“GP2 Series: Palmer, Leal and Vandoorne make waves in Bahrain”

GP2 Series.
GP2 Series.

GP2 veterans Jolyon Palmer and Julián Leal and McLaren young driver Stoffel Vandoorne stamped their authority on the series after the opening round of the championship at the Bahrain International Circuit this weekend.

Feature Race
“I had a really good start,” opened the race winner coolly. “I took the lead and leading the opening lap was a key I think because it’s always the best position to manage the tyres.”

Starting brilliantly from the front row, Vandoorne became the first GP2 débutante winner since Álvaro Parente with Super Nova at the beginning of the 2008 season {note 1}.

There is a reason why Vandoorne is so highly regarded. The McLaren junior driver has been champion in both the Eurocup Formula Renault and French Formula 4 categories and was runner in last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 Series to Kevin Magnussen.
In a sense, it almost feels wrong to refer to Vandoorne as a rookie when considering his FR3.5 experience – the cars and relative championship statuses are reasonably matched.
The Renault-backed category has also produced its fair share of top quality drivers for Formula One in recent years, mostly due to its connection with Red Bull, but at this stage in 2014, one wonders if GP2 may have nicked an edge.

With competition in the shape of Mitch Evans, Raffaele Marciello, Jolyon Palmer, Felipe Nasr and Alexander Rossi, GP2 has collected of hot pot of top young talent.
This championship may eventually come down to the driver who really wants it the most. Following the opening test at Abu Dhabi, Vandoorne lay down his claim. “I really want to win this championship. It’s going to be a massive challenge, but I’m working very hard with my team ART GP to get the best out of it. I’m looking forward to the start of the season!”

Words mean little if the actions do not fit, but for Vandoorne, words, intentions and results melded seamlessly. The Belgian romped into an early lead when polesitter Jolyon Palmer bogged down on the line, dropping to 6th as the field defined its order – for the 22-year-old, the start was a dream. With Stéphane Richelmi, Stefano Coletti, Rio Haryanto and Mitch Evans jumping ahead of the dismayed Palmer and chasing the leader, Vandoorne held firm. The gap remained small: first 0.552s, then 0.336s and then…

Bang, skid, crash, slide, semi-flip, slide, stop. Axcil Jefferies has met Kimiya Sato…

As the field drew through the back end of the circuit, Jefferies squeezed Sato wide. Unfortunately for both, Sato locked into the slipstream of Jefferies as he attempted to escape the draft, only serving to pummel the rear of Jefferies Trident machine.

Replay. Bang, skid, crash, slide, semi-flip, slide, stop.

Naturally Jefferies was out on the spot and debris littering part of the second straight – never mind the remains of a buckled Trident – the safety car was dispatched.
Sato, meanwhile, was called in for a ten-second stop / go penalty, while the retiree was less than impressed: “Through no fault of our own we were taken out of the race just after two laps. What Kimiya did, really should not happen at this level. It cost us a lot!”
One wonders if Jefferies meant money, damage or both…

Restarting on lap seven, Vandoorne pulled into another small lead; however much of the field behind simply disappeared from his mirrors as Richelmi, Coletti and Haryanto (amongst others), followed a lap later by Evans and Palmer. By now, Leal had assumed 2nd spot behind Vandoorne until they stopped on laps eight and nine respectively, dropping both well down the order – with much of the race still to play out, wise diving and tyre strategy would be key.
According to the now 9th place Vandoorne: “I was thinking to stay maybe a bit longer on the soft tyres; everything looked fine, but with these tyres, you never know: they can be fine on the next lap in the first two sectors and then in the following sector, they can drop off massively.
“I probably could have run a bit longer because tyre degradation was okay, but I decided to pit and to be sure and safe to keep the lead,” said Vandoorne. “The team did a really fantastic pit stop and from then on it was just about managing the tyres.”

Which is exactly what the Belgian did.

Palmer, on the other hand, ran aggressive – perhaps too aggressive – as his pace began to tumble before the race had run, offering an opportunity for Leal, who was playing a different game.
Running 8th prior to the safety car, the Colombian needed to make places while others were stationary. “My engineer told me to push for two laps [after the safety car]. We were able to win a lot of positions. When I went out of the pits, I think I was P4. At the end, I was able to overtake Palmer too because we were able to keep the tyres until the end.”

As the leading pack stopped, those on alternate strategies came to the fore. Both the Venezuela GP Lazarus racers – Nathanael Berthon and Conor Daly – tried their hands at long opening stints.
Daly’s pace would falter in the latter tours, dropping him to 12th at the flag, but for Berthon – who took over the lead until his stop on lap 18 – his race fell apart completely. Initially the Frenchman’s race was hampered when he was sent back on track with the rear right wheel not attached properly, resulting in another, longer stop one tour later, before pulling off to retire a few tours shy of the chequered flag. Disappointing.

Now it was Simon Trummer’s turn to lead and the Rapax man held it until lap 30. It proved an incredible return for the Swiss racer who had started the race from the pitlane following a stall on the dummy grid. “It’s the first start of the year,” said Trummer, before adding: “I tried to do [a start] like last year, but that did not work at all so I stalled… I was thinking that the weekend was going to be really tough because then I had to start from the pitlane, but our pace was so good.”

