After obliterating the opposition in Friday's practice and qualifying sessions in Bahrain, all eyes were on polesitter Fabio Leimer on Saturday afternoon - with everyone half expecting the Racing Engineering car to rocket off into the distance and leave the rest for dead. Sadly, one man who wouldn't be around to put up a challenge to the Swiss driver was his fellow front row man Marcus Ericsson, who stalled getting underway for the formation lap which left the #1 DAMS car starting from the pit lane behind the rest of the field.
As the lights went out and the race got underway in Sakhir, Leimer stayed in front but was immediately under pressure from Rapax's Stefano Coletti into the first sequence of corners. Behind them, Sam Bird shot right through the middle of Alexander Rossi (Caterham) and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (MP Motorsport) on the row ahead to muscle his way into third place in the Russian Time car ahead of Rossi and the two Carlin drivers, Felipe Nasr and Jolyon Palmer (Carlin). Having started from 12th place on the grid, Palmer capped his excellent flying start by managing to overtake Rossi for fifth place on the run down the start/finish straight at the end of the first lap.
Once the race settled down, Leimer was able to work on stretching his lead to a safe margin over Coletti. By lap 5 it was up to two seconds and the pole man was able to start to breath a little easier. Next time by, DAMS' Stéphane Richelmi was the first of the leaders to come in for his mandatory pit stop, after which there was a steady stream as the rest of the teams were only too keen to dispense with their initial soft compounds and get comfortable with the harder prime tyres for the rest of the afternoon. Among the front runners, only Quaife-Hobbs and Tom Dillmann (Russian Time) had gone on a contrary strategy, and the Frenchman had paid for it early on by dropping back from his fifth place starting spot.
Rossi got his place back over Jolyon Palmer in the sequence of pit stops, and fellow GP2 newcomer Robin Frijns was also having an entertaining début starting with a battle for tenth with Julian Leal and then subsequently with Kevin Giovesi just before the Dutchman came in for his pit stop. A battle further back between ART's James Calado and Caterham's Sergio Canamasas ended up with the Spaniard once again being deemed by stewards of deliberately forcing a rival off track - the same offence that had seen him demoted to the back of the grid overnight - and he was handed another drive-thru for his pains in what is becoming a lamentable pattern of behaviour for the driver. Venezuela GP Lazarus's René Binder would later get a drive thru penalty on lap 25 for the same offence, this time the victim of the move being Arden's Mitch Evans in turn 4.
Pit stops for Bird and Nasr both hit problems and they were slow coming back out, putting them behing Rossi, Palmer and now even Richelmi as well, although the DAMS was quickly re-dispensed with by both. Racing Engineering had no such glitches with their stop for Leimer at the end of lap 10 at the same time as Coletti, and both cars comfortably resumed at the front of those who had already pitted. Yet to stop, Quaife-Hobbs assumed the race lead ahead of Dillmann, Leal and Giovesi for the time being, but with Quaife-Hobbs having a shrinking margin of less than 20 seconds on his old tyres over Leimer there was no way that he'd be able to retain the lead once he did come in for his stop.
Dillmann pitted on lap 18, meaning that he was facing a testing 14 laps to the end of the race on the soft option tyres; Leal was in next time around but he stalled as he pulled away from his pit box and also got handed a penalty for speeding in the pit lane, undoing all his good work to that point in the race. Then it was Quiafe-Hobbs' turn at the end of lap 20, which handed the official race lead back to Leimer at long last. Quaife-Hobbs briefly lost a spot to Dillmann on his first lap out of pit lane - meaning that the Frenchman was looking good for eighth place which would give him the sprint race pole under the reverse grid system - but once his tyres warmed up, the Briton was able to reverse the situation.
Contact between Richelmi and Frijns on lap 21 resulted in damage to both cars and debris on the track; Frijns was able to limp back onto pit lane for repairs to the Hilmer car but was now running dead last, while Richelmi parked out on track in the second sector of the 3.363-mile, 15-turn Bahrain International Circuit. That made Richelmi only the third retirement of the afternoon: MP Motorsport's Daniël de Jong had became the first retirement when he crawled into pit lane at the end of the first lap, with Pal Varhaug joining him on the sidelines five laps later when his Hilmer Motorsport had decided that it wanted no more. Mitch Evans would become the fourth retirement on lap 25 when he pulled his smoking Arden over the gravel run-off, and Kevin Giovesi (Venezuela GP Lazarus) was the last driver with a DNF next to his name after retiring on lap 27.
Meanwhile Leimer was now comfortably in charge at the front and pacing himself carefully, by no means scampering away from Coletti and Rossi but also not looking remotely anxious about how things were going. Behind the leading trio, there was no quarter given between Carlin team mates as Nasr got the better of Palmer, who was now on the wane as he paid for his early stellar surge in the first part of the race.
That left the attention focussed on the scrap behind sixth-placed Sam Bird between Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, Tom Dillmann and Rapax's Simon Trummer who were fighting over seventh, eighth and ninth positions. Trummer came off the worst and was overtaken by both the other cars in quick succession on lap 28, thereby ejected from the all-important top eight. Dillmann battled on and did all he could to overtake Quaife-Hobbs in the final lap, but he was unable to pull it off and had to settle for the sprint pole instead - a nice consolation prize in anyone's book.
Dillmann will be hoping that holding pole on Sunday proves as useful as it did on Saturday for Leimer, who duly sailed across the finish line two seconds ahead of Coletti while Alexander Rossi in his first GP2 Series race successfully held off a rapidly closing Felipe Nasr for the final podium position.
It's Fabio Leimer's second win of 2013 and his fourth in his four seasons of GP2 Series competition, and it puts him firmly at the front of this year's championship battle along with Stefano Coletti. Both of them are now locked together and tied on 54 points - already 19 points ahead of third-place man Nasr just three races into the season.
All in all it had been the perfect birthday week so far for the Swiss driver, who turned 24 on Wednesday. Can he now make it a clean sweep by storming through from eighth on tomorrow's grid to also win the sprint event? Given his form o far in Bahrain, you surely wouldn't be at all surprised if he did!Full feature race results available