Pre-season title favourite Romain Grosjean came away from Turkey as the GP2 championship leader – but only by the narrowest of margins as Sam Bird fought him all the way.
The Englishman earned podiums in both