Marcus Ericsson claimed his second win in the GP2 Series, over two years after the first at Valencia in 2010, with a race that will likely go into the record books as the longest GP2 event of all time at just four and a half minutes shy of two hours.
It had started normally enough, with Esteban Gutiérrez got the best launch off the grid of the leaders and trying to find his way past polesitter Rio Haryanto on the run down into La Source. In doing so he strayed into the wet grass verge and was lucky not to spin out and trigger a massive accident; instead, he was forced to retreat back into third place battling his Lotus GP team mate James Calado for the second spot.
Gutiérrez finally got past Calado for the position on lap 2, but replays showed that the move had been under local waved yellows brought out for first lap accidents involving Rodolfo Gonzalez (who spun off the track on the run up to Eau Rouge) and Fabio Leimer (who had spun after contact with Davide Valsecchi at Les Combes.)
The Lotus battle had left the way clear for Marcus Ericsson to get the better of them both, and the clearly faster iSport car then made easy work of Haryanto for the lead out of Raidillion, although this too came briefly under the cloud of suspicion of taking place under yellow flags.
But seconds later the landscape of the race was transformed when Nigel Melker's Ocean Racing Machine went off at high-speed nose-first into the tyre wall at Eau Rouge. It was a terrifying crash doing extensive damage to the barrier that was clearly going to take some time to repair: a safety car was instantaneous, and Melker was taken away by ambulance. The Ocean Racing Technology team later confirmed that Melker was uninjured and already back in his hotel by the evening, although he would be unable to compete in Sunday's sprint race because of the heavy damage to his race car.
Under the ensuing lengthy delay, Gutiérrez sought to evade a penalty for overtaking Calado under the yellow flags by handing the position back to him. That got no sympathy from the stewards, who still handed him a drive-thru penalty for the original offence. Also on the receiving end of a drive-thru was Johnny Cecotto Jr. who had stuttered on the grid before the green lights and recorded a jump start as a result.
As everyone waited for the tyre wall to be rebuilt, the laps behind the safety car started to rack up and soon the point had been reached where everyone could come in for their mandatory tyre changes if they wished. Almost everyone did, and pit lane was bedlam; Davide Valsecchi was even investigated for unsafe release from his pit stall when he pulled back out right into the path of Fabio Onidi who stalled as a result, but the DAMS driver avoided sanction.
It was a bad stop for Gutiérrez, however, whose pit crew had a problem with a sticking right rear tyre cost him eight places by the time he came back out on track. It was still more costly for Haryanto, who promptly spun at turn 5 on his first lap out on his new cold tyres behind the safety car. He was able to recover and rejoin the parade, albeit several positions down.
By now it was clear that the damage to the Eau Rouge safety barrier was even more extensive than originally feared, and was going to take much longer to repair than anticipated. The race director finally made the call to red flag the race while the repairs progressed, and the field was led back to the starting grid by the four cars who had yet to pit - Giedo van der Garde, Stéphane Richelmi, Simon Trummer and Stefano Coletti. The leading cars that had called into pit lane - Ericsson and Calado - duly followed in fifth and sixth.
It proved an extensive delay before racing finally resumed, since even once the tyre wall was reconstructed the restart had to be called off because of the temporary absence of the medical helicopter. But finally, after a painfully long hour's delay, the car were re-fired and got back underway.
Van der Garde, Richelmi, Trummer and Coletti led at the restart but all four still had their mandatory trips to pit lane to make later in the race. By that time Trummer had inadvertently become key to the outcome of the race when he allowed Coletti and Ericsson to slip past him but was more successful at holding up Calado for five laps, allowing the Swede to start building up a margin of comfort over his chief rival for the win.
While the remainder of the race didn't feature any major dramas to match the first stint, it certainly had more than its fair share of incidents and controversies.
Sergio Canamases exited the race on lap 11 after he clashed with Nathanaël Berthon on the run out of La Source. Canamases had squeezed the Racing Engineering car hard over to the rear pit wall and paid the consequences of the ensuing contact when his tyre blew out; Berthon himself was able to continue after some repairs on pit lane. The race stewards took a dim view of the series newcomer's move on Berthon and handed Canamases a four-place grid penalty for the sprint race that will put him on the back of the grid. on Sunday.
Jolyon Palmer retired on lap 18 after he made a dive for what looked to be a wide-open inside line through La Source that was rudely cut off by an unsuspecting Luiz Razia The final retirements were Victor Guerin and Stefano Coletti, who made contact with four laps to go and inflicted mutually assured destruction on both the Ocean and Coloni cars.
As the race finally neared its long-awaited end Ericsson had a comfortable lead of over ten seconds from Calado, who had in turn a thinner but still serviceable lead over Valsecchi in third place. Josef Kral completed a solid race to finish in fourth place, but in the final laps he had his hands full fending off Giedo van der Garde, who by leaving his pit stop late in the race had managed to pull out a decent lead at the front before having to make the invitable visit to pit road, and that allowed him to come back out and use his fresher tyres to fight his way back up to fifth place by the finish.
That was annoying to Luiz Razia, who has a championship battle against Valsecchi on his mind. By finishing in sixth place ahead of Julian Leal while Valsecchi was on the podium, Razia is left tying for the drivers' title with his rival - but at least he will have the better grid position on Sunday under the reverse grid rules.
Talking of which: that leaves the important matter of the sprint race pole to settle. There was a gaggle of out-of-position fast cars all competing hard for the honour, with Rio Haryanto putting on a particularly harsh move on his own Carlin team mate Max Chilton as he sought the sprint pole prize.
But both Carlin cars eventually lost out to Felipe Nasr, who was characteristically surging through the field in the latter stages having protecting his tyres better than most. He not only got past the Carlins, he then went in to get the better of Stéphane Richelmi out of the final corner of the race to steal eighth place and that sprint pole position, setting up his best chance yet of claiming his maiden win in the GP2 Series on Sunday morning.
Full race results