As the field around him stopped for tyres or pushed and tore through the rubbing already worn, Trummer maintained a steady pace, spending much of the race in the early 1:47s, while others started quickly only for their times to plummet. The Rapax man explains further: “What we said at the beginning of the race was that we just see what happens. We kept it open. I was thinking five laps before the end that we should stop but the team kept me going. Like this, we could gain some positions. Maybe if we had stopped earlier, we could have gained even more positions, but it also means taking more risks because you have to overtake more cars, even with fresh tyres.”
He continued: “When I was by myself, that was the key. When you’re leading the race, you have fresh air and you can really manage your tyres. You don’t have to fight or defend. We could do 30 laps like that.” When he finally did pit, Trummer emerged in 9th for two laps on new soft tyres during which he climbed back to 7th.

Meanwhile Vandoorne headed the field, while Palmer and Leal fought over what would become the final podium spot; however the McLaren man maintained his head during the final tours, taking a brilliant victory. “Jolyon looked to be pushing a little too hard behind and thus he lost a bit of pace in the end. Julian Leal looked really quick in the end so I think a couple more laps and we would have been in danger.”

Leal did eventually pass Palmer with three to go, but Vandoorne was too far distant; however the Colombian was still delighted with the podium finish. “We never thought we could ever finish second today because we were starting from P12. The car was really good in the race. We had a really good pace. In the end, we managed this result.”

Palmer assumed 3rd, but only just ahead of the charging Coletti, while a late burst of speed brought Arthur Pic up to 5th, despite running outside the top ten with less than ten laps to go.
Takuya Izawa also made an impressive debut for ART Grand Prix. Starting near the back, the Honda factory driver calmly treated his tyres, giving the Japanese racer a burst of pace toward the final laps, with the 29-year-old rising from 16th to 6th in the last ten tours.
There was a battle behind Trummer for 8th spot and the reverse grid pole and it went to Felipe Nasr, who pipped Rene Binder and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs as the race drew to a close.

A quick note for Artem Markelov. The German Formula 3 graduate came home in 15th place during his GP2 debut, scoring the fastest lap in the process – not bad for a chap who has leapt several levels in one go.

GP2 Series.
GP2 Series.

Sprint Race
Unfortunately for Nasr, the Carlin man bogged down from pole just as Palmer had the previous day. Alas, in this instance, Palmer would prove to be one of the beneficiaries; however DAMS racer had first to deal with Trummer, who took the early lead.

Admittedly, Palmer was helped slightly when Coletti stalled and Izawa made a poor start, but the Englishman still managed a top class start to bring him from the third row to 2nd place at the start. Palmer said: “The start was pretty good. That made up for yesterday’s bad start so I’m happy for that. And then I knew I had to pass Trummer straight away because he looked really strong on the tyres.”

He would not have to wait long – tracking his Swiss rival, Palmer swept through into the lead on the 2nd lap, but was made to work for the points thereafter. “Once I passed [Trummer], I was just controlling the race. Trummer and Leal were the quickest yesterday on the long runs so, it was difficult to manage with those guys behind and be under pressure. I just survived and maintained the gap.”
Trummer, meanwhile, had his own game to play. “[Palmer] was really quick at the beginning of the race. I could not hold him back. So I didn’t defend too much because I knew I had to save the tyres for the race.” Despite the clean air, Palmer could not be broken by Trummer, while Leal – who started from the fourth row – clung onto 3rd place, just shy of Trummer’s rear wing.

While he may have lost the lead to Palmer, Trummer was still happy with the runner-up spot – his first podium in the GP2 Series. “It feels really good. Obviously I knew before the race that we could achieve a good result today. I just had to make the start great. At the end of the race I thought [Palmer] would struggle more but he didn’t. It was really hard to attack him. That was a great race. I had a great pace and I’m happy with P2.”

Two podiums easily marks what is Leal’s best start to a season in GP2. For a driver heavily criticised for apparent disinterest in 2011, the Colombian’s form has enjoyed an upturn as he gains more experience. Speaking post-race, Leal noted: “My start was really normal. I don’t know what happened to the guys in front! When I got to the first corner, I was already in third. After that I was only keeping my position.”
The Carlin racer added: “It’s unbelievable to start the season like this. I’m really happy. The team is really happy as well. This feeling is amazing. We have to keep this momentum and when you do a podium, all the other podiums start coming easier. We have to keep things like this.”

Nasr climbed back to 4th, but it will be another case of what could have been for the Brazilian. If he is to prove his worth, he needs to convert pole positions to victories. Richelmi claimed a solid 5th place for DAMS, heading Quaife-Hobbs who ran in 4th for a time until his tyres fell off, while Evans (7th) rescued two points from what was an abysmal opening weekend with RUSSIAN TIME. Rene Binder collected the final point for Arden, as he finished just 0.2s ahead of Pic.
GP2 now has one month off, before reconvening at the Circuit de Catalunya just outside Barcelona as support for the Spanish Grand Prix.

{note 1}
Technically one could argue that Charles Pic also achieved the feat of winning on his GP2 Series début; however that would overlook his previous experience in GP2, albeit in the Asia Series.

Leave a Reply