A brilliant start for Davide Valsecchi at the start of the Monza sprint race on Sunday morning set up a fourth win of the season that means that the Italian driver comes out of this weekend with a convincing lead in the drivers' championship, and very much in control of the title fight going into the final round in Singapore in a fortnight.
Valsecchi's launch off the starting grid as the lights went out proved crucial, as he was able to take advantage of massive wheel spin for polesitter Stefano Coletti in the Rapax. The DAMS car dived straight through the middle of Coletti and iSport's Jolyon Palmer to take the lead, with Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer trying to follow Valsecchi's lead and finally managing to dispatch Coletti for second place through the first chicane.
Meanwhile on the outside line Marcus Ericsson strayed completely onto the grass verge in order to avoid piling into the rear end of Leimer's car. He found his iSport had no stopping power at all out there, and he straightlined the chicane entirely forcing him to hand back a bunch of positions to the leaders and battle it out with his team mate Palmer when he dropped back in line.
Contact with the back wheel of Leimer's car in the first run through Rettifilo had left Stefano Coletti with damage to the Coloni's front wing that meant that he was unable to hold off the attentions of Palmer for third place on lap 2, but he regrouped and thwarted Ericsson's own aspirations to get past all the way through to lap 16, when Coletti misjudged a half-move on Palmer into the first chicane, ran over the curbs and ended up having to yield the position to Ericsson.
Sniffing a podium chance, Ericsson now took the battle to his iSport team mate Palmer. Next time through the chicane the pair went into the corner side-by-side and both ended up slithering over the curbs, which seemed to dampen their combative zeal for the time being; two laps later and Coletti was able to pull off a nice move on Ericsson to reclaim fourth position from the Swede again, as everyone started to struggle on their worn tyres.
Behind this battle was a growing gaggle of cars engrossed in their own battles, with Johnny Cecotto Jr. tangling with Max Chilton and Julian Leal feuding with Sergio Canamasas, which included Leal getting fully airborne over the curbs at Roggia when he overshot the second part of the chicane as the two fought tooth and nail over the final championship point in the final laps.
Up front, nothing had come close to deposing Valsecchi from the lead ever since that superb start, even though Leimer had kept him honest throughout and the margin between the two was never more than half a second. Palmer dropped off the battle for the lead while preoccupied with his spat with Ericsson, but still managed to stay in third place to the chequered flag to win the final spot on the podium.
The battle for fourth place had one more chapter to be written: Ericsson made a final attempt to claim the position on the last lap, going wheel-to-wheel with Coletti through Ascari only to run slightly wide and lose not only his shootout with the Coloni, but also two more places to Cecotto and Chilton who had been right behind the scrap. Ericsson would finish in seventh place as a result of the shakeout, but at least he could walk away knowing he'd gone for it.
By contrast to Valsecchi's well-timed success at the sharp end of the grid, it was another miserable day for Arden's Luiz Razia. Having failed to finish the feature race on Saturday after a clash with Leimer at Roggia, Razia had been handed a grid penalty for causing the collision which put him at the back of the grid for the start of the second race of the weekend. Ironically that put him alongside Valsecchi's DAMS team mate Felipe Nasr, who had also clashed with Leimer on Saturday and similarly come away with a grid penalty for his pains.
Razia was able to make modest gains during the race and picked up ten positions over the 21 laps, but he was never looking likely to get into the points and ended up in a lowly 16th place by the time the chequered flag came out. Nasr wasn't able to even achieve that, and ended up in 21st as the last but one of the cars to finish.
The surprise final man on track was Saturday's winner Luca Filippi: his dream comeback to Coloni ended with a bumpy return to reality on Sunday when a first lap coming together with Esteban Gutiérrez left him with damage to his front wing, leaving him with seriously compromised braking into the fast Monza corners. Filippi tried toughing it out and stayed on track but eventually had no option but to pit at the end of lap 6 for a replacement, which left him resolutely running at the back for the remainder of the race nearly a full lap down from the leaders.
Given the stranglehold that Valsecchi now seems to have in the drivers' title fight, the fiercest fight in Singapore will likely be on the team front. Valsecchi's strong showing at Monza had the side-effect of pushing DAMS ahead of Lotus GP in the teams championship, albeit by a slender 2pts in the standings. That's because Lotus had a shocker of a time in Italy this week, with neither Esteban Gutiérrez nor James Calado finishing in the points in either race.
On Sunday, Gutiérrez started with contact with Johnny Cecotto Jr. as he tried to avoid hitting Max Chilton. The Lotus car survived and Gutiérrez was able to continue to battle through the opening lap, before his race ended prematurely on lap 2 when he damaged his front wing pulling out of the slipstream in an overtaking move on Giedo van der Garde. He instantly paid for the lack of front downforce by sailing off into the gravel trap at Parabolica. By contrast, Calado had another anonymous race even finishing behind Venezuela GP Lazarus' newcomer René Binder who ended up in 13th place. It seemed that the Lotus team had never really managed to get to grips with the high downforce setup needed for Monza, and thereby ending any hopes their drivers might have had of a late charge for the drivers' title.
Two further retirements had come seconds before Gutiérrez's exit. In a scary incident at the start of lap 2, Fabio Onidi came in way too hot into the first chicane, locked up his brakes and slewed to the right which sent him flying out of control into the back of Nigel Melker, whose Ocean car was innocently making the corner up ahead. Melker's team mate Victor Guerin joined them watching from the sidelines after also becoming the victim of collision damage on the same lap.
All of them will be hoping for better fortunes in the final race weekend of the 2012 GP2 Series season at Singapore in a fortnight, when all the titles will be decided and those out of the running in the championship will have their last chance to end their year in glory with a podium finish or two.
And even though Valsecchi looks odds on for the drivers' championship, it's worth remembering that coming into Monza he'd been dead level with Razia, and that the current 25pt gap between them had opened up in a single weekend. Any gap that can open up that quickly can also get turned around in just the same short order: Valsecchi can't and won't be taking anything for granted.Full sprint race results