When Tom Dillmann crossed the finish line at the end of Friday afternoon's feature race at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, it was in ninth place - which meant that it was looking like a hard slog for the Rapax driver in the Saturday morning sprint. But a post-race penalty for DAMS driver Felipe Nasr for ignoring yellow flags bumped Dillmann up one position - and under the reversed grid positions, that propelled him right into pole position for the final GP2 outing in Bahrain.
Now all he had to do was to keep the top spot for 23 laps and claim the chequered flag. Never simple in the best of circumstances, and certainly not with a fired-up Davide Valsecchi starting from eighth place in his quest to claim a whitewash of the back-to-back race weekends in Bahrain and with his eyes locked on an unprecedented fourth consecutive race win in GP2.
But Dillmann was up for it, and proved it with a solid start that saw him able to sweep across the track and block off any challenge from fellow front row starter Marcus Ericsson to get away clean in the lead into turn 1. Dillmann promptly started turning the fastest laps in the clean air while the iSport driver had to settle for second place.
"The start was okay but Ericsson had a slightly better one," Dillmann admitted after the race. "I took the inside to block him and then I took my line and it was fine. I saw he was fighting with someone at the beginning so I could make a gap."
Behind him, though, was a slightly different matter: Starting from the third row of the grid, Caterham's Giedo van der Garde had been tapped out of sixth place and into a spin that had sent up plumes of smoke from wheelspin, scattering the field behind him. The immediate cause of the spin had been an optimistic lunge down the inside of the corner by Lotus GP's Esteban Gutiérrez, who had then lost traction when he hit and clattered over the kerbing and ended up shattering parts of his front wing on the rear of the Caterham in the process. Working the outside line, Valsecchi had been lucky not to get collected by the spinning van der Garde in turn.
By the end of lap one, Arden's Luiz Razia had smoothly moved ahead of Carlin Rio Haryanto for third place, while behind them the rest of the top ten consisted of Davide Valsecchi already up to fifth place and ahead of Gutiérrez - who had escaped any stewards' sanctions for being involved in the turn 1 accident - followed by Valsecchi's DAMS team mate Nasr quickly recovering his lost penalty places in seventh ahead of Nathanael Berthon (Racing Engineering), Max Chlton (Carlin) and Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering).
Razia was clearly one of the fatest cars on the track in the early stages and was soon harrying Ericsson for second place; on lap 3 the deed was done and Razia was released to go after Dillmann, while Ericsson now found himself under attack from Haryanto. At the end of the lap, Ericsson then found a large piece of the polystyrene 50m braking marker in the middle of the track in front of him - hit out of position by an off-roading Stephane Richelmi on the previous lap - and ran straight into it, unsettling the iSport and causing him to run wide onto the start/finish straight. It was the invitation Haryanto needed to get past him, and the Swede then had to regather himself, cope with the front wing damage sustained in hitting the marker, and focus on not making it so easy for Valsecchi to get past as well.
In the circumstances Ericsson did a very good job of holding onto fourth place, backing Valsecchi into the clutches of Gutiérrez. Valsecchi was unable to ward off Gutiérrez down the start-finish straight at the start of lap 5, and the Lotus quickly went on to pass the ailing Ericsson in the next few corners and then dismiss Haryanto for third place with similar ease on the following lap. Clearly, the Mexican youngster was on a mission to make up for what had been up to that moment a dismal second weekend in Bahrain.
That left Valsecchi back in sixth place staring at Ericsson's back wing, and despite the iSport's damaged state it still took the Italian a fair amount of time to line up his move and make the pass for position into turn 1 on lap 8. When it came it was a lovely manoeuvre, but perhaps Valsecchi had been a little too careful and mindful of his tyres than was ideal, because he had now dropped a long way back from the leaders and that historic fourth consecutive GP2 race win was looking very far off as well as a result.
Valsecchi seemed to pick up on this and made short work of Haryanto with a lovely smooth pass for fourth on lap 12. Following his team mate, Felipe Nasr seemed to be making a study of Valsecchi's moves and then replicating them perfectly to make his own way forward past first Ericsson and later Haryanto, although fifth places proved to be the best he could achieve before the race ran its course.
Valsecchi meanwhile had one further scalp in mind: he wanted back that position he'd lost to Esteban Gutiérrez early on. By the start of lap 17 he was right on the back of the Lotus GP, and when Gutiérrez made a rare error and ran wide through turn 11 it seemed as though Valsecchi might take the position there and then, but the opportunity almost seemed to catch him out and he wasn't able to press home the advantage.
