As the drivers lined up on the grid for the start of the first feature race at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir, most of them must have been hoping that the blazing form shown by polesitter Davide Valsecchi in the DAMS in practice and qualifying on Friday would translate into race pace. But they were to be gravely disappointed.
The tightest moment for Valsecchi was at the start, when his getaway was matched by that of Lotus GP's Esteban Gutierrez on the other side of the front row. Valsecchi had just enough of an edge to get into the first turn first, but it was a close run thing. After that, however, the DAMS scampered off into the distance and by lap 16 following the mandatory pit stops for new tyres Valsecchi was almost 12 seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
"I'm really happy about the start because it's always a bit of an issue for me and we managed to stay in front today at the first corner. It was not a fantastic one because Gutierrez was next to me, but it was enough to keep the lead," said Valsecchi after the race.
Behind Valsecchi, his rookie team mate Felipa Nasr started from third place but was caught out by Johnny Cecotto Jr. getting a flier from the row behind and then diving across the full width of the track to claim the inside line into turn 1, and as a result the Addax car was able to claim and keep the position.
Behind them, Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer found himself squeezed into a three-way into the first corner with Arden's Luiz Razia and Carlin's Max Chilton: Razia emerged on top, while Chilton received no 21st birthday present from Leimer and was forced to settle for seventh place. Behind this trio, James Calado (Lotus GP) and Dani Clos (Barwa Addax) were having a youth versus experience battle over who got to claim eighth place ahead of Stephane Richelmi in tenth, although Richelmi promptly lost that spot to Coloni's Fabio Onidi on the next lap.
That put Richelmi at the head of a number of fierce battles going on outside the top ten, including Giedo van der Garde and Stefano Coletti tussling over 15th place that ended in contact and both of them spinning out of the right hander at turn 8. Coletti's attempt to get underway again saw him skate across the gravel and nudge his wheel into the barrier, at which point there was nothing to do but climb out of the car. Van der Garde was able to resume, but then clipped his front wing on the back of Nathanael Berthon who was recovering after his Racing Engineering car had spun out of the first corner onto the grass at the start. The Dutchman would subsequently retire mid-race after 16 laps.
Still labouring on a set of scrubbed harder compound tyres, Richelmi was the first in for his mandatory pit stop at the end of lap 7, after which the rest of the field dribbled in over the next few laps. Luiz Razia executed a lovely pass for fourth on Felipe Nasr and then leapfrogged both Gutierrez (whose crew had an issue with one of the tyres) and Cecotto when they came in to the pits together, only for all three of them to emerge behind Chilton and Calado who had come in one lap earlier and made the best use of the new rubber on their out laps.
Valsecchi pitted from the lead on lap 14 and went back out still in the top spot, while some distance behind Berton was the last man to stop, and on his now very worn tyres he was clearly backing up and frustrating the real race contenders into one another. By the time Berthon finally opted to pit he was overwhelmed by much faster cars all over him, and his jink to try to get to the pit lane entrance nearly triggered a major accident in the process.
It certainly left the leaders jumbled up with fights breaking out all over the place: one of the fiercest being that between Cecotto and Nasr, who were banging wheels and running off into the dirt in their battle before finally ending up in contact on lap 17 that spun and stalled both cars, resulting in a safety car being deployed. The race stewards subsequently reviewed the incident and found the collision to be Nasr's fault, handing him a five-place grid penalty for Sunday's sprint race which - combined with his retirement - meant he would be starting form the back row of the grid. That certainly seemed to put paid to his weekend's exploits, after winning a fine third place on the grid in qualifying.