Sebastien Bourdais took another big step towards securing a fourth Vanderbilt Cup by turning in a sweet drive to win the inaugural Champ Car Grand Prix of Belgium at Zolder.
The Frenchman got away cleanly from pole, leaving the squabble into the tight first turn to be headed by title rivals Will Power and Robert Doornbos. Making the most of starting on the same line as Bourdais, the Dutchman snatched an early advantage, demoting Power to third, as Justin Wilson did likewise to Bruno Junqueira.
Simon Pagenaud made a poor getaway, dropping two places to tenth, while Katherine Legge dropped from a hard-earned 14th on the grid to 16th after being pushed wide at turn one.
Thankfully, there was no incident at the opening corner, despite Doornbos and Power going wheel-to-wheel, although the Australian was probably ruing the decision to start on the harder black-walled Bridgestones when the majority of his rivals opted for red. Cooler conditions prevailed over Zolder, meaning that Power had to work harder to get his rubber up to temperature, allowing not only Bourdais, but also Doornbos, to pull away in the opening stint.
Legge dropped to the very back when Alex Figge got past the Dale Coyne car on lap two, with Alex Tagliani taking advantage of Paul Tracy putting two wheels onto the sandy verge two laps later to reclaim the sixth place he had lost to his fellow Canadian at the start. Pagenaud, meanwhile, saw his situation worsen when both Jan Heylen and Mario Dominguez demoted him, with Tracy losing another spot, to Neel Jani, on lap 15. In all cases, however, it took a mistake from the car ahead for those chasing to pass, confirming pre-race speculation that Zolder was just too narrow to enable unaided overtaking.
Just as the field was beginning to spread out, however, the organisers threw a full course yellow to attend to kerbing that had gone awry at the turn five chicane, scene of much aerial activity during the weekend. After spending a lap being the safety car, the entire field opted to pit, even though the caution came some nine laps before the expected pit window.
All bar Doornbos and Tristan Gommendy opted to take on black rubber – including Power and Graham Rahal, who had started on the harder compound – and while Pagenaud used the stop to claw back some of his lost ground, climbing to eighth, Bruno Junqueira saw his frontrunning fourth place descend into 15th after a long fill and Mario Dominguez also dropped to the back, where Legge continued to occupy 17th spot..
The race really began to look interesting when Figge dropped the Pacific Coast car in the turn one gravel trap on lap 26. Coming just ten laps after the initial caution, the second safety car period of the afternoon provided an opportunity for those hoping to salvage a decent result to switch to an alternative strategy.
Sixth-placed Tagliani was the highest placed driver to take advantage of the situation, but he was followed in by Tracy, Servia, Rahal, Junqueira and Dominguez, while Figge made a cautionary check after he had been recovered from the hazard. Rahal was stationary for some five seconds less than his rivals, rejoining at the front of the queue – and quickly disposing of Legge on the restart - t suggesting that his alternative strategy may be a little more extreme than the rest.