Valsecchi's next opportunity came when the two cars were side-by-side through turns 5 and 6 on lap 18, and this time - while Gutiérrez initially held the position - Valsecchi was more calculating and simply used the inside line through turn 8 to wrest the podium position away and leave Gutiérrez in his dust.
Up front, Dillmann had put all his eggs into the strategy basket of pulling out as big a lead over Razia as quickly as possible in the opening laps while Razia was still contending with traffic: it saw the Frenchman achieve a 5.5s advantage over the Brazilian by mid-race, and fortunately his plans were not hit by any safety cars being deployed during the morning's action.
However, that lead had come at a cost: Dillmann's tyres were fading fast in the final stages of the race, while Razia still had enough life left in his to start tearing chunks out of the comfortable gap the leader thought he'd achieved.
"Maybe it was because of my lack of experience that I pushed a bit too much at the beginning," agreed Dillmann. "At the end, I lost quite a lot of pace. Maybe next time I have to keep the tyres alive a bit longer, but it worked well today."
Before Dillmann could be sure of what was happening, four seconds disappeared out of his lead in the course of just two laps and the Arden was all over him going into the final lap. The disparity of raw speed and tyre conditions were so great that it seemed a foregone conclusion that Razia would take the lead before the chequered flag, but the closer he got to the back of the Rapax the most the dirty air unsettled him - and all the time, his own tyres were starting to flash 'end of life' warning messages to the driver through the steering wheel.
A squirrely moment in the last run through turn 3 on the final lap cost Razia a vital couple of tenths and dropped him back a few feet, which proved decisive in giving Dillmann a slender edge going into the final corner. Razia briefly considered diving down the inside; which would probably have ended in tears for them both. He reconsidered and pinned his hopes on outdragging Dillmann to the line out of the final corner, but the Frenchman used his one legitmate move down the straight to stop Razia's best overtaking opportunity. He didn't get anotherone in time before they crossed the line, and Dillmann had indeed won it by just 0.198s
"I had quite a lot of pressure but I kept cool and at the end, I won," beamed a delighted Dillmann. "It's great because the start of the season has been difficult so far. To finally leave Bahrain as a winner is great. I think the season has started for me now."
"Dillmann lost a bit of pace because of the rear tyres and we had a little bit left and we caught him," explained Razia for his part. "But I think it was too late. I really tried on the last three laps, but I also had tyre degradation and I was not able to overtake him. He did a good job and made no mistake."
Behind the battle for the lead, Valsecchi ate into the 9s gap after passing Gutiérrez on lap 18 but was still 4s back by the end and simply too far away to make his dreams of a fourth win in Bahrain come true. Instead, he had to settle for the final podium position ahead of Gutiérrez, Nasr and Haryanto - which still translated into a 24pt advantage in the GP2 drivers championship over Razia, with Gutiérrez still another 29pts further back as the 'best of the rest.'
"It's a great result," Valsecchi said, looking far from unhappy with how his stay in Bahrain had turned out. "It was a really hard race because I had to fight all race long ... It was good fun! I really hope to go to Barcelona and to be performing well and fight with the top drivers."
Marcus Ericsson managed to wrestle his maimed iSport to seventh place at the end, just ahead of Fabio Leimer who successfully recovered a position on the final lap to claim the final point on offer for eighth by getting the better of Fabio Onidi. The Coloni driver had earlier taken advantage of the first corner incident and then put in a lovely series of overtaking moves to rise up from 20th on the grid to eighth place on lap 5.
It was another race to forget for 2011 championship-winning team Barwa Addax. Johnny Cecotto Jr. didn't make it very far beyond the first corner, while stand-in driver Dani Clos dropped to the back after making an unscheduled pit stop early the race and finally called it a day four laps before the end. Other than the Addax duo, the only retirement of the race was Arden's Simon Trummer just two laps shy of full race distance.
Jolyon Palmer did manage to complete the full distance at the end of a wretched glitch-prone race weekend, but it was down in 22nd place after the engine on his iSport car briefly cut-out at the green flag.
"Jolyon had yet another repeat of the electrical problem that has afflicted his car in both Bahrain weekends," confirmed team principal Paul Jackson after the race. "The team has changed all components available to us, and we are now in deep discussion with the engine suppliers to resolve this frustrating issue before the next round."
That next round is at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain on May 11-13, as one of the support events to the F1 Grand Prix of Spain. It'll make a nice change to be away from the desert environs of Bahrain after such a lengthy stay in Sakhir - but whether the change in scenery will mean a change to the seeming domination of Davide Valsecchi and the DAMS team is another matter entirely.Full sprint race results
and GP2 driver and team championship positions