Neel Jani secured his first GP2 Series victory after holding off a concerted challenge from points leader Heikki Kovalainen in the closing stages of a bruising 42-lap encounter at the Hungaroring.

Starting from pole position, Jani led from first lap to last, timing his late pit-stop to perfection as he rejoined in front of Kovalainen, whose own stop had allowed him to vault past early second place man Giorgio Pantano.

The Hungaroring's notoriously dusty surface played against Kovalainen at the start, making the first corner battle between Jani and the fast-starting Pantano, who took a look inside the Racing Engineering Dallara at turn one before thinking better of a rash move. The points leader also dropped a place to Scott Speed, who had started directly behind the Arden car on row two.

Gimmi Bruni and Ernesto Viso were next up, ahead of an equally fast-starting Olivier Pla, but there was a return to the bad old ways of early GP2 days as several cars stalled on the grid.

Alex Negrao and new boy Giorgio Mondini had already struggled to get away on the warm-up lap, and it was the turn of Hiroki Yoshimoto, Nicolas Lapierre and Ferdinando Monfardini who needed assistance before getting on their way for lap one. Also making a slow start was Nico Rosberg, the erstwhile polesitter - relegated, along with ART team-mate Alex Premat, to the back row - but the German eventually found the revs he needed to join at the back of the field.

Rosberg was among the earliest pit callers, deciding that the sort of tactic that had benefited title rival Kovalainen on more than one occasion could also help him, opting to make his tyre stop on lap two, along with Nelson Piquet Jr, who had qualified a lowly 16th. They were followed on lap three by Bruni, who instantly put his fresh rubber to good use by toppling leader Jani from the fastest lap board.

Jani, however, was not concerned about his pace over a single lap, pushing as he was to open a gap back to Pantano. The leading pair had eased away from Speed, who found the similarly-liveried car of Kovalainen all over the back of his iSport entry. Bruni's pit-call was the only alteration among the points positions, promoting those behind him one spot, and allowing Jose Maria Lopez into the top eight.

Rosberg and Yoshimoto, both desperate to make up for lost time, lost more with off-track excursions as they pressed on but, the Japanese driver suffering more in the long-term despite Rosberg's long flight across the grass at the uphill left-hander that would catch more out as the race wore on. Mondini's debut, meanwhile, last as far as lap twelve.

While the two leaders continued to pull away, there were several close battles in their wake, none more so in the early stages than that between Speed and Kovalainen. Ironically, given the pressure on track, it was off it that the decisive mistake came, as Speed stopped in front of the wrong set of mechanics while making his call for tyres. The delay in rolling the few extra metres to his own crew, added to a somewhat shaky restart, ultimately cost the American third position as he rejoined, despite Kovalainen running out of road on a fast in-lap.

With the frontrunners all making their stops in quick succession, the pressure was on those in the pits as much as their drivers, but there was little the Super Nova crew could do to match Arden's slick stop and return Pantano to the track with the hope of holding second spot. Kovalainen's out-lap was as rapid as his inward tour had been, and the Arden car was already passed pit exit by the time his Italian rival emerged.

Jani had yet to stop - and, indeed, would be one of the last to do so - now heading Juan Cruz Alvarez out front, with Kovalainen the best-placed of those with two fresh tyres. Behind the Finn, Pantano headed Bruni, with Premat an amazing fifth on the road having come from 23rd at the start. ART team-mate Rosberg was only a handful of places further back, battling with Speed and a stronger-than-usual Negrao for the final points position behind Bruni and Lopez.

Jani finally made his call at half-distance and, free from the pressure being applied by Pantano, had pulled out enough of a gap to return to the fray narrowly ahead of Kovalainen. The Finn, however, had given his pursuit all he had, and it was a close run thing into the first turn.

Missing from the chasing pack by that stage was Speed, the American having pulled off with apparent gearbox problems to join a growing retirement list that already included Mondini, Clivio Piccione, Mathias Lauda and Fairuz Fauzy.

The Malaysian had had the back of his mint-and-white Dallara snap around on him under braking for the chicane - narrowly missing the rear of Olivier Pla's DPR entry - and DAMS team-mate Lopez would cap a disappointing day for the French team by joining Fauzy on the sidelines to set the race up for its tense finale.

Not long after Ferdinando Monfardini and the two Campos cars of Alvarez and Sergio Hernandez had swollen the injury list to eight, Lopez lost control under acceleration out of the final turn, firmly planting the rear wing of his car into the pit-wall. Although the driver was unhurt in the collision, the car was not moving, and the safety car was called for to cover the rescue work.

Jani continued to head the queue behind the Mercedes, but the controlled pace allowed Kovalainen, who had been dropped by just over a second to close right back in again. The Finn was still being tailed by Pantano, with Premat and Rosberg now both firmly ensconced in the top five. The man on the move immediately prior to the safety car period, however, was Viso, whose recovery from mid-pack following his pit-stop had seen him pass Piquet and Bruni on successive laps immediately prior to the SC boards appearing. Indeed, the pass on Bruni into turn one came after the pair had passed Lopez's stricken car, and it remains to be seen whether Viso's legendary ill-luck continues post-race.

The pace car remained on track until lap 35, setting up an eight-lap sprint to the flag. With Kovalainen right under his wing, Jani somehow held his nerve at the restart, allowing Pantano to distract his pursuer. Kovalainen held off the Italian with a quick jink towards the pit exit, but overcooked his entry to turn one, shot up the inside of Jani and then had to yield to the Swiss on exit.

Further back, stations were held until Pla jumped past the ailing Bruni for seventh, with Adam Carroll quickly following suit to move into the points for the first time all afternoon. Piquet, who could have also taken advantage, ran wide after being baulked by Can Artam, allowing several cars to move through on his inside. The Brazilian was not long for the race, however, pulling over in a manner reminiscent of Speed earlier in the race and posting another retirement.

Bruni's problems quickly allowed Negrao to move one step closer to a scoring position, homing on Carroll over the closing stages, but the action was all ahead of the Anglo-Brazilian battle, as Kovalainen and Pantano harried Jani, and Viso did likewise to Rosberg. The Venezuelan looked the more likely to make a move stick, but was firmly rebuffed by the ART car on more than one occasion, eventually having to settle for fifth by the margin on one-tenth.

It appeared equally close up front as Kovalainen launched one final attack on the last lap, getting his nose inside Jani's rear wheel on the final turn but finding the door shut as the Racing Engineering car sprinted for the line. With Pantano dancing in his mirrors, Kovalainen didn't have quite enough to mount a challenge and settled for eight points, and a welcome extension of his championship advantage, four-tenths from a fourth win of the year.

The ART duo salvaged nine points from what had appeared a nigh-on impossible task at the start, while Viso finally opened his points account after disappointment last weekend in Germany. The BCN pilot had Pla right on his tail at the line, having been held up by the defensive Rosberg, while Negrao came home ahead of Carroll, having passed the second Super Nova machine on the run to the flag.

The Brazilian will now start race two from pole, the second time this season he has done so, but will hope to make a better fist of things than he did in Spain, where he stalled on the warm-up lap. Alongside him, however, will be Pla, the recent king of the sprints, having taken two race wins in as many meetings after 'qualifying' on the front row for race two. Rosberg will start ahead of title rival Kovalainen for the shorter event, hoping to regain some of the momentum he had established over recent races.

Comments

Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment