After his superb second-half run in GP2 in 2011, Luca Filippi has been sitting on the sidelines for the last 12 months. No wonder that when the phone rang mid-week and the offer was made that he readily agreed to return to Coloni for a home race weekend at Monza. But did he still have what it took, or would the cobwebs show after being out of action for so long?
Filippi had already done an impressive job just to claim third place on the grid in Friday afternoon qualifying despite losing half the session while problems with his car were fixed. Purely finishing the feature race on the podium from here would itself be a huge success; anything more, surely a little too much to hope for?
But opportunity presented itself the moment the lights went out. The start of the race proved a disaster for Giedo van der Garde, starting on the front row alongside polesitter Max Chilton. The Caterham simply refused to get going, causing the cars behind to scatter to avoid piling into the back of him. Van der Garde got enough momentum up to get to the first chicane, but at that point the car had simply had enough and it rolled to a stop right in the middle of the apex, and the Dutchman was out of the race.
That should have left Chilton with a clear run at the front. But he was already committed to a swooping move across the front of the field when the lights went out to thwart what turned out to be a non-existent challenge from van der Garde. Instead, all it did was open up a massive hole for Luca Filippi who had been starting immediately behind Chilton on the grid and could now straight-line it to the first corner.
Filippi had actually taken the lead and outbraked Chilton when they arrived at the chicane, but couldn't quite pull off the turn without hitting the Carlin taking the inside line. Instead, he was forced to cut the chicane - and that meant a drive-thru penalty unless he reacted immediately and handed the position back to Chilton out of the corner, which he duly did albeit through gritted teeth.
Marcus Ericsson was able to hang on to the coattails of the leading duo, but Davide Valsecchi was quickly dropped off the battle and had his hands full just warding off Johnny Cecotto Jr. for fourth place. Valsecchi's team mate Felipe Nasr also had to work hard to ward off Fabio Onidi for seventh, and finally resolved it by treading all over the front wing of the Coloni.
Onidi would get a black-and-orange flag from the race officials ordering him to come in for repairs, but he was able to leave it long enough for the mandatory pit stop window to open up on lap 6 so that he could also get his tyres changed at the same time. Others coming in at the end of lap 7 included Luiz Razia who had leapt up to an impressive sixth place during the mixed-up start; Valsecchi was forced to came in next time around in order to cover the threat from Razia in the battle for the title.
However, Razia wasn't a threat for much longer: on his second lap out of the pits he found himself battling alongside Fabio Leimer, himself fresh out of pit road, on the run down into the Variante della Roggia. Contact was made, Razia was spun around - and the Arden car beached itself teetering on one of the insanely high 'sausage' curbs installed at the chicane. The marshalls signalled for him to cut the engine: he was done for the day, a possibly shattering blow as far as the championship battle with Valsecchi was concerned.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Luca Filippi had also now pitted early from second place, aiming to jump Chilton in the pits by putting in faster laps on the fresher rubber. Chilton was wise to this and was in himself next time around, coming back out just in front of Filippi to maintain track position - only to have Filippi blast past him on the track through Ascari instead on lap 10, an emphatic confirmation of the 2011 GP2 Series runner-up's enduring class. Filippi's move wasn't quite for the lead quite yet, however, as five cars - Cecotto, Nigel Melker, Julian Leal, Stephan Richelmi and Victor Guerin - were still to make their mandatory trips to pit lane.
Behind the leaders, a furious battle between Nasr and Fabio Leimer ended with Leimer passing the DAMS car thorough the Curva Grande and then successfully taking the inside line in the run down into Roggia again on lap 13. Nasr, however, didn't see the matter as settled and turned into the corner on his normal race line and inevitably impacted Leimer. Nasr came off emphatically the worst in the encounter, briefly jolted in the air and spun by impact with the narrow edge of the 'sausage' curb. He was able to limp the car back to the pits, but it was clear that the car was going no further and Nasr became the third retirement of the afternoon.
The Nasr incident - coming so soon after his clash with Razia - would leave Leimer involved in two post-race investigations for collisions at just the same spot, but in the meantime the Swiss driver was firmly focussed on putting in fastest laps and closing up on the back of Valsecchi. Leimer finally pressured Valsecchi into overshooting the Roggia chicane at turn 4 on lap 19: although he returned to the track ahead of Leimer, Valsecchi knew it was necessary to relinquish the spot if he was to avoid a drive-thru penalty for cutting the track.
Not that this was the end of Valsecchi's headaches, since behind him he had Lotus' Esteban Gutiérrez, iSport's Jolyon Palmer and Rapax's Stefano Coletti all battling hard for position amongst themselves - and potentially for the pole position for the sprint race under the reversed grid rules. All of them were looking more on the pace than the DAMS car ahead. Valsecchi had to work hard to defend his position for the rest of the race in order to make the most of Razia's early exit from the race.
The last cars to stop gradually cycled through the pit lane, meaning that Filippi and Chilton were getting closer and closer to reoccupying the top spots on the timesheets. However, Cecotto's stay-out strategy reaped dividends - he'd pulled out such a lead during that time that he was able to slot back in line on the track in the tight space between Chilton and Ericsson for third place on lap 14. Eventually Cecotto was able to line up the Carlin car down the front straight at the start of lap 21 and blew past him into the first chicane to clinch second position; two laps later and Marcus Ericsson also put the fading Chilton to the sword at the same spot, dumping the polesitter down to fourth place.
Going into the final laps, Filippi had the lead by over five seconds from Cecotto, with Ericsson, Chilton, Leimer and Valsecchi forming the rest of an increasingly stable-looking top six. Behind them, Gutiérrez was losing out badly and had been passed by both Palmer and Coletti, coincidentally leaving the Rapax new boy holding eighth place and the provisional pole for Sunday morning. Confirming that something had gone seriously awry with the Lotus set-up for Monza, Gutiérrez' team mate James Calado had faded steadily to 12th place and never featured all afternoon, a rare day off the pace for the British driver who came into Monza in third place in the drivers' championship battle.
There were no last minute dramas or accidents to scramble things up one more time: Filippi successfully claimed a dominating victory at the end of lap 30, to cap a fairytale comeback after a full year away from not just GP2 but from competitive racing. Cecotto cruised home in second place, redeemed from that messy weekend at Spa that had left him with the five place grid penalty to overcome at the start of today's race; if not for that, then maybe the Barwa Addax driver would have won?
Something about the body language of the Coloni car indicated that that Filippi would never have allowed that to happen: Filippi had come into this weekend with a sense of purpose and even destiny about his return to GP2. And he'd made the dream into a reality.
"It might be a year since I last drove, and it feels like yesterday," said Filippi, an Italian winner worshipped by an Italian crowd at the the home of Italian motorsport. "It's like time just stopped."Full race results