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Valsecchi wins sprint after late penalty for Leimer

22 April 2012

After Davide Valsecchi's march to a peerless victory in Saturday's feature race, his rivals could take comfort knowing that Sunday was not going to be such an easy ride for him given his eighth place starting position on the reverse grid.

It was also not looking at all good for his DAMS team mate, Brazilian rookie Felipe Nasr. Having qualified in third place on the feature grid, he would be starting the sprint race from the back after an early retirement following a clash with Johnny Cecotto Jr., for which he had been blamed and handed a five-place grid penalty. To rub salt into the wound, Nasr's car then stalled at the end of the formation lap triggering a second warm-up lap for the rest of the field while Nasr was removed to the pit lane - behind Tom Dillmann, who had made it to the grid but then also promptly stalled in the Rapax which removed him from third place on the grid.

Finally the lights were out and the race was on: James Calado got a flier off the second row to slot between polesitter Fabio Onidi and Fabio Leimer to claim the lead into the first corner. Calado's move (and a lot of wheelspin for the Coloni) caught Onidi out badly, and he got swallowed up and shuffled backwards into the teeth of a fierce battle between Luiz Razia and Davide Valsecchi. Valsecchi emerged triumphant in the three-way battle and claimed fifth place, with Onidi briefly uncomfortably caught in the middle ahead of Razia in seventh and Marcus Ericsson in eighth. Onidi was soon outclassed by both but settled into a comfortable seventh place for much of the ensuing race, until his tyres hit problems in the closing laps and he abruptly fell to 14th place by the chequered flag.

Up at the front, Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer had held on to second spot, while Esteban Gutierrez and Max Chilton were fiercely contesting third place. The Lotus GP driver won that one by the time the field crossed the start/finish line at the end of the first lap, allowing him to set up a successful assertive overtake on Leimer for the second spot in the next run down to turn 1.

That put the two Lotus GP cars running line astern at the front, and Gutierrez clearly felt that he deserved the senior position over his rookie team mate. He tried a move at the start of lap 4 down into his favourite overtaking spot at turn 1, which Calado repelled at the expense of massively locking up his left front tyre; Gutierrez then clipped the back of Calado's car on the exit and lost an end plate in the process, which in turn affected his momentum through the next straights and allowed Leimer to get alongside and sweep him off the track to retake second place. All in all, not the most constructive or harmonious of team performances from Lotus GP.

But Calado's pace was now clearly affected by the battle, and at the start of lap 6 Leimer got better drive out of turn 3 and forced his way past for the lead despite having to take to the dirt as Calado tried to hold him off. The move broke Calado's momentum and allowed Gutierrez to also finally get past his team mate, travelling in Leimer's wake. In the course of a couple of corners Calado had been demoted to third place.

With clearly superior pace over Gutierrez, a comfortable two second lead and no pit stops in the sprint race to navigate, there seemed to be nothing standing between Leimer and the Sunday race win as he pulled out a comfortable lead and the laps ticked by. Calado was still just about holding off Chilton for third place despite vibration from his front left flat spot, and Valsecchi seemed more interested in looking after his tyres in sixth place ahead of Razia.

That meant that the real racing action was happening further back, Coloni's Stefano Coletti and Caterham's Giedo van der Garde both shooting up from near the back of the grid into the top ten by the midpoint of the race. But Coletti had pushed his tyres in the process, and as the race hit mid-distance their grip levels fell off a cliff and he went into reverse gear for the rest of the day.

"I knew I had to push hard and that tyres could have suffered towards the end of the race, but starting from the back that was the only option available to us," Coletti admitted later.

Van der Garde's Caterham team mate Rodolfo Gonzalez had been having a decent race early on, but then tangled with Carlin's Rio Haryanto in turn 4 and had to head to the pits for repairs, the incident leaving debris on track that was covered by a local waved yellow. Minutes later, as the leaders started lap 12 of 22, word came that one car had failed to satisfactorily respect the local caution by lifting off sufficiently: and the shock news was that the driver implicated was none other than the race leader, Fabio Leimer.

