After a strangely overcast and blustery day on Friday, the weather was firmly back on course on Saturday in time for the 30-lap GP2 Series feature race 1, with blue skies and hot sunshine the order of the day, 46 degrees on the track and only the lightest of pleasant breezes to cool the drivers and teams down as they lined up on the starting grid in Valencia. Under such calm conditions, there was a stormy GP2 feature race ahead.
As the lights went out, Lotus GP's James Calado immediately pulled away from the DAMS of Felipe Nasr off on the front row. That left Nasr under attack from Caterham's Giedo van der Garde, who had inherited third place after Esteban Gutiérrez and Davide Valsecchi were penalised for blocking in qualifying.
Nasr couldn't hold off the Caterham, and instead had his hands full into the second corner with Gutiérrez who had managed a flying start from his relegated third row position. Nasr finally lost that one, too, and over the course of the next few laps his car would appear off the pace and he would succumb to strikes from Fabio Leimer on the exit of the bridge and Marcus Ericsson on the start/finish line before finally stabilising his position sufficiently to temporarily ward off Luiz Razia.
Further back, Valsecchi had a disastrous start off the grid and dropped back to 15th position; Carlin's Max Chilton hadn't got the best of starts either and ended up caught in an accident with iSport's Jolyon Palmer, who spun after running over the curbs while battling with Leimer. Palmer's front wing ended up wedged underneath the Carlin, and when it finally detached itself several corners later it ended up flying off of its own accord into the path of Tom Dillmann's Rapax.
Chilton had tumbled out of the top ten as a result of this; Palmer himself ended up at the bottom of the running order after an emergency pit stop for a new front wing, but he was able to rejoin and continue. Meanwhile Ocean Racing's Nigel Melker had already become the first retirement of the day when he ran straight off into the tyre barrier on lap 2.
As things settled down, Nasr's ongoing attempts to hold off Razia caused a bit of a roadblock behind him, leading to Rio Haryanto and Johnny Cecotto Jr having a scary moment as Haryanto tried to ward off an overtaking move from the Barwa Addax driver that came close to a major collision against the wall. Cecotto made the move stick, and that meant that when Nasr finally lost his bid to stay in front of Razia, it wasn't long before Cecotto went straight past him as well.
No surprise that Nasr was soon into pit lane, along with other cars that had been struggling including Valsecchi, Chilton and Dillmann. Victor Guerin was also in early, and suffered two stalls and then a penalty for speeding on pit lane once he finally did get underway.
Up in front, Calado had pulled out a hugely impressive nine second lead over the scrap for second between van der Garde, Gutiérrez and Leimer: but by lap 10 the Caterham seemed to be starting to struggle and was squirming under braking, and Gutiérrez under up misjudging his braking point and using a bump off the back of the Caterham to make the hairpin turn, giving Leimer the chance to pass them both.
Conceding defeat with his handling on this first set of tyres, van der Garde headed into pit lane next time around - only to have a problem with the right rear wheel cost him vital seconds. To make matters worse, when he exited his pit stall he found a pit lane worker from another team stepping off the pit wall right in front of him without looking, giving him a scare as he needed to jerk the wheel right to avoid running over the unwary and startled crewman.
Having escaped any damage from the Palmer front wing incident, Tom Dillmann's Rapax seemed to have picked up damage to its rear wing which was visibly askew for several laps until it finally tore itself off the car on lap 11. Rodolfo Gonzalez was first on scene and promptly crushed the component to razor-sharp shards. This put Dillmann out of the race, but more importantly triggered the safety car to allow the marshals to come out and clean up the debris before it caused any dangerous punctures.
That closed up the field, which was bad enough for race leader James Calado whose big gap - now 15s over the rest of the field - instantly evaporated. But there was much worse news for the Briton: he alone among the race leaders had not yet come in for his mandatory tyre change, and now he was stuck behind the safety car unable to dive in for his pit stop without dropping back to dead last. It seemed that this one misstep on pit strategy had cost Lotus and Calado extremely dear.
Calado opted to stay out at the head of the field and lead at the restart on lap 17 in the hope of being able to pull out a big enough lead over the rest, followed by Leimer, Gutiérrez, Ericsson, Razia and van der Garde. It was a feisty restart from the first, with Chilton briefly flying off the track out of the final corner onto the start/finish straight, and a piece of bodywork being deposited on the final apex causing van der Garde to suffer a front tyre puncture that forced him into the pits which sent him tumbling out of the top ten.
One car with definite damage was that of Nasr, who had been jumped at the restart by his team mate Valsecchi and lost the position as he gained some collision damage. That left him slow through the first few corners and caused real problems for the cars behind him, with Jolyon Palmer finally losing patience with the traffic jam and flying up the inside line across the bridge. Unfortunately he couldn't brake in time at the exit, and instead ran into the right rear of the Venuezula GP Lazarus car of Fabrizio Crestani that was already turning through turn 10. Crestani was flipped into the air and rolled at slow speed, triggering an immediate second safety car to allow the medics to attend the scene and extract the driver from the upside down car.
Calado got away safely at the restart on lap 20, which is just as well as it was a full contact sport behind him as Razia seized the opportunity of the untidy scrap between Gutiérrez and Leimer to vault up to second place. But Razia's opportunity didn't last long and within a few corners he was re-passed first by Gutiérrez and subsequently by Marcus Ericsson. The green flag run barely lasted any longer before a third safety car was called for, after Rodolfo Gonzalez tipped Giancarlo Serenelli into an innocuous spin that reversed him into the barrier, partially obstructing the track.
With the laps rapidly ticking down under all these caution laps, Calado's hopes of shooting away and opening up a big enough lead for a pit stop were all but gone. But this latest safety car had presented sliver of light, by coming out on track mid-pack rather than picking up the lead: that allowed Calado to come in, change his tyres and head back out still in tenth place immediately behind Valsecchi while the running order was sorted out behind the safety car.
The upshot of this was that there were now less than six minutes remaining under a time-limited race distance, and Gutiérrez was in the lead ahead of Ericsson, Razia, Leimer, Haryanto and Nathanaël Berthon. Berthon was bizarrely slow onto the start/finish straight for the restart - almost two seconds off the back of Haryanto, comprehensively frustrating those cars behind him led by Max Chilton and Johnny Cecotto Jr.
Cecotto had suffered during his earlier visit to pit lane when he ran over equipment laid out in the Caterham stall, but he had subsequently recovered under the successive safety car periods and now looked set to finish in eighth place and claim provisional pole position in the sprint race. But that wasn't to be: a penalty for the earlier unsafe release would drop Cecotto down to 19th place, leaving Valsecchi to take the provisional pole in his stead after the championship leader just managed to hold off Calado on his new set of tyres in the final charge to the chequered flag.
However, Sunday's pole position was a concern for tomorrow: right now, the main focus of attention was the celebrations in the Lotus GP garage for Calado's team mate Esteban Gutiérrez managing to take his first GP2 win in exactly a year. It hadn't been an easy win for him and certainly not gifted to him despite Calado's misfortune, but instead had been won by grit and determination and some good, relatively clean and certainly aggressive moves during a scrappy and at times difficult feature race in Valencia.
See full feature race results