Sepang 2008: Petrov out of the chaos
22 March 2008
Vitaly Petrov claimed his second win in GP2 - and his first in the GP2 Asia Series - after coming from 17th on the grid to triumph in a chaotic wet-dry race in front of the Formula One audience at Sepang.
While the rain held off during F1 qualifying, it arrived at just the wrong moment for the GP2 runners, who had taken the start on slicks, but wished that they had wets by part way around the opening lap.
The drama, however, had begun even before the cars rolled off on their formation lap, with front row starter Karun Chandhok stalling and having to start from pit-lane. If iSport team-mate Bruno Senna thought that he had it easier with a clear road ahead of him from fourth on the grid, he was helped even further when poleman, and current points leader, Romain Grosjean made the same mistake at the start.
The Brazilian duly led into the first turn, which the field managed to negotiate safely, but should perhaps have taken note of the increasing number of raindrops on his visor for, a matter of corners later, he locked up and slithered wide, allowing Adrian Valles and Sebastien Buemi to inherit the advantage.
Behind the leading trio, however, there was mayhem as Alberto Valerio from a mid-grid start, rotated in front of the field, prompting others to either follow suit or lock up in avoidance, with the result that Ben Hanley was sent skywards as the pack converged. The Briton was out on the spot, as were the luckless Luca Filippi and Marco Bonanomi, who had been forced onto the grass and oh so nearly rolled before collecting the stranded Valerio. Hiroki Yoshimoto completed a miserable few moments for local team Qi-Meritus Mahara by incurring suspension damage that sent him limping back to the pits.
The leaders picked up the safety car at the end of the lap, but were only a short way into their second tour when the organisers decided to throw the red flag in the name of safety, allowing those remaining the chance to fit more appropriate rubber.
The race was suspended for around 25 minutes, in which time the conditions fluctuated enough to cause a little thinking up and down the grid. Most, however, plumped for wets ahead of the restart, with only a handful of optimistic souls towards the rear hoping that slicks were the way to go.
The order, however, had undergone something of a reshuffle, with Valles leading Buemi, Sentul sprint winner Fairuz Fauzy, Davide Valsecchi, Petrov, Harald Schlegelmilch, Milos Pavlovic and Jerome d'Ambrosio in the points positions, and Senna, Chandhok and Grosjean occupying twelfth, 14th and 17th as the safety car rolled off the line.
Despite the treacherous surface, all made it through the opening corner although, as usual, there were those caught napping at the restart, creating gaps between groups of cars. Valles, however, made no mistake, immediately pulling out a gap over Buemi, with Fauzy, Valsecchi and co dropping away all around the first lap back at speed.
It didn't take long for the casualties to start falling again, with Stephen Jelley throwing away eleventh spot at the final hairpin and Senna joining him on the sidelines at turn one after locking his rears and spinning to a halt. The Brazilian had just set the fastest lap of the race to that point, going three seconds faster than anyone else, but would go no further.
Grosjean, meanwhile, had started to make progress in his attempt to limit the damage to his points advantage, and would continue to pass lesser mortals at a steady rate. Up to eleventh by lap ten - the race having restarted on lap four - the Frenchman picked off both Armaan Ebrahim and d'Ambrosio next time around, while Pavlovic handed him another spot by running wide shortly afterwards. Schlegelmilch lasted four laps longer, and Valsecchi another couple after that, allowing Grosjean to close on the back of the battle for third involving Fauzy, Tung and Petrov, where the charge was slowed.
With Valles and Buemi almost in another postcode, The battle for third had been raging for some time, with Tung initially looking more racy than Fauzy, but then being reined in by the attentions of Petrov. Despite feints and looks here and there, the scrapped was only halted when Tung spun. Petrov then latched on to, and passed, Fauzy at the final hairpin, only to see the local favourite head to the pits.
The rain, by this time, had abated, allowing lap times to tumble, but the debate about when to switch to slicks was still ongoing. Fauzy, and Valsecchi who pitted behind him, both opted to take on the dry weather rubber, but the decision appeared to be the wrong one as the Malaysian, especially, struggled for grip on his return to the track.
Four laps later, Buemi made his stop and also opted for slicks, prompting a rash of similar decisions as the rest of the field made their mandatory stops. By the time Valles made his stop a couple of laps later, the entire field had moved onto the faster rubber.
Sadly for the long-time leader, he was never to find out how much faster he could go, for Buemi, having closed what had been a two-second gap by pitting first, tried to take advantage of the difference in pace between hot and cold tyres, only to clatter into the side of Valles and take both off - and out.
That opened the door for an unexpected winner, but Grosjean's chances of converting his nightmare start into a remarkable comeback was dented by damage to a track rod, probably caused by contact as he worked his way through the field. The ART Grand Prix driver returned to the pits for a cursory check-over before being sent back into action in the search for points among a depleted field.
Grosjean resumed in eleventh, behind the two Indians Ebrahim and Chandhok, but didn't have to wait long before being elevated to the fringe of the points as the pair clashed at the final hairpin, promoting the ART car to ninth.
The biggest winner of the tyre lottery now turned out to be Petrov, who had emerged in front of Fauzy and, with Valles and Buemi retiring, assumed the lead. The Malaysian, despite his initial woe on slicks, slotted into second, with d'Ambrosio, Kobayashi and Valsecchi giving chase.
The battle for fourth saw the position change hands as Valsecchi completed another solid performance for Durango by passing Kobayashi, but any hope anyone might have had of challenging for the win went west courtesy of Diego Nunes, who proceeded to try and race each of the leading group as they came up to lap him. The Brazilian was eventually given a stop-go for his antics, but not until the damage had been done.
Petrov was therefore able to cruise to his second win in the category, enhancing his claim to be the first Russian driver to race in F1, while Fauzy had enough in hand over d'Ambrosio to cement another podium and ramp up his pursuit of Grosjean in the points. d'Ambrosio took the final podium spot for DAMS, while Valsecchi, Kobayashi, debutant Yelmer Buurman, Schlegelmilch and Pavlovic - who had had to recover from going off at the same point and time as the erstwhile leaders - contrived to deny Grosjean a top eight finish.
More importantly, the Frenchman will have to start from row five on Sunday, although he did take the point for fastest lap to add to the two for pole in an effort to keep his advantage ticking over.