Word soon followed that Leimer had indeed been handed a drive-thru penalty. The Racing Engineering camp was livid: "This has cost us the first race win of the season," complained Thomas Couyotopoulo, the team's sporting director. "The stewards decided to religiously apply the rules and give a drive through penalty for ignoring yellow flags, [even though] Fabio was running all by himself in the lead and even lifted his foot off the throttle."

But there was nothing to be done: the penalty had been handed down and had to be served. Once he'd fumed his way down pit lane, Leimer emerged back out on track in the middle of a tightly-packed fierce midfield battle, in 12th place with just four laps to go - too little time remaining in the race to do any further damage limitation. "I personally would have preferred they let me finish the race and look at the data after the race, which would have made it clear that I went slower under yellow," said the Swiss driver later, understandably.

As the news spread about Leimer's penalty it seemed to hit the boost button on Davide Valsecchi, who had been placidly following Max Chilton around for almost the entire race thus far. But on lap 14, he was done waiting and being kind to his tyres. He cruised past the Carlin into turn 1 with dismissive ease to take up fourth position, and then he repeated the identical move the next time around to dispatch Calado for third.

That became second once Leimer exited to the pit lane, but with Gutierrez initially some six seconds ahead of Valsecchi it was surely asking too much of the Italian to be able to make a play for the outright race win to make it a Bahrain double? If it was, no one had briefed Valsecchi to that effect, and over the course of the final seven laps he hunted the Mexican down by going a second a lap faster, to reduce the gap to something closer to a hair's width.

Finally it all came down to the last lap of the race. Valsecchi set himself up to slipstream Gutierrez down the start/finish straight into turn 1 for the final time, and Gutierrez made his car impressively wide into the corner. But when it came to it, the tyres on the DAMS simply gave Valsecchi the better line through the turn and superior traction on the drive out, and that put him alongside the Lotus and into the lead. Gutierrez hung on, clamped to the rear of leader's car, but he could find no way around before they rounded the final corner and the chequered flag came out.

Valsecchi admitted that his famous sprint victory had taken a hefty dose of luck to pull off. "Yesterday, we deserved the win. Today, we had the luck that one driver stalled on the grid, then we were lucky that Leimer received a penalty and we were lucky that we could overtake Gutierrez on the last lap.

"Starting from P8 is difficult in terms of tyre management," he added. "You have to overtake and you are in the battle. It was really stressful! It was a really good fight hard. We had some degradation like the others, but a bit less."

"It was very challenging to save the tyres," agreed Gutierrez. "We were not so strong at the end of the race compared to yesterday." He admitted that he had "pushed a little bit [at the start] and it had some consequences at the end."

Behind them, Gutierrez' team mate James Calado had held on despite expectations on his tortured tyres to deny Luiz Razia his own second podium of the weekend.

"The start was pretty good," was a major understatement from the British rookie. "But we had some mechanical issues with the cars because my right hand corners I am terrible and when I'm left I'm fine. It felt like my front left wing was in the air. I could not accelerate.

"It was disappointing to drop back, but I put up a fight with Esteban to see if I had one chance," he said. "But I realised that my pace was slow so I let Valsecchi past because there is no point racing a really slow car."

It hadn't just been race winner Valsecchi who had benefited from looking after his tyres early on in order to make a surge forward in the latter stages of the race. His DAMS team mate Felipe Nasr's starting grid stall had caused that initial repeat formation lap, and by the middle of the race he had still been labouring in the midfield around 15th place. But in the final half dozen laps it was as if someone had strapped a jet pack with afterburners onto the back of Nasr's car, and when the final classifications showed that he'd made it up to sixth place there were an awful lot of people up and down pit lane doing comedy double-takes and rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Stephane Richelmi failed to complete a lap in the race, after being caught up in an untidy clattering of midfield cars at the first corner. Brendon Hartley's front wing was also damaged in the incident, and after it started to break up on lap 2 the late-notice Ocean Racing Technology stand-in driver also decided to call it a day and headed for the pits. Other retirements included Nathanael Berthon, while Stefano Coletti tumbled two laps off the lead with a rear left wheel problem. Johnny Cecotto Jr. also finished off the lead lap, after being hit early on by a drive-thru penalty for a jump start.

Full race results for Sunday's Bahrain sprint race are available.


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