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Kral comes alive with first series win

3 September 2012

Josef Kral hadn't claimed a single point all season long heading into Spa. He'd even been benched from the Barwa Addax line-up for the two consecutive weekends in Bahrain in April in favour of the experienced Dani Clos. How then to explain that not only did he pull off an impressive fourth place in the feature race on Saturday, but then converted his fifth place on the reverse grid on Sunday morning to a famous victory, his first in GP2?

Only 25 cars lined up on the grid for the start of the sprint race, Nigel Melker's Ocean Racing car being too badly damaged to be repaired in time after his crash at Eau Rouge on Saturday afternoon. That caused the feature race to be red flagged, but Melker himself escaped lightly with minor injuries to his hands and ribs and he'd been quickly discharged from the local hospital where he'd been flown in the the aftermath of the accident. Whether he - or moreover the car - will be in a fit state to take part in Friday's GP2 activity at Monza is still to be determined, however.

One man down, but the rest were ready to take to the historic 7km Spa-Francochamps circuit for another 18 laps, with Felipe Nasr starting from the pole position alongside Julian Leal, and Giedo van der Garde on the second row alongside championship contender Luiz Razia.

But as the lights went out, it was the Czech driver on the third row behind them who got the launch of the weekend, taking the inside line past all four sluggish cars ahead of him to make it into La Source in the lead. Only James Calado from seventh place had the wits to try following Kral's initiative, but he'd started just a little too far back to sneak past the leaders before the point where the hairpin bit. Calado wisely backed off, let the other cars struggle to make the turn, and then nipped through on the inside in second place on the exit to resume his pursuit of Kral.

Kral's team mate Johnny Cecotto Jr. had seen what the pair had done and sought to emulate it, also taking to the grass verge on the run down to La Source. But starting from 17th place he was only ever going to find a crowded race track by the time he arrived at the apex. The hapless driver who happened to be passing through at just the wrong moment was Carlin's Max Chilton, who was sent into a spin by the impact. To add insult to injury, Chilton had his front wing trodden over by the Racing Engineering car of Nathanaël Berthon, who had the misfortune to be next on scene.

Things were little better on the wider line out of La Source. Three of the leaders had come out of the hairpin and ended up trying to occupy the same piece of tarmac at the same time: Julian Leal on the outside and Davide Valsecchi on the inside sandwiched the car of Giedo van der Garde, and the pinch briefly lifted the Caterham up into the air before slamming it down again.

Van der Garde was rather crumpled, but Leal and Vasecchi escaped unscathed and were able to resume the run up to Eau Rouge. But as Valsecchi came onto the Kemmel Straight to Les Combes, he wandered into an accident that had nothing to do with him: his main championship rival, Arden's Luiza Razia, got onto the grass on the left hand side of the track while battling Calado for second place. Razia lost control and spun across the tarmac, somehow without collecting anyone. However Valsecchi feared imminent contact and took evasive action - which ended up slamming him into the barrier on the right hand side.

Razia was not happy, and blamed Calado for his initial spin: "I had a good start and felt sure I could take second place on the run to Les Combes," he explained. "I thought I was aiming for a legitimate gap, but Calado came across and I ended up on the grass. I had a speed advantage coming out of Raidillon onto the straight, but in my opinion some drivers don't use their mirrors."

All this, and only 30 seconds of the race gone. To recap: Cecotto was out with damage from the turn 1 accident, and with a five place grid penalty for next weekend's feature race at Monza after being deemed by the race stewards to have caused the accident in the first place. Valsecchi and Razia limped back to the pits for repairs and were eventually able to carry on at least for a while, but neither had any hope of scoring any points and so the pair would exit Spa tied in the lead of the drivers' championship. Also pitting for repairs were Chilton, van der Garde and Berthon, but the sturdy GP2 cars had done their job and all were still running.

Not running nearly as well as Kral and Calado at the front of the field, however: and Kral was relishing the clear air and unfamiliar sights of being out in the lead, easily a match for anything Calado could throw at him. Behind them were Felipe Nasr, Julian Leal, Stéphane Richelmi, Rio Haryanto, Esteban Gutiérrez and Fabio Onidi making up the top eight, as the race bedded in and everyone seemed fairly content with following the car in front for the first half of the race.

The exception to the rule was Gutiérrez, who made good passes on Haryanto and then Richelmi, but found Leal another matter altogether. Gradually his patience wore thin, and on lap 9 it wore out altogether and he attempted a rash move on the run into Malmedy that ended in contact. Gutiérrez spun and both cars ended up going through the gravel. Both resumed after their off-track excursion, but Leal was 11th and Gutiérrez 13th - another black mark for the Mexican in what had been intended to be his breakthrough sophomore year in which we should be challenging for the championship but instead is being soundly shown up by his rookie team mate Calado.

The vacant places in the top eight were taken by iSport's Marcus Ericsson and Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer, who pulled off the overtake of the race right around the outside of Onidi at Blanchimont with seven laps to go, as he sought to retrieve something from the weekend that had left him starting the sprint race from a lowly 23rd place on the grid.

Ericsson was even more astounding, up into fourth position in short order as tyre wear started to take its toll on others. Even so, he was five seconds off the next car up the road and even the feature race winner had nothing left to do anything about the gap, having to settle instead for fourth place. Leimer ended just behind him in fifth after dispensing Haryanto a lap after Onidi and then finishing off a slowing Richelmi next time around.

As the laps ticked down, there was a conspicuous lack of movement among the top three. Kral had things well in hand at the front and Calado seemed satisfied with second. But in third place, Nasr was simply biding his time and taking care of his tyres for one of his trademark late-race surges, and sure enough as the cars went into the penultimate lap Nasr closed right up to the back of Calado and prepared to pounce.

However, as many racing drivers have found in the past, catching is one thing and passing quite another. Despite the fact that he was clearly faster and running on rails compared to the fading Lotus, Nasr couldn't find a way past. In contrast to his earlier spat with Razia, Calado was now playing it calm and safe: nothing rash, just planting his car in the most inconvenient part of the track and daring Nasr to try something. That frustrated Nasr for a whole lap, and as they went into La Source for the final time Nasr was tempted to try cutting around the outside of Calado at the hairpin which could have resulted in the end of both of their races. Disaster was averted, and Nasr regrouped - finally taking Calado through the Bus Stop and on the run to the chequered flag to claim second position with a carbon copy of his move on Richelmi for eighth place in the feature race the day before.

"It was a good fight with Calado and we had a fair battle," said Nasr, although he betrayed his frustration by adding that the Lotus driver has been "on the edge sometimes, maybe." Certainly he was aware that the delayed battle over second had cost him his shot of taking the fight to Kral: "If I had passed Calado earlier on, or if I didn't lose so much time in the beginning, I could have caught Kral and maybe fought for the win," he said.

Kral was more than happy with that state of affairs, as he celebrated his maiden win in the series: "My best racing weekend ever in GP2," he told the GP2 Media Service in post-race interviews. "From the beginning of yesterday's race to the end of today's race there was nothing that I would change on the car, because it was so good.

"It means a lot, because we've been waiting for such a long time," he added. "This gives us more confidence, and it's a little but unfortunate that it has come this late [in the season] because we should have done this earlier, but anyway it's good that it came and now we have to work with this [going into Monza.]"

Other than Cecotto and Valsecchi, the only other retirement was Sergio Canamasas, whose smoking Venezuela GP Lazarus came to a half on a run-off area on lap 9; and apart from Cecotto, there were no other post-race penalties announced by the stewards.

Full sprint race results available.


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