After the cold, grey and wet conditions on Friday, it was rather jarring to see the GP2 cars glittering in the bright sunshine and heat haze on the starting grid of the first GP2 feature race of 2011 at Istanbul Park, Turkey.
This track is renowned for producing some exciting, action-packed racing - and also for the way the "dirty" side of the track makes it very tough to start from second or fourth place on the grid. The Saturday GP2 race didn't let us down in either regard.
Romain Grosjean got a great start from pole position, but Sam Bird in second struggled to get away as did Jules Bianchi starting immediately behind him in fourth. Luca Filippi got a decent get away on the other side of the grid, but it was Dani Clos who got the best blast off of all from fifth place, diving diagonally across the track to undercut Bird for the inside line into the first left hander. Filippi tried to go around the outside of Bird, sandwiching the Briton, but found he was forced wide and onto the run-off causing him to lose multiple positions and fall to sixth.
But behind them, there were problems. At the very back, Rodolfo Gonzalez - starting from the back row of the grid - managed to give a light tap on the back of Esteban Gutierrez's Lotus ART and tip him into a slow spin right across the bows of Ocean's Kevin Mirocha. It looked for a minute that it might be no more than an inconvenience, but then the tyres of the car briefly fused together and Gutierrez was popped up into the air at a forty-five degree angle before is slammed back down again amidst broken bodywork. Gutierrez was definitely out, parked at the end of pit road, but Mirocha's suspension was mercifully unaffected and he could continue.
Meanwhile all eyes were on a far bigger - and scarier - accident unfolding in the exit of turn 2. Luiz Razia drifted wide on the run-off area, and as he tried to rejoin the track the car suddenly bucked on the transition between grass, paint and tarmac and sent his car sideways. Everyone around him reacted and avoided him, but Max Chilton ended up sideways himself and partially off onto the grass on the other side: at which point Fabio Leimer arrived with no time to react and ploughed right into the back of the Carlin car, which launched him sideways and rolled him completely over so that his Rapax car skidded over the width of the track balanced on its roll bar. As soon as it reached the edge of the track, the car's suspension dug into the grass and suddenly Leimer was spinning like a top again and jolted right-side up before finally coming to a rest. At which point, Leimer cooly removed the steering wheel and walked away form the scene of the accident.
After a lengthy safety car to clear up the carbon fibre mess at both crash sites, the race restarted on lap 5 and Bird immediately set about putting his poor start to rights with a lovely smooth pass on Clos through turn 12. Bianchi was not having any similar joy at this point, and a move to try and pass Clos at the start of lap 8 ended with him running wide and allowing Luca Filippi to pass him for fourth instead.
Several cars had incidents affecting their front wings to various degrees - Jolyon Palmer and Davide Rigon all had damage, and the left hand side of Davide Valsecchi's Team AirAsia was clipped by Trident's Stefano Coletti at the restart. If didn't initially appear to do Valsecchi any harm, but s the race wore on the wing started to disintegrate and eventually he was shown the black-and-orange flag calling him into the pits which put paid to any hopes of a recovery, after a post-qualifying penalty had dumped him down ten places on the grid to 18th.
Tyre wear and pit stop strategy started to become all important as the race progressed. The old GP2 playbook encouraged cars to come in as soon as the mandatory pit stop window opened (on lap 6 in Turkey) so that the car gets back out again in clear air and in open space to make the most of the fresh rubber and leap-frog those who slog around on older tyres for longer. Christian Vietoris was reading from this playbook and came in as soon as possible, but the other leaders all decided to take a wait-and-see approach.
Filippi was one of the first front-runners to come in for new tyres on lap 14, but unfortunately he came back out on track behind Johnny Cecotto Jr in the Ocean Racing Technology car. Cecotto ran wide coming out of turn 8 on lap 15 and spun across the track, collecting the unfortunate Filippi as he did so. Both cars were out of the race.