22 April 2012
Valsecchi wins sprint after late penalty for Leimer
Van der Garde's Caterham team mate Rodolfo Gonzalez had been having a decent race early on, but then tangled with Carlin's Rio Haryanto in turn 4 and had to head to the pits for repairs, the incident leaving debris on track that was covered by a local waved yellow. Minutes later, as the leaders started lap 12 of 22, word came that one car had failed to satisfactorily respect the local caution by lifting off sufficiently: and the shock news was that the driver implicated was none other than the race leader, Fabio Leimer.
Word soon followed that Leimer had indeed been handed a drive-thru penalty. The Racing Engineering camp was livid: "This has cost us the first race win of the season," complained Thomas Couyotopoulo, the team's sporting director. "The stewards decided to religiously apply the rules and give a drive through penalty for ignoring yellow flags, [even though] Fabio was running all by himself in the lead and even lifted his foot off the throttle."
But there was nothing to be done: the penalty had been handed down and had to be served. Once he'd fumed his way down pit lane, Leimer emerged back out on track in the middle of a tightly-packed fierce midfield battle, in 12th place with just four laps to go - too little time remaining in the race to do any further damage limitation. "I personally would have preferred they let me finish the race and look at the data after the race, which would have made it clear that I went slower under yellow," said the Swiss driver later, understandably.
As the news spread about Leimer's penalty it seemed to hit the boost button on Davide Valsecchi, who had been placidly following Max Chilton around for almost the entire race thus far. But on lap 14, he was done waiting and being kind to his tyres. He cruised past the Carlin into turn 1 with dismissive ease to take up fourth position, and then he repeated the identical move the next time around to dispatch Calado for third.
That became second once Leimer exited to the pit lane, but with Gutierrez initially some six seconds ahead of Valsecchi it was surely asking too much of the Italian to be able to make a play for the outright race win to make it a Bahrain double? If it was, no one had briefed Valsecchi to that effect, and over the course of the final seven laps he hunted the Mexican down by going a second a lap faster, to reduce the gap to something closer to a hair's width.
Finally it all came down to the last lap of the race. Valsecchi set himself up to slipstream Gutierrez down the start/finish straight into turn 1 for the final time, and Gutierrez made his car impressively wide into the corner. But when it came to it, the tyres on the DAMS simply gave Valsecchi the better line through the turn and superior traction on the drive out, and that put him alongside the Lotus and into the lead. Gutierrez hung on, clamped to the rear of leader's car, but he could find no way around before they rounded the final corner and the chequered flag came out.
Valsecchi admitted that his famous sprint victory had taken a hefty dose of luck to pull off. "Yesterday, we deserved the win. Today, we had the luck that one driver stalled on the grid, then we were lucky that Leimer received a penalty and we were lucky that we could overtake Gutierrez on the last lap.
"Starting from P8 is difficult in terms of tyre management," he added. "You have to overtake and you are in the battle. It was really stressful! It was a really good fight hard. We had some degradation like the others, but a bit less."
"It was very challenging to save the tyres," agreed Gutierrez. "We were not so strong at the end of the race compared to yesterday." He admitted that he had "pushed a little bit [at the start] and it had some consequences at the end."
Behind them, Gutierrez' team mate James Calado had held on despite expectations on his tortured tyres to deny Luiz Razia his own second podium of the weekend.
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