Sam Bird is now firmly in the running for the 2013 GP2 drivers championship, after securing his fourth win of the year with an impressive and virtually unchallenged run to victory at Spa-Francorchamps in Saturday's feature race event.
After the preceding weather-related mayhem in the F1 qualifying session, the GP2 field was relieved to find that the rain had stopped in time for the start of the feature race, and the forecast was for it to stay that way for the next hour. While the track was still a little damp in places from its earlier soaking and track temperatures were inevitably down on Friday leaving the drivers with understeer to cope with, it was certainly a looking a lot easier for the feeder series contenders than it had been for their Grand Prix counterparts.
Sam Bird had a decent start from pole position in the Russian Time, but a sluggish start for Racing Engineering's Fabio Leimer enabled ART's James Calado to put his option tyres to best use by blasting off from the second row and run on the outside of Bird around La Source. Calado couldn't seal the deal and had to settle for pulling in to second spot ahead of Leimer while behind them Marcus Ericsson lost out in the crush through the hairpin and ended up behind Alexander Rossi (Caterham) and Jolyon Palmer (Carlin). Try as he might, the DAMS driver couldn't find his way back past Palmer who was defending for all his worth.
The start had been remarkably clean but on lap 4 the safety car was deployed for Daniel de Jong who had suffered a dramatic crash at Eau Rouge, seemingly triggered by a puncture after the MP Motorsport car ran over the kerbs while defending from Barwa Addax's Rio Haryanto. The restart on lap 6 saw a further incident, when Felipe Nasr tried to slip down the inside of his team mate Jolyon Palmer around La Source only to leave both of them stuck on the exit of the hairpin. Palmer resumed at the back of the field, but Nasr was out of the race and handed a five place grid penalty for Sunday's sprint race by the stewards after being deemed to have caused the collision.
Sam Bird was able to hold on to the lead at the restart and was quickly rebuilding the early lead that had evaporated behind the safety car. He was helped by problems for Calado, whose option tyres had a shockingly short life: the ART was easily passed for second place by Leimer on lap 7 and was forced to pit for a new set of of prime tyres, only to suffer a hold-up in the pits with a problem fitting the right rear tyre.
Leimer stayed out until lap 10 before coming in for his mandatory pit stop, leaving Bird with an 11s lead over Racing Engineering's Julian Leal, Bird's own team mate Tom Dillmann, Rapax's Simon Trummer and Arden's Mitch Evans. Championship leader Stefano Coletti was in sixth place having battled his way back up from 20th place on the grid, but it all went pear-shaped for him when he came in for his pit stop on lap 13 only to suffer from a dropped wheel but That saw him emerge from the pit down in 14th place immediately behind Calado and ahead of MP Motorsport's Dani Clos, who misjudged Coletti's pace and clipped his own front wing on the back of the Rapax while trying to make a quick pass around him. Clos needed a second pit stop to exchange his damaged front wing and also got a drive-thru penalty from the race stewards, while Coletti was able to continue but now once again outside the points with with a possibly compromised car.
Bird pitted on lap 15, but had to wait to the end of the penultimate lap before regaining the lead as Trummer left it as late as possible for his own mandatory stop which dropped him out of the top ten. With Alexander Rossi being warned not to overstress his tyres, Ericsson had moved up to second place ahead of the Caterham while Leimer was in fourth ahead of his team mate Leal in fifth, Tom Dillmann in sixth and Ericsson's team mate Stephane Richeli in seventh. That put Calado in eighth and pole position under reverse grid rules for the Sunday sprint race, while the remaining points positions went to Hilmer Motorsport pair Robin Frijns and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs.
Trummer ended up in 12th place just behind Evans, while Coletti's labours yielded only a point-free 13th place by the finish which means that he continues to be becalmed in the GP2 drivers championship after a strong of disappointing races, although the Monegasque driver continues to lead after Saturday thanks to his nearest rival Nasr crashing out early in Spa.
Palmer recovered to 15th after tangling with his team mate at that early restart,just ahead of ART's Daniel Abt who has successfully petitioned overnight for a new Mecachrome engine after being able to demonstrate from Saturday's telemetry that his existing unit had been significantly down on power. Catherham's Sergio Canamasas ended up watching the end of the race from the sidelines after a rear brake failure saw him run into the tyre barriers on lap 19.
But at the front, the win had never been in doubt - Sam Bird's margin over Ericsson was a full seven seconds at the chequered flag despite having been held up in the closing laps by Trummer who by that stage had been struggling on a set of seriously fried tyres. His fourth victory of 2013 - coupled with the poor runs for Coletti and Nasr - puts Bird right into contention for the GP2 title with just 14 points covering the top four - Coletti, Nasr, Leimer and Bird himself.
Bird can't take the championship lead in Sunday's sprint race, but he can get close and jump into second place. And based on his form in the feature, you surely wouldn't bet against him doing exactly that.
See full feature race results