GP2 debutant Nico Hulkenberg has stamped his authority on the series after winning its first-ever night race on a weekend where he challenged the leaders from qualifying onwards.
The ART driver took a last-gasp pole and then went on to win the feature race – but was unable to make it a double despite a strong challenge to the two Campos drivers that finished in front of him in the sprint.
Britain’s James Jakes, driving alongside Javier Villa at Super Nova, also had a constructive weekend with two 9th-place finishes, one ahead of his more experienced team-mate.
GP2’s first night event took place at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. In the practice session the drivers faced the twin challenges of mastering night driving and coming to terms with a sandy, windswept track following 24 hours of sandstorms.
Nevertheless, Campos’ Vitaly Petrov set a fastest lap time of 1:38.812. Qi-Meritus’ Marco Bonanomi was second-quickest with Davide Valsecchi third and ready to take the championship fight to the series leader.
The surprise of the session came from DPR’s Michael Herck who topped the timesheet until Petrov saw him off with seven minutes to go.
The Romanian eventually finished fourth ahead of iSport’s Giedo van der Garde. Petrov’s team-mate Sergio Perez was sixth and Hulkenberg a careful ninth
Britain’s James Jakes was 11th for Super Nova, some way ahead of team-mate Javier Villa, who came 16th. Championship leader Kamui Kobayashi and his DAMS team-mate JÃ©rÃ´me d’Ambrosio finished fifteenth and nineteenth, two seconds behind the leader.
Hulkenberg fastest in last-gasp qualifying
On a slippery track Petrov topped the timesheet until a mere four minutes before the chequered flag. Then HÃ¼lkenberg put in a quickest first sector, only to have his campaign interrupted by iSport’s Al Fardan who span at Turn 12 and finished in the gravel, causing the session to be red-flagged.
With only three minutes and 34 seconds left on the clock, the field went back on the track allowing Hulkenberg to snatch pole on his last lap. Petrov crossed the finish line a few seconds later but could not better HÃ¼lkenberg’s time. Perez took P3.
Championship leader Kamui Kobayashi managed to grab fourth place on his last lap, following a difficult session, while Piquet’s Roldan Rodriguez was fifth. Sakon Yamamoto, Villa, Valsecchi, Edoardo Mortara and d’Ambrosio completed the top 10, with Jakes 11th.
Feature race provides a maiden victory
Hulkenberg was able to translate his pole position into a brilliant feature race win – but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
He lost his pole position advantage to Sergio Perez at the start as, down the grid, Yamamoto stalled from sixth and was hit hard by Yelmer Buurman. Rodolfo Gonzalez was also caught in the accident which caused no injuries.
The safety car was out for the next five laps. Vitaly Petrov, then third, was the first of the top drivers to pit on lap 10 and thus got past his teammate when Perez rejoined a few laps later.
HÃ¼lkenberg flouted the early pit strategy favoured by most, took the lead and managed to preserve his tyres while matching the pace of those who had already pitted. He pulled away and extended his lead to more than 40 seconds – enough to beat the leaders with a tyre change in hand.
HÃ¼lkenberg claimed victory 13 seconds ahead of Perez. Petrov finished third, meaning that Campos had closed the championship gap to Dams.
Kobayashi finished fourth although his pace was unusually slow. He regained speed in the later stages but could not get close enough to Petrov to do anything with it.
His teammate d’Ambrosio finished fifth having fought long and hard with Valsecchi. The Italian, second in the drivers’ championship, was followed by Edoardo Mortara and Luiz Razia meaning the sprint’s reversed grid would be an all-Arden front row.
Jakes came home a comfortable ninth, with his team-mate Villa in 13th.
Campos shuts out the sprint
However third was the best that Hulkenberg could do in a sprint race that was dominated by Campos.
Starting from seventh and eighth, Perez and Petrov launched perfectly at the start and led entering the first corner. Then, a couple of laps later, Perez overtook his teammate at the end of the main straight and managed to preserve a two-second gap until the chequered flag.
Behind them HÃ¼lkenberg also made an impressive start, moving up from eighth to fourth, and was soon challenging Arden’s Edoardo Mortara. While the two Campos cars pulled away, extending their lead to almost 10 seconds, the ART ace struggled to pass on a slippery track.
He eventually succeeded at the start of lap 15 and raced off to catch the leaders -who were ultimately too far away for him to reach before the chequered flag.
In fourth place was Mortara and in fifth Valsecchi. The rookie had started from an all-Arden front row on the reversed grid, but neither him, nor his teammate Luiz Razia, managed to keep that advantage. Poleman Razia came out fifth after the start and was then passed by Valsecchi on lap six.
Super Nova’s Jakes and Villa were ninth and tenth respectively in a weekend which must have been a boost for the British driver after his woes in Bahrain.
With Kamui Kobayashi finishing 18th after struggling with his tyres all through the race, Valsecchi is now 10 points behind the championship leader. HÃ¼lkenberg stands in third with Sergio Perez now fourth and just two points behind.
Standings after Qatar (point-scorers only):
- Kamui Kobayashi, Dams: 39
- Davide Valsecchi, Durango: 29
- Nico HÃ¼lkenberg, ART: 27
- Sergio PÃ©rez, Campos: 25
- RoldÃ¡n RodrÃguez, Piquet: 22
- JÃ©rÃ´me d’Ambrosio, Dams: 21
- Vitaly Petrov, Campos: 19
- Javier Villa, Super Nova: 12
- Edoardo Mortara, Arden: 11
- Earl Bamber, Qi-Meritus: 8
- Sakon Yamamoto, ART: 7
- Giedo van der Garde, iSport: 7
- Chris van der Drift, Trident: 5
- Luiz Razia, Arden: 2
The next race is the penultimate of the series, taking place in Sepang, Malaysia, on the weekend of Apil 4-5. The series then returns to Bahrain for its finale on April 25-26.