Fabio Leimer was made to work hard to get past Stefano Coletti for the lead of the first race of the 2013 GP2 Series season at Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia, after an early pit stop gambit didn't quite do the trick for him. But with five laps to go to the end, impressive tyre management allowed him to spring his trap - and once he made his move, the win was in his pocket.
Leimer had managed to pull off the best start of the drivers located at the sharp end of the grid, smoothly slaloming straight through the middle of James Calado and Felipe Nasr to contest the lead with pole man Coletti through turn 1. In the end he didn't quite have the requisite line, and the Racing Engineering driver had to settle for second place as Coletti held on to the lead for Rapax.
Small mistakes under pressure for Calado and Nasr gave Arden's rookie Mitch Evans a chance to make a run up to third, but it was a short-lived thing and Evans promptly slipped back down again behind the ART and Carlin cars - perhaps the Kiwi was suffering from the effects of either early tyre degradation or else the food poisoning that had been afflicting him since arriving in Malaysia.
There was an early retirement for DAMS' Marcus Ericsson, who had an odd incident running into and over the back of Jolyon Palmer's Carlin as the field backed up into a slow corner on the first lap. Addax's Rio Haryanto was also in the early wars and was forced to pit as a result of minor front right collision damage, and on lap 3 MP Motorsports' Adrian Quaife-Hobbs and Daniël de Jong committed the cardinal sin of team mates by taking each other out in a completely needless spat over who went into turn 15 first. Quaife-Hobbs was blamed for the collision by the race stewards and was handed a five-place grid penalty for Sunday's sprint race.
At the front, Leimer had been keeping Coletti under sustained pressure, until at the end of lap 6 Coletti made a dive for pit lane as the first of the front runners to make their mandatory pit stops. That just gave Leimer free space in front and the opportunity to finally put his foot down, but Racing Engineering pushed the tactic just slightly too far by keeping their man out all the way to lap 11, by which his pace had dropped off so much in comparison to the Rapax that he exited pit lane just behind Coletti.
While all that was going on, Daniel Abt had spun himself out of the race on lap 10 triggering local waved yellows while track workers cleared the stricken ART. Several drivers didn't heed those and other similar warnings, and as a result a slew of penalties were handed out by the race officials: Russian Time's Sam Bird and Tom Dillmann, Arden's Johnny Cecotto Jr., Veneuzula GP Lazarus' Kevin Giovesi and Hilmer Motorsports' Conor Daly were all caught out and had to do a pit lane drive-thru.
The final cars to pit were Jolyon Palmer and Trident's Nathanaël Berthon, Berthon retiring on lap 20 with apparent technical problems shortly after his own visit to pit lane. That put Coletti back in the lead at the end of lap 21 but his tyres were already showing signs of heavy wear with ten laps still to go and Leimer right behind him on tyres with five laps less usage on them - it certainly wasn't over for the Swiss driver, not by far.
Behind the leaders, Calado and Nasr now resumed their former third and fourth positions, with Leimer's team mate Juliàn Leal having a strong race running in fifth place having started from 11th on the grid. Palmer had made that long first stint work for him and emerged from his pit stop in sixth place; better yet, he was now on the grippier soft option tyres for the reminder of the race which gave him a sporting chance of getting ahead of some of those cars ahead of him, who had started on the softs and now trying to make worn prime compounds stretch the distance. Sam Bird demonstrated how it could be done, smoothly cruising past the scrapping Mitch Evans and DAMS' Stéphane Richelmi in a single move on lap 23 to rise from ninth place to seventh despite that earlier drive-thru penalty.
With five laps to go, Leimer was growing increasingly aware that James Calado was growing ever-closer in his rear-view mirrors and knew that he had to make his move on Coletti sooner rather than later. He made an attempt out of the final corner of lap 25 and had the better run into turn 1 on lap 26, but Coletti managed to hold the position - that time. A few corners later, however, and even desperately squeezing Leimer to the very outside edge of the track could no longer ward off the inevitable: Leimer was through, and jetting off into the distance.
Coletti barely had time to gather himself before Calado arrived on the scene and tried to mug Coletti for second spot in through the final corner of that same lap; again, a desperate rear-guard action momentarily saved the position, but by the time the two cars arrived at turn 1 it was all over for Coletti and Calado had the superior grip to take the tighter line into the never-ending right hander, and with with the position. Calado was released to try and carry the fight to the leader, but Leimer had a two second lead now and the better pace - the race was effectively over at the front, and Coletti had enough of a gap to hold on to third place over Nasr despite his shot tyres.
Further back there was still plenty of scrapping going on, Rio Haryanto made contact with Hilmer's Pal Varhaug on lap 27 while fighting for position, with Tom Dillmann having to avoid getting caught up in their spat. On the same lap, Simon Trummer and Mitch Evans did battle over ninth place, which was resolved in the Rapax driver's favour when the Arden locked up; however, it was too late for Trummer to then go on and do anything about Richelmi who held on to eighth place at the chequered flag - and with it, the pole position on the reverse grid for the Sunday morning sprint race.
But that's a matter for another day: before then, it was time for podium celebrations for Leimer (his first win since Barcelona 2011), Calado and Coletti. Time - and another 21 races between now and November 3 - will tell whether or not one of these three will build on today's success to claim the 2013 GP2 championship.Full feature race results