The GP2 Series now has new faces at the top of the drivers' championship standings on Saturday afternoon, after a pitched battle between Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering) and Sam Bird (Russian Time) saw the Swiss driver survive to his fifth series race win and his third of 2013, and also put him eight points clear in the title race thanks to all sorts of misfortunes hitting key rivals including longtime former championship leader Stefano Coletti.
With no trace of the thunderstorms forecast to roll in over northern Italy over the weekend, the GP2 feature race at Monza got underway in gloriously sunny and very hot conditions as polesitter Bird and fellow front row man Leimer led Jolyon Palmer (Carlin) and Marcus Ericsson (DAMS) to the grid at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. When the lights went out, starting on the option tyres enabled Leimer and Ericsson to get the jump on the cars nominally on the cleaner outside line in the long power run down to the first chicane, which meant Leimer claimed the lead over Bird at the same time that Ericsson moved up a spot to third ahead of Palmer, as the cars filtered down for the first run through the notoriously tricky first chicane.
Further back, bumping and jostling through that first corner spun Trident's Nathanael Berthon out of the race. The second time through the chicane was also not without casualties, as a dive down the inside by Simon Trummer ended up with the Rapax being spun around by contact with Arden's Mitch Evans which left the two glaring at each other head-on as they blocked the track and forced the rest of the field to take to the run-off areas to get past. Daniel Abt's ART sustained a left front puncture in the melee and MP Motorsport's Dani Clos was left with a broken wing that essentially put both men a lap off the leaders for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite this the race workers managed to clean up the incident without requiring an appearance from the safety car. However once the local waved yellows were withdrawn, the chicane claimed another victim on lap 4 when Barwa Addax's Jake Rosenzweig tussled with Russian Time's Tom Dillmann over sixth place, and contact left the American with crumpled left front suspension that forced him to pull over and park the car.
Meanwhile Leimer had built up a one second lead over Bird, Ericsson and Palmer as Stefano Coletti became the first of the top six to make his mandatory pit stop on lap 7, announcing his arrival on pit lane with an almighty lockup of his old set of tyres in the process; that proved to be too little, too late in any case as he was handed a drive-thru for speeding in pit lane.
Ericssson was in next time by, all of which promoted his team mate Stephane Richelmi along with Racing Engineering's Julian Leal into the top six on lap 10. when Carlin's Felipe Nasr came in for his own stop whcih put him back out straight into a pitched battle with Hilmer Motorsport's Adrian Quaife-Hobbs. Also getting feisty was the scrap between Sergio Canamasas (Caterham) and Johnny Cecotto Jr. (Arden) over tenth place, Canamasas already smarting over team orders obliging him to let his team mate Alexander Rossi past.
Palmer came in for his stop from third place on lap 11, but it ended in disaster when the left rear wheel detached on the out lap and left Palmer with no option but to park the Carlin by the side of the track at Lesmos. Leimer pitted from the lead next time by and had a nice uneventful time of it, re-emerging back into 11th place with all the cars ahead of him on the track still to make their own mandatory tyre changes. It was critically for new race leader Bird to push hard and make the most of having started on the prime tyres to pull out enough of a gap to allow him to pit and come out in front of Leimer; the Briton certainly threw everything into it as he pulled out a six second gap on his team mate Dillmann as he posted a new fastest lap of the race on the midway point of the 30-lap feature albeit only a tenth faster than Leimer's time for that lap.
Ericsson's hopes of a strong result came to an end on lap 17 when a left rear puncture left him battling to save the DAMS from disaster, and finally forced him to park by the trackside. Another front runner was also soon out of the equation as the right bank of Nasr's engine expired and started belching smoke and oil into the air signalling terminal failure on lap 19 and leaving drivers reporting slippery conditions out on track where the Carlin had passed through in its death throes.
Bird finally came in on lap 20 for his pit stop, seemingly having done enough to ensure that he'd come back out ahead of Leimer - only for a major hold-up on the right rear wheel change cost him badly with several seconds lost while the issue was resolved. When Bird was finally ushered back out onto the track, it was to the sight of the rear of the Racing Engineering car disappearing four seconds up the road. The second Russian Time car pitted next time by and escaped similar problems, putting him back out just behind Bird and ahead of Julian Leal, ART's James Calado and early stopper Adrian Quaife-Hobbs.