ART driver James Calado hasn't been having the best of seasons to date, and certainly nothing to match his breakout rookie performance last year which saw him win at Malaysia and Germany added to five other podium finishes.
But after finishing in eighth place in Saturday's feature race at Spa, the perfect opportunity to break his 2013 duck and claim his first win of the year presented itself when Calado was handed pole for Sunday's sprint race under the reverse grid rules.
When the lights went out, Calado got a decent start off the grid to lead into the first turn, as the entire field successfully streamed through La Source without incident behind him. However, the still-slightly damp outside line once again proved a liability into the hairpin and allowed Julian Leal (Racing Engineering) to slip through into second place ahead of front row man Stephane Richelmi (DAMS).
Further down the running order, there were some truly spectacular early surges with MP Motorsports' Adrian Quaife-Hobbs up into fourth place having started from tenth on the grid, and he soon successfully challenged Richelmi for third. Rapax's Stefano Coletti also swept into the top five by the end of the first lap despite having started from 13th place. Fifth place put him ahead of championship rival Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering), Tom Dillmann (Russian Time) and Mitch Evans (Arden), who was already radioing his pit wall with concerns over his tyres going off.
Felipe Nasr bounced back from his overnight penalty for causing an accident in the feature race and raced his way back to 15th place in the opening laps despite a misfiring engine in the Carlin, but others were having a less promising time of it. Robin Frijns (Hilmer Motorsport) was an early solo retirement from the race on the first lap with a failed driveshaft, while DAMS' Marcus Ericsson lost an early battle with Carlin's Jolyon Palmer as he slipped down the running order and out of the top ten. He ended up just behind feature race winner Sam Bird who was also struggling in the cool, slightly damp Sunday morning conditions.
In a case of swings and roundabouts, the drivers who had made strong starts were soon being warned to prioritise conserving their tyres. Calado's lead over Leal stabilised at around two seconds, while Coletti's storming run came to a juddering halt allowing Leimer to close up on the back of the Rapax in pursuit of retaking fifth place, which he duly accomplished through La Source at the start of lap 10. Coletti's decline accelerated after that and he soon had Dillmann, Evans, Dani Clos, and Palmer stream past him as he dropped like a stone through the positions. The championship leader end up one again well outside the points, left down in 23rd by the finish by his unsuccessful strategy gamble.
The racing was generally clean throughout the 36-minute race with only minor incidents. The most noteworthy was the experienced Dani Clos hamfistedly sticking his front wing under Johnny Cecotto Jr.'s right rear tyre at the Bus Stop on lap 8, which brought out local yellows for debris and earned Clos his second drive-thru penalty of the weekend from the stewards.
Meanwhile Calado was coming under increasing pressure at the front as his own tyres started to fall off badly, with handling and gearbox issues starting to take their toll on the ART's performance. Leal closed right up to the back of the Briton, but despite applying the pressure through the closing laps he was unable to mount an effective challenge for the lead and when the chequered flag came out it was still Calado in front to claim his first win of the season. Even so, he was audibly unhappy over the team radio on the cool-down lap and venting about just how much of a handful the car had proved to be all weekend, and just how hard he'd had to work not to let the win slip through his fingers.
Quaife-Hobbs also closed up to within a second of the leading pair but ultimately had to settle for retaining third place, comfortably 16 seconds ahead of fourth-place man Richelmi. The remaining points positions went to Palmer, Cecotto and Dillmann, but the Frenchman had come under heavy pressure right through to the finish from the remarkably still-surging Felipe Nasr. Dillmann was forced to overrun the final chicane while attempting to hold on to the position, a shortcut that the stewards deemed to have given Dillmann an illegal advantage. They subsequently reversed the positions of the two men, giving Nasr possession of the valuable championship point.
That solutary point represents the only ground that Nasr was able to make up on championship leader Stefano Coletti over the entire weekend, despite the Rapax driver failing for the second race weekend in a row to score any points of his own. Sam Bird's win on Saturday and Fabio Leimer's two top five finishes at Spa mean they both close up on the lead pair in the standings, and James Calado's sprint win has also started to bring him into contention for the titles with three events at Monza, Singapore and Abu Dhabi remaining in the 2013 championship.See full sprint race results