CLICK: Full feature race 1 results
Championship leader Jolyon Palmer admitted that he was "gutted" not to seal a home feature race win at Silverstone on Saturday afternoon, after he was bested in a tense strategic duel by Mitch Evans who claimed his first series win by almost five seconds.
The two men were massively ahead of the rest of the field by the finish, with Stoffel Vandoorne the best of the rest in a distant third place. But polesitter Raffaele Marciello was no where to be seen at the end, having been unable to capitalise on a fine start and early lead after his car suffered a technical failure midway through the race.
The race had got underway in significantly drier conditions than either F1 or GP3 had faced in their qualifying sessions earlier in the day. However the track still had damp areas off the racing line and that disadvantaged those cars starting on the inside line, with Palmer struggling to get away from second spot in the DAMS and quickly losing the initiative and the position to Evans in the Russian Time car through the opening corners.
By contrast there was no stopping Marciello from blasting off from pole position like a rocket in the Racing Engineering #5, taking a huge lead through the first few corners while further back it was a free-for-all as a completely split decision on whether to start on the prime hard tyres or the option medium compounds led to wild disparities in speed between the drivers, those on the options weaving around wildly in an effort to make the most of their early advantage on the faster but shorter-life rubber.
Palmer came under heavy pressure in the opening lap from Carlin's Felipe Nasr who was determined to get past, but the championship leader was able to fend him off. Once Palmer survived that his car and his tyres started to click and he was soon able to pull away from the Brazilian, and on lap 4 he was strong enough to be able to successfully challenge Evans for the second place that he'd lost at the start. Nasr meanwhile was now the one who was struggling to maintain position after finding himself under assault from ART's Stoffel Vandoorne in fifth place, while Marciello's team mate Stefan Coletti had made good early progress up to sixth place from 11th on the grid to put him ahead of Carlin's Julian Leal who had dropped three spots off the grid.
Stephane Richelmi (DAMS), Daniel Abt (Hilmer), Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (Rapax), Arthur Pic (Campos), Alexander Rossi (Caterham) and Takuya Izawa (ART) all came in for their mandatory pit stops to ditch their fast-wearing options as soon as the window opened at the end of lap 6, and both Leal and MP Motorsport new boy Marco Sorensen were in next time by. Johnny Cecotto Jr. was in at the end of lap 8, but Marciello continued to lead on his initial set of medium tyres despite the threat from a fast-moving Palmer closing up behind him. The Italian finally came in at the end of lap 10, returning to the track at the tail end of the pack of cars that had started on the hard prime tyres but crucially ahead of Leal, the highest-placed of those cars that had already stopped.
Marciello's departure from the front released Palmer and Evans to make the most of the clear track at the front, followed by Nasr, Vandoorne, Coletti and Venezuela GP Lazarus' Conor Daly. Marciello still had hopes of returning to the front later in the race when the other shoe dropped on pit stop strategies, but at the midpoint of the race his Racing Engineering car suddenly suffered a gear issue and the Italian was forced to pull over onto the grass and retire before he was able to see any of that play out. He proved to be the only listed retirement of the race.
Not that Marciello's exit meant that Palmer and Evans had it in the bag yet by any means, as there was still the chance that Leal and the other early stoppers could prove a threat to them toward the end of the race. The pair had their throttles firmly on the floor, recording new fastest laps that were consistently almost half a second quicker than anyone else on the track.
Coletti was the first of the leaders to pit from fifth place on lap 18, and he returned to the track just behind Leal. This seemed to ring alarm bells at DAMS who called the race leader in next time round with Vandoorne following suit; both men came back out of the pits ahead of Coletti, who in the meantime had made an easy overtaking move on Leal once his new tyres were up to temperature.
Now the joker in the pack was Evans, who stayed out a lap longer and truly put the hammer down in an effort to leapfrog Palmer for the lead. After a flawless pit stop by the Russian Time crew he emerged from pit lane having done exactly that, although Palmer exerted all kinds of pressure on the Kiwi whose tyres were still coming up to speed; somehow Evans managed to fight him off and retain the lead, and Palmer was forced to back off after putting two wheels off the track and onto the dirt. After that Palmer seemed content to settle for second place, which would keep his championship hopes nicely on target.
Felipe Nasr's attempts to follow Evans' strategy went awry when a problem with an air gun during his pit stop dropped him all the way back to eighth place, now well out of contention for the podium but at least in with a chance of taking the pole for Sunday sprint race under reverse grid rules. Evans meanwhile had almost five seconds in hand over Palmer who was in turn over 20 seconds clear of Vandoorne, Coletti, Leal, Cecotto and Richelmi.
Evans duly clinched the chequered flag comfortably ahead of Palmer, with Vandoorne coming home in a lonely third place to join them on the podium. Behind him, a open warfare had broken out over fourth place as Leal got an impressive run on Coletti down the Hanger Straight and the two cars went into the final corners side by side, banging wheels and shedding bodywork in their private battle that saw both men try to force the other off the track. Leal finally had the better track position and picked up the position as Coletti went wide in the final corner and came perilously close to losing another position to Cecotto at the line. Nasr picked up seventh place, having decided to claim an extra championship pole rather than the point pole which goes instead to Richelmi.
The race stewards will doubtless be looking closely at some of the action that went on - in particularly that last-lap battle between Leal and Coletti - but there was nothing to spoil the day for race winner Mitch Evans, who was congratulated on his maiden GP2 Series victory by his longtime mentor Mark Webber in parc fermé.
The 21-lap sprint race 2 is scheduled for 9.20am on Sunday morning, and will be shown live on Sky Sports F1
in the UK.
See full feature race 1 results