Nicolas Marroc were similarly given drive-thrus for jump starts, while Rio Haryanto also visited pit lane for the novel reason of actually needing a pit stop after his nose was damaged early in the race, which meant the DAMS was permanently running at the back of the field for the rest of the day.
Razia's penalty meant that he lost the chance of a podium finish to his year and dropped out of the top ten. Instead, Tom Dillmann was now promoted to third place behind his iSport team mate Ericsson, with Jolyon Palmer in fourth and Caterham Team AirAsia's second driver, American Alexander Rossi, was up from 13th place at the start to fifth place going into the final laps.
But the drivers behind him all had designs on that position: Stefano Coletti was in sixth ahead of a curiously nondescript Fabio Leimer now seventh after his dominant feature race win the day before, and Kevin Ceccon who had dropped from fifth to 12th with a very poor getaway off the grid at the start but who had since recovered his way back up to eighth. The closing laps on increasingly worn tyres seemed to suit Leimer, who turned up the pressure on Coletti and got past him on lap 19 to set his sights on Rossi up the road. A clearly struggling Coletti then slid off-track on the following lap and allowed Ceccon past as well.
Leimer made his move on Rossi at the start of the final lap: but the battle between them only presented an opportunity for others to get past while they were pre-occupied. Ceccon managed to do so, but Coletti ended up clashing with Leimer and crashing out of the race and into the barrier - up until this, the only retirement all day had been Mihai Marinescu who had exited the race on lap 10.
One of the beneficiaries of this wild end to the otherwise orderly events of the day was Esteban Gutiérrez, who had started from 21st position after a dismal feature race blighted by rear wing damage but who now mirrored his Lotus ART team mate Calado's impressive form to work his way up through the positions to sit in ninth place going into the final lap. That gave him the ideal opportunity to slip through and gain four places on the final lap to claim fifth place ahead of Ceccon, with Rossi ending up in seventh ahead of Razia and Clos, and Leimer falling to tenth place after that contact.
Fabio Onidi finished just outside the top ten following his 20s feature race penalty after ignoring yellow flags during the Saturday outing, while Simon Trummer finished in 15th after having to start from the back of the grid courtesy of a penalty for causing an avoidable collision with Jake Rosenzweig in the feature event. There could yet be a late flurry of new penalties to come after the sprint race itself following that last lap chaos, and Razia in particular was already under investigation for a second time of the day for not observing track limits in the preceding laps so his eighth place finish is most certainly in the balance.
But all eyes were on the podium, and given that the series organisers had hoped the GP2 Final would showcase the emerging talents coming up from the junior GP3 series they couldn't have asked for a better photo opportunity, as Calado - already confirmed for a full GP2 season with Lotus ART in 2012 - took the top step and the Pirelli 15,000 Euros prize for the best GP3 graduate performance of the weekend. Meanwhile Tom Dillmann, with whom Calado was tied on points for that prize and who gets 10,000 Euros instead from the series tyre supplier, was also on the podium in third alongside his iSport team mate and experienced GP2 regular Marcus Ericsson.
It demonstrated the very best of the current and future crop of drivers in the feeder series; and given the history of GP2's success in promoting its stars into the F1 paddock, it's not hard to think that one or more of the men on the podium this morning will soon be mixing it with the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the future.
Full race results and positions