Normally when a polesitter bogs down off the line and drops five places before the first corner, that's game over in terms of any realistic chance of winning the race. Especially when the person who takes over at the front is the driver's own team mate running identical equipment and who quickly pulls out a lead of more than ten seconds over the rest of the field.
Such was the scenario facing Jolyon Palmer, who suffered an issue with the anti-stall device on his car and stuttered off the line as all around him surged past. His Carlin team mate Felipe Nasr had no such issues and shot off free and clear into turn 1, while Palmer found himself surrounded by the triumvirate of Fabio Leimer, James Calado and Stephane Richelmi and forced to give ground to all three.
Leimer came out best in the battle for second, while Richelmi's attempt to ward off Palmer on the outside line allowed Calado to slip down the inside into turn 2 for third. But once those fraught opening few seconds had calmed down, Palmer was able to recompose himself and apply himself to a quick and deft pass on the DAMS car and then a similarly straightforward overtake on the ART for third place before the end of the first lap. Palmer might still be down in third place and already worrying car off the leading duo, but at least the fightback had begin.
Leimer looked a threat to the lead early on thanks to his decision to go with supersoft front tyres for the opening stint, but the performance of the options dropped off rapidly and by lap 4 Leimer was not only no longer a threat to Nasr, he was easy prey for Palmer who was now back up into second spot despite that dire start. Even so, Nasr's lead over his team mate was already up to nearly five seconds: it seemed that it was still the Brazilian's race to lose.
Leimer's problems with the supersofts were mirrors by similar strife for the likes of Stefano Coletti and Sergio Canamasas, both of whom had made up places early but who were now falling down the running order at a fair rate of notes. The exception to the rule of the options was Sam Bird, who had fallen back to 13th place at the start but who had then been able to husband his option tyres over the ensuing opening laps so that when others hit problems he was in an ideal position to pounce and take advantage of the opportunity to regain that lost ground and then some.
Unsurprisingly those cars struggling on the options pitted for prime tyres as soon as the mandatory pit stop window was open on lap 6; Leimer and Richelmi waited only a lap longer before they too were in. For a second, Leimer's race fortunes - not to mention his championship hopes - seemed on the brink of disaster as a spent wheel got away from the pit crew and rolled across the pit lane, but an alert crew members retrieved it and the oddly lenient race stewards didn't deem it worthy of investigation for any potential penalties.
Sam Bird was in next lap by having worked his way back into the points, but a delay with the wheel gun on the right rear cost him valuable seconds and undid all that early good work, leaving him with it all to do all over again.
The first surprise of the race came at the start of lap 9, when the race leader Felipe Nasr came onto pit road despite having started on the prime tyres, followed by second-place man James Calado. Both men swapped rear tyres only on a like-for-like basis: perhaps both teams were working a tyre strategy designed to stop them having to run Sunday's sprint race on the short-lived options, or perhaps they were reacting to an on-track incident that seemed poised to trigger a safety car period.
That incident had begin with Julian Leal optimistically feinting the nose of his Racing Engineering car down the inside of Nathanael Berthon's Trident in the run down to turn 13, only to end up being panicked into the Armco barrier in a collision that saw both men end up in the run-off and out of the race. Berthon was subsequently handed a five-place grid penalty by the race stewards for causing the collision after video evidence showed that Berthon had reacted to intentionally block Leal's pass and thereby triggered the avoidable accident.