Under idyllic cloudless blue skies, there was a nightmare start to the final GP2 feature race of the year for Sam Bird, whose Russian Time stalled just as the lights went out for the start of the 28-lap event. It left him a sitting duck on the grid as the rest of the field streamed past: as deciding moments went in this year's championship, this was surely it in terms of the 2013 title.
Bird's main rival for the championship, Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer, was starting immediately behind Bird and was able to swerve around the stricken Briton and get in front of polesitter Alexander Rossi in the run down to the first corner. However, Carlin's Jolyon Palmer had an even better start and went into the turn in the lead albeit maintaining it by taking to the run-off area, while Leimer was left dealing with a counterattack from Rossi: aware of Bird's problems, Leimer decided that clinching the title took precedence and so allowed Rossi the position rather than risk getting caught up in a costly tangle of his own.
Russian Time's woes continued in the run through the first chicane, when Hilmer Motorsport's Jon Lancaster thought about making a move down the inside on Tom Dillmann, only to end up running over the kerbs which then unsettled the car and launched into into the air. With no control over the car, Lancaster went into and over the right hand side of the #12, ending up with the front wing of his car perched disturbingly on the top of Dillmann's helmet - although the Frenchman was thankfully uninjured and soon able to extricate himself.
Unsurprisingly the incident brought out an immediate safety car, which meant that Dillmann had unintentionally been a vital help to his teammate: Bird had been wheeled back into pit lane and re-fired, and was able to use the next few laps under yellow flags to return to the track and race around to catch up with the back of the pack, which currently consisted of Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (MP Motorsport) and the Trident pair of Nathanaël Berthon and GianMarco Raimondo as all three had been forced to start from pit lane after the trio had stalled on the grid in the first start attempt of the afternoon.
Racing resumed on lap 3 with Palmer holding the lead ahead of Rossi, Leimer and MP Motorsport's Dani Clos. Having used his unscheduled early pit stop to move to a new set of fast but short-life option compound tyres straight away, Bird was able to make quick work of some of the backmarkers in whose company he now found himself. He has made his way up to 17th place by the end of lap 8, whereupon Bird - now increasingly held up by traffic - returned to pit lane for a second time for a fresh set of mediums, now that he was in the window for his official mandatory pit stop.
At the front, Leimer and Clos held out on the options until the end of lap 10 before coming in for their own stops, along with Carlin's Felipe Nasr from sixth place. That dropped Leimer back to 11th for the time being, and promoted DAMS' Marcus Ericsson up to third place behind Palmer and Rossi, with Arden's Mitch Evans in fourth and ART duo James Calado and Daniel Abt rounding out the top six - although all of them had yet to make their inevitable pit stops having started on the more durable prime tyres.
Leimer climbed back into the points with a move on the obstinate Raimondo who made it as hard as possible for Leimer to pass despite the fact that he was clearly struggling on worn tyres, even lightly clipping the back of the Racing Engineering car with his front wing as he attempted to fight back. Not that Leimer even looked like needing to score a point today, given that Bird was still stuck in 19th place and running behind an enthusiastic tussle over 16th place behind Simon Trummer (Rapax), Jake Rosenzweig (Barwa Addax) and Sergio Canamasas (Caterham) which ultimately went in Canamasas' favour after Rosenzweig took a heavy hit from Trummer on lap 13.
The leaders continued to avoid pit lane, but by the end of lap 17 it was clear that Rossi was in serious trouble with tyre wear. The Caterham team tried to extend him far enough to allow a final stint on options but in the end had to call him in earlier than hoped - although the call still didn't come in time for him to make the pit entrance that time around ("Too late, dude!" was Rossi's radio response.) The American was forced to slither around another 3.451-mile, 21-turn lap of the Yas Marina Circuit before he was finally able to get his new set of rear primes to see him through to the finish.
That dropped Rossi down to seventh place but crucially still ahead of Leimer, Clos and Nasr as the fastest of those to have stopped. Next time around it was Palmer in for a used set of options, and the extra pit time was enough to see him emerge from the pit lane just behind Rossi. Daniel Abt briefly inherited the lead as Ericsson, Evans and Calado all pitted at the end of lap 21, but he too came in next time by to allow Rossi to take the lead for the first time this afternoon.
Rossi had less than a second over Palmer going into the final half dozen laps of the race, with Leimer restored to third place and on course to clinch the championship given that Bird's efforts to get back into the points had essentially stalled. However, the race took another dramatic turn on lap 23 when a move by Evans down the inside of Canamasas through the final corner resulted in contact that spun the Caterham broadside across the track and left the Arden pulling over to the pit wall: not only did that gift Bird a couple of extra places, it also meant a safety car was deployed in order to retrieve Evans' car which was deemed to be in a dangerous place on the track.
By the time the safety car's second appearance came to an end, Bird was suddenly back into the points in tenth place after Stefano Coletti opted to use the break in racing action to pit for fresh tyres. That still wasn't good enough to stop Leimer clinching the title as things stood - he needed to finish seventh or better to do that - but at least the field was packed closely together for the restart with four laps remaining.
That proved a double-edged sword when the track went green, as Bird found himself under heavy pressure from Quaife-Hobbs for tenth place. Bird's tyres had clearly reached end-of-life status and refusing to give him the traction out of corners, and he maintained position only when the MP Motorsport car locked up its brakes in an over-ambitious lunge. Not that things were going entirely Leimer's way either, as he was forced to surrender his podium position to Marcus Ericsson on lap 26.
That left Bird now needing just one extra position to hold off Leimer's coronation, but try as he might he was unable to get around the ART of Daniel Abt before the clock ran out. A big late blow-up for the engine in Berthon's Trident did nothing to change things where it mattered, and as the chequered flag came out for Rossi for his maiden series victory ahead of Palmer and Ericsson at the end of an hour's heated competition, it also greeted Leimer home in fourth place and bestowed upon him the 2013 GP2 Series championship.
In some ways it was a shame that Leimer would not be able to celebrate his title with a podium appearance, and that the title battle wouldn't come down to the final race of the season after all. But the 24-year-old Swiss driver didn't care about such technicalities: he was the champion, following in the footsteps of Davide Valsecchi, Roman Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado, Nico Hülkenberg, Giorgio Pantano, Tim Glock, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
That's pretty good company indeed for Leimer, who was celebrating in the GP2 pit lane with the Racing Engineering team as the top three finishers were bussed around the track to the main start/finish straight and for their own turn in the spotlight in the podium celebrations while elsewhere in the Yas Marina complex, Sam Bird was left ruing how an entire season's work had been undone in a single moment on the starting grid under the blazing skies in Abu Dhabi.Full race results