As the drivers lined up on the grid for the start of the first feature race at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir, most of them must have been hoping that the blazing form shown by polesitter Davide Valsecchi in the DAMS in practice and qualifying on Friday would translate into race pace. But they were to be gravely disappointed.
The tightest moment for Valsecchi was at the start, when his getaway was matched by that of Lotus GP's Esteban Gutierrez on the other side of the front row. Valsecchi had just enough of an edge to get into the first turn first, but it was a close run thing. After that, however, the DAMS scampered off into the distance and by lap 16 following the mandatory pit stops for new tyres Valsecchi was almost 12 seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
"I'm really happy about the start because it's always a bit of an issue for me and we managed to stay in front today at the first corner. It was not a fantastic one because Gutierrez was next to me, but it was enough to keep the lead," said Valsecchi after the race.
Behind Valsecchi, his rookie team mate Felipa Nasr started from third place but was caught out by Johnny Cecotto Jr. getting a flier from the row behind and then diving across the full width of the track to claim the inside line into turn 1, and as a result the Addax car was able to claim and keep the position.
Behind them, Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer found himself squeezed into a three-way into the first corner with Arden's Luiz Razia and Carlin's Max Chilton: Razia emerged on top, while Chilton received no 21st birthday present from Leimer and was forced to settle for seventh place. Behind this trio, James Calado (Lotus GP) and Dani Clos (Barwa Addax) were having a youth versus experience battle over who got to claim eighth place ahead of Stephane Richelmi in tenth, although Richelmi promptly lost that spot to Coloni's Fabio Onidi on the next lap.
That put Richelmi at the head of a number of fierce battles going on outside the top ten, including Giedo van der Garde and Stefano Coletti tussling over 15th place that ended in contact and both of them spinning out of the right hander at turn 8. Coletti's attempt to get underway again saw him skate across the gravel and nudge his wheel into the barrier, at which point there was nothing to do but climb out of the car. Van der Garde was able to resume, but then clipped his front wing on the back of Nathanael Berthon who was recovering after his Racing Engineering car had spun out of the first corner onto the grass at the start. The Dutchman would subsequently retire mid-race after 16 laps.
Still labouring on a set of scrubbed harder compound tyres, Richelmi was the first in for his mandatory pit stop at the end of lap 7, after which the rest of the field dribbled in over the next few laps. Luiz Razia executed a lovely pass for fourth on Felipe Nasr and then leapfrogged both Gutierrez (whose crew had an issue with one of the tyres) and Cecotto when they came in to the pits together, only for all three of them to emerge behind Chilton and Calado who had come in one lap earlier and made the best use of the new rubber on their out laps.
Valsecchi pitted from the lead on lap 14 and went back out still in the top spot, while some distance behind Berton was the last man to stop, and on his now very worn tyres he was clearly backing up and frustrating the real race contenders into one another. By the time Berthon finally opted to pit he was overwhelmed by much faster cars all over him, and his jink to try to get to the pit lane entrance nearly triggered a major accident in the process.
It certainly left the leaders jumbled up with fights breaking out all over the place: one of the fiercest being that between Cecotto and Nasr, who were banging wheels and running off into the dirt in their battle before finally ending up in contact on lap 17 that spun and stalled both cars, resulting in a safety car being deployed. The race stewards subsequently reviewed the incident and found the collision to be Nasr's fault, handing him a five-place grid penalty for Sunday's sprint race which - combined with his retirement - meant he would be starting form the back row of the grid. That certainly seemed to put paid to his weekend's exploits, after winning a fine third place on the grid in qualifying.
Valsecchi's huge pre-interval lead was wiped out, and he had to make sure that he didn't lose out to James Calado and Luiz Razia at the restart on lap 20. The leaders were followed by Max Chilton, Esteban Gutierrez, Dani Clos, Fabio Leimer, Tom Dillmann, Stephane Richelmi and Fabio Onidi forming the remainder of the top ten.
Valsecchi's superiority on the day was such that he had no problems staying out of reach, while Calado was suffering the consequences of slightly older tyres and immediately under intense pressure from Razia for second. Calado fought for the position for all he was worth, but finally succumbed to the Arden in the final corner of lap 24, after which his own tyres were so cooked his earlier battle that Calado found it impossible to hold off passing moves from Max Chilton and from his own Lotus team mate Gutierrez and from Max Chilton.
Gutierrez was harrying Chilton for the final podium position, and looked to have set things up perfectly for a slingshot move on the Carlin out of turn 3 only to be frustrated to see a local waved yellow as a result of debris on track caused by a massive burst tyre for Ocean Racing's Nigel Melker. But Gutierrez waited a few seconds more and finally caught Chilton out with a sudden switchback change of line down into turn 11, and then managed to hold off Chilton's counter-attack through the ensuing corners despite straying out onto the slippery tyre discard marbles in the process. Poor Max Chilton has his birthday present snatched from him at the last minute and third place duly went to Gutierrez as they crossed the finish line just half a second apart.
"It was very exciting because it was a fair fight, a clean fight," said Gutierrez later when asked how those final few laps had played out from his perspective. "This is what we love. I love competition. It makes life interesting! It was a great feeling. ... I'm really happy and so is the team. We never stop pushing."
Calado had enough rubber left to hold on to fifth place, which was now just three tenths ahead of Tom Dillmann after Fabio Leimer had also struggled in the final laps and lost sixth position by briefly running off the track in the closing stint. Fabio Onidi rose two positions to finish in eighth place, giving him pole position for the Sunday sprint race and Leimer the shotgun position on the front row.
The final laps also saw late retirements from Dani Clos and Nathanael Berton. The iSport car of Jolyon Palmer failed to even join the formation lap, and was unable to start from pit lane either. Apart from Nasr, the only penalty of the race went to Simon Trummer who was handed a pit lane speeding penalty during the race.
Almost forgotten for much of the race was Valsecchi, who was almost nine seconds ahead in the final laps before easing off the gas at the end to finish 'just' 7.7s ahead of Razia.
"We were really fast: my car was perfect, I drove really well. Yesterday we deserved the pole; today we deserved the win," said Valsecchi. But he wasn't taking anything for granted going into the Sunday sprint race, which will see him start from eighth place on the reversed grid.
"I finished the race six seconds ahead of Razia, but maybe because he starts ahead of me tomorrow, he will be able to preserve his tyres better," he pointed out to the GP2 Media Service. "Tomorrow is another day and another story. I don't think I will start with a big advantage, but I am confident that we can score some points if we finish the race and we try to avoid incidents at the start. I hope I can make a good one and we will see."Full race results
for Saturday's Bahrain feature race are available.