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Tyre gamble pays off brilliantly for Cecotto

21 July 2012

Johnny Cecotto Jr. took the extraordinarily risky strategy of starting on slick tyres despite a largely damp track for the beginning of the GP2 feature race, and while he struggled in the opening laps the race quickly turned in his favour and he was rewarded for his daring by a surge to the front that handed him a famous victory, his second of 2012.

After the storm and heavy rain that had hit Hockenheim during the F1 qualifying session, the weather had returned to benign blue skies for the start of the GP2 feature race less than an hour later. But the track was nonetheless still largely very damp and featured patches of standing water as the cars got ready for the race. That meant everyone opted to start on wet tyres, with the notable exceptions of Barwa Addax's Cecotto Jr. (starting from 17th place on the medium compound) and Trident's Stephane Richelmi (starting in 22nd, on the softer options.)

Jolyon Palmer and Julian Leal both stalled as the cars embarked on their formation lap. They would have to start from the pit lane, but they had been down toward the back of the grid in any case. They were joined by Sergio Canamasas, who sadly hadn't even made it onto the grid to begin with for his début GP2 race, the team still fussing around and fretting about an apparent hydraulic leak from the #18.

Polesitter Giedo van der Garde got a good start off the line, with Fabio Leimer holding onto second ahead of Nigel Melker and Fabio Onidi scrapping it out ahead of a threatening Davide Valsecchi. But over the first sequence of corners, it was Melker who emerged as the master of the tricky conditions as he first pulled off a neat move past Leimer and then was on hand to take advantage when van der Garde got tangled up under braking to claim the lead for himself. Leimer was also able to capitalise on van der Garde's stumble to claim second, and the top two quickly started to pull away while staying locked closely together.

After his solid start, Davide Valsecchi also found all sorts of trouble, running wide and off the track on the first lap which allowed his DAMS team mate Felipe Nasr and arch title rival Luiz Razia to get past; Valsecchi then found himself boxed in behind the Arden as they came into the bone-dry stadium section of the track for the first time, which allowed Max Chilton to pass on the outside and demote Valsecchi down to eighth. Further back there was also some contact between Esteban Gutiérrez and Tom Dillmann which cost both men track position.

Cecotto and Richelmi's dry tyres hadn't paid off at the very start of the race, but by lap 4 Cecotto was by far the fastest man on the track and slicing his way up through the positions. He initially followed Carlin's Rio Haryanto who hurdled the duelling Gutiérrez and Josef Kral in a lovely single move at the hairpin on lap 3; but then Cecotto's superior pace promoted him past Haryanto and up eight places in the course of a single lap, then into the top ten on lap 6 as everyone else continued to struggle on the wet tyres until they reached mandatory pit stop window.

Alarmed at Cecotto's superior pace, virtually everyone dashed into the pits as soon as they could - led by Fabio Leimer, who had taken the lead from Melker on the previous run through the Parabolika down to the hairpin, as the drying conditions wiped out the performance edge that Melker had enjoyed at the start. Cecotto stayed out to press home his advantage - nearly running off the track as he pushed right to the limit and beyond - with Richelmi now in second place ahead of Leimer, van der Garde, Nasr, Melker and Razia at the end of lap 8.

Nasr caught van der Garde by surprise to take fourth place on the next lap, although he could make little impression on Leimer up the road in third; his team mate Valsecchi was also looking much happier on the slicks in the dryer conditions, but unfortunately the damage had already been done in those opening laps and he had been bounced down just out of the top ten. He was stuck behind the battling Marcus Ericsson and Stefano Coletti, and in the process of trying to find a way past the pair Valsecchi ended up riding up over the rear right wheel of the Coloni in a scary moment which fortunately both cars survived more or less intact with just scrapes and bruises.

Valsecchi finally pulled off a nice clean up-and-under pass on Coletti for tenth place on lap 15; a couple of laps later he cheerfully outbraked Ericsson into the hairpin for ninth and rapidly caught up with James Calado, whom he passed shortly afterward in a hard but clean move for eighth. Significantly this was not only right behind his title rival Luiz Razia on the track, it was also in provisional pole position for Sunday's sprint race under the reversed grid rules. However, he had cooked his tyres in the process which resulted in him undoing all that good work on lap 30 by missing his braking into turn 13. That promptly handed back three positions to his rivals and dumped him out of the points again, and moreover lost him that potential pole. Another lock-up a few minutes later sent him running through the gravel, and even more positions haemorrhaged away as he dropped to 14th, although he recovered one position back from a struggling Max Chilton before the end.

In the meantime the attention turned to the leaders: Cecotto had opened up a 7s lead over Richelmi by the midpoint of the race, who was himself another 18s ahead of third-placed Leimer as the Swiss driver tried his best to reel them in. However, the top two still had to time their mandatory pit stop and get back ahead of the rest of the field: Richelmi blinked first and came in at the end of lap 23, his soft tyres fading fast meaning he was losing touch with Cecotto. Richemli rejoined right in the middle of the battle for third place between Nasr, van der Garde and Melker for third place but his colder tyres meant he lost two-thirds of that battle and ended up having to settle for fifth place ahead of Melker for the time being.

Cecotto was into pit lane next time around: despite a slow stop for Barwa Addax with a problematic left-rear wheel, his margin was enough to put him back out on the track just ahead of Leimer. His fresher rear tyres than those of the Racing Engineering car allowed him to pull away with 13 laps to go. Once they were properly heated up to race temperature, Richelmi also put his own fresher tyres to good use by soon retaking all the positions he lost on his exit from pit lane.

That ended up sorting the podium positions for the feature race, with Cecotto holding a comfortable margin over Leimer, and Richelmi now pulling away in third place from Nasr and van der Garde. Nigel Melker was able to hold on to sixth place despite pressure from behind from Razia and Calado, who will duly make up the front row of the sprint race starting grid; Melker meanwhile faces a post-race stewards investigation for an unsafe pit release.

A spirited final two-lap battle saw Esteban Gutiérrez battle his way past Marcus Ericsson as the two fought over the final points positions, only for Tom Dillmann to jump past them both in the final run through the hairpin and just about hold on to claim ninth for Rapax ahead of the Lotus.

Victor Guerin was the only official retiree of the race, his day ending in the gravel with ten laps to go after losing the back end of the Ocean Racing car through a right-hander. Ricardo Teixeira's dreadful weekend continued, after the Rapax driver was black-flagged for not serving a drive-thru penalty originally handed out for waved blue flags, while Coloni's Fabio Onidi squandered his strong fourth place grid position by leaving his mandatory pit stop change to slick tyres one lap too long, and then incurring a speeding penalty in the process.

Full feature race results available.


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