Lotus-ART driver Jules Bianchi nailed the Feature Race victory at Abu Dhabi on Friday afternoon to assure stellar start to the 2011 GP2 Asia Series.
Although the Frenchman found himself somewhat adrift of poleman Romain Grosjean after the Thursday afternoon qualifying, Bianchi soared into the lead off the line to seize the initiative. It was short lived.
While much of the field pulled away from their respective grid slots, Dani Clos stalled from his second row position, only to be rammed by an unsighted Luiz Razia, who in turn collected Pal Verhaug (DAMS). Thankfully all three drivers emerged unharmed from their stricken machines.
Instantly, the safety car was instantly introduced; however this only led to confusion on the back straight as green lights turned to flashing yellow, with several drivers seemingly striking the brakes on the long stretch. Caught unawares, Trident racer Rodolfo Gonzalez, ran into the rear of Charles Pic, removing his own front wing and Pic’s rear end in the process.
With the circuit shrouded in debris, the red flag was thrown.
Bianchi was sure to maintain his command of the race when it eventually restarted, but with overtaking so difficult, Grosjean could not get by the Lotus-ART machine.
Davide Valsecchi shadowed the leading pair in the early laps, only to fall away as the race matured; however the reigning GP2 Asia Champion had his own position to ponder, as Giedo van der Garde, Marcus Ericsson and Max Chilton bore down on the Italian.
A repaired Rodolfo Gonzalez started the mandatory pit cycle on the seventh lap, but it would be a further six tours before the frontrunners opted for new Pirelli’s. Valsecchi was the first to make the jump (lap 12), followed by Grosjean a lap later and Bianchi on the 15th lap. Ericsson and van der Garde made for new tyres in this period, but were unable to overhaul Valsecchi, while a poor stop for Chilton dropped him out of contention.
Unperturbed by tyre wear, Fabio Leimer, Jolyon Palmer and Charles Pic stayed out for the long haul, easily holding the top three positions ahead of Bianchi and co.
In fact while Palmer and Pic eventually took to the pits (laps 19 and 26 respectively), Leimer stayed put on circuit, seemingly content with his Pirelli’s. The long runs by Leimer, Palmer and Pic pointing to potential long term stability with the new tyres – something that will be of importance later in the year as teams play with race strategies.
Leimer played for too long though. Having finally pitted on lap 29, Pic had reeled the Rapax driver in and passed him as Leimer exited the pit lane. Only two laps remained when Oliver Turvey pulled off track while stuck in gear, gifting a top-ten spot to Pic.
Pic was soon battling with Max Chilton (8th) and Stefano Coletti. Although Coletti beat Pic to 9th spot, Chilton was judged to have overtaken the pair on the run off area at the end of the second back straight, earning the Briton a 20 second post-race penalty.
Of course, none of this registered with Jules Bianchi. The Frenchman kept his head and his lead ahead of Grosjean, eventually crossing the finish line for a solid victory. Bianchi also picked up an extra point for the race’s fastest lap, which he secured on the second-last tour.
Grosjean came home an unchallenged 2nd and Davide Valsecchi made it to 3rd, giving Team AirAsia a podium on their GP2 début. Marcus Ericsson swiped 4th off of Giedo van der Garde on the final lap, as the Dutch driver’s tyres fell away; however van der Garde had more than enough of a gap over 6th place Josef Kral to maintain his top-five position.
Sam Bird took quiet 7th place in his iSport machine giving the Englishman a front-row starting position for the following Sprint Race. He was to be joined by Max Chilton, but his penalty dropped him down to 12th. It promoted Stefano Coletti to 8th ahead of Charles Pic (9th) and Fabio Leimer (10th).
Behind the top-ten, Julian Leal and Fairuz Fauzy took themselves out of contention as the pair clouted eachother while fighting over 19th place. Also Johnny Cecotto and Jolyon Palmer were spun around at the end of the first back straight by the somewhat clumsy Michael Herck.
Michael Aleshin, Esteban Gutierrez and Nathanael Berthon also joined the retirements list thanks to various mechanical failures.
It was a decent run from the field once the red flag was cleared, but it was obvious that passing is still very difficult at the Yas Marina circuit for formula cars.
This race win could be the start of big year for Jules Bianchi as he eyes up a Formula 1 seat.
Race Rating: 2 out of 5
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Jules Bianchi ART 1h22m04.643s 2. Romain Grosjean DAMS + 6.681s 3. Davide Valsecchi AirAsia + 12.794s 4. Marcus Ericsson iSport + 14.001s 5. Giedo van der Garde Addax + 15.198s 6. Josef Kral Arden + 20.601s 7. Sam Bird iSport + 24.412s 8. Stefano Coletti Trident + 36.809s 9. Charles Pic Addax + 37.411s 10. Fabio Leimer Rapax + 40.252s 11. Max Chilton Carlin + 31.866s** 12. Rodolfo Gonzalez Trident + 48.587s 13. Michael Herck Coloni + 59.963s 14. Jolyon Palmer Arden + 1m07.206s 15. Johnny Cecotto Super Nova + 1m08.136s 16. Andrea Caldarelli Ocean + 1m37.978s Retirements: James Jakes Coloni 32 laps Oliver Turvey Ocean 32 laps Nathanael Berthon Racing Engineering 24 laps Julian Leal Rapax 19 laps Fairuz Fauzy Super Nova 19 laps Esteban Gutierrez ART 18 laps Mikhail Aleshin Carlin 10 laps Dani Clos Racing Engineering 0 laps Luiz Razia AirAsia 0 laps Pal Varhaug DAMS 0 laps **20-second penalty
Pos Driver Team Points 1. Jules Bianchi ART 11 points 2. Romain Grosjean DAMS 10 3. Davide Valsecchi AirAsia 6 4. Marcus Ericsson iSport 5 5. Giedo van der Garde Addax 4 6. Josef Kral Arden 3 7. Sam Bird iSport 2 8. Stefano Coletti Trident 1