The GP2 Series now has new faces at the top of the drivers' championship standings on Saturday afternoon, after a pitched battle between Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering) and Sam Bird (Russian Time) saw the Swiss driver survive to his fifth series race win and his third of 2013, and also put him eight points clear in the title race thanks to all sorts of misfortunes hitting key rivals including longtime former championship leader Stefano Coletti.
With no trace of the thunderstorms forecast to roll in over northern Italy over the weekend, the GP2 feature race at Monza got underway in gloriously sunny and very hot conditions as polesitter Bird and fellow front row man Leimer led Jolyon Palmer (Carlin) and Marcus Ericsson (DAMS) to the grid at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. When the lights went out, starting on the option tyres enabled Leimer and Ericsson to get the jump on the cars nominally on the cleaner outside line in the long power run down to the first chicane, which meant Leimer claimed the lead over Bird at the same time that Ericsson moved up a spot to third ahead of Palmer, as the cars filtered down for the first run through the notoriously tricky first chicane.
Further back, bumping and jostling through that first corner spun Trident's Nathanael Berthon out of the race. The second time through the chicane was also not without casualties, as a dive down the inside by Simon Trummer ended up with the Rapax being spun around by contact with Arden's Mitch Evans which left the two glaring at each other head-on as they blocked the track and forced the rest of the field to take to the run-off areas to get past. Daniel Abt's ART sustained a left front puncture in the melee and MP Motorsport's Dani Clos was left with a broken wing that essentially put both men a lap off the leaders for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite this the race workers managed to clean up the incident without requiring an appearance from the safety car. However once the local waved yellows were withdrawn, the chicane claimed another victim on lap 4 when Barwa Addax's Jake Rosenzweig tussled with Russian Time's Tom Dillmann over sixth place, and contact left the American with crumpled left front suspension that forced him to pull over and park the car.
Meanwhile Leimer had built up a one second lead over Bird, Ericsson and Palmer as Stefano Coletti became the first of the top six to make his mandatory pit stop on lap 7, announcing his arrival on pit lane with an almighty lockup of his old set of tyres in the process; that proved to be too little, too late in any case as he was handed a drive-thru for speeding in pit lane.
Ericssson was in next time by, all of which promoted his team mate Stephane Richelmi along with Racing Engineering's Julian Leal into the top six on lap 10. when Carlin's Felipe Nasr came in for his own stop whcih put him back out straight into a pitched battle with Hilmer Motorsport's Adrian Quaife-Hobbs. Also getting feisty was the scrap between Sergio Canamasas (Caterham) and Johnny Cecotto Jr. (Arden) over tenth place, Canamasas already smarting over team orders obliging him to let his team mate Alexander Rossi past.
Palmer came in for his stop from third place on lap 11, but it ended in disaster when the left rear wheel detached on the out lap and left Palmer with no option but to park the Carlin by the side of the track at Lesmos. Leimer pitted from the lead next time by and had a nice uneventful time of it, re-emerging back into 11th place with all the cars ahead of him on the track still to make their own mandatory tyre changes. It was critically for new race leader Bird to push hard and make the most of having started on the prime tyres to pull out enough of a gap to allow him to pit and come out in front of Leimer; the Briton certainly threw everything into it as he pulled out a six second gap on his team mate Dillmann as he posted a new fastest lap of the race on the midway point of the 30-lap feature albeit only a tenth faster than Leimer's time for that lap.
Ericsson's hopes of a strong result came to an end on lap 17 when a left rear puncture left him battling to save the DAMS from disaster, and finally forced him to park by the trackside. Another front runner was also soon out of the equation as the right bank of Nasr's engine expired and started belching smoke and oil into the air signalling terminal failure on lap 19 and leaving drivers reporting slippery conditions out on track where the Carlin had passed through in its death throes.
Bird finally came in on lap 20 for his pit stop, seemingly having done enough to ensure that he'd come back out ahead of Leimer - only for a major hold-up on the right rear wheel change cost him badly with several seconds lost while the issue was resolved. When Bird was finally ushered back out onto the track, it was to the sight of the rear of the Racing Engineering car disappearing four seconds up the road. The second Russian Time car pitted next time by and escaped similar problems, putting him back out just behind Bird and ahead of Julian Leal, ART's James Calado and early stopper Adrian Quaife-Hobbs.
Stephane Richelmi held the lead for a couple of laps before becoming the last man to come onto pit road - another to announce himself with a massive lock-up - on lap 23. Sam Bird threw everything he had into hunting down Leimer for the lead, both men knowing that they stood to gain huge ground in the GP2 Series championship fight thanks to the high attrition rate claiming the other leading contenders - now also including Stefano Coletti himself whose Rapax crawled onto pit road to die quietly on lap 24.
Dillmann did his bit to stay in touch with his team mate, pulling away from Richelmi who had slotted back into fourth place after pitting from his extra-long first stint ahead of Leal, Calado and Quaife-Hobbs, with Alexander Rossi determined to protect eighth place - and provisional sprint race pole position under reverse grid rules - from his unhappy team mate Canamasas. The final points position went to Vittorio Ghirelli, doing a very impressive job for Venezuela GP Lazarus to see him finish in tenth ahead of Daniel de Jong (MP Motorsport), Johnny Cecotto and Jon Lancaster (Hilmer Motorsport). Sergio Campana made a solid debut in the series with Trident in 15th place just behind Barwa Addax's Rio Haryanto.
In the closing minutes the focus was all directed toward the shoot-out at the front. Bird managed to cut the gap to Leimer to half a second and clinch the bonus points for fastest lap of the race, but after that the options appeared to lose their shine and the Russian Time pit wall counselled their man to take "no unnecessary risks." Bird reluctantly complied and duly followed Fabio Leimer across the finish line as the chequered flag signalled the third feature race win of the year for the Racing Engineering driver, which puts him into the championship lead with 153 points, eight clear of Bird who moves ahead of the stalled Coletti in the standings. Having both drivers on the podium while neither Carlin made it to the finish also means Russian Time goes into the lead of the teams championship.
However, the eventful race left the stewards with a lengthy list of incidents to look at post-event. While nothing should affect the podium trio, everything from Palmer's unsafe release from the Carlin pit lane with his wheel improperly attached, to the clash between Cecotto and Canamasas, to a slew of cars cited for not respecting yellow flags at some point during the event will be looked at. The stewards' office will be a busy place and doubtless be working long into the Italian evening before it's all sorted out and any post-race penalties fully sorted out.See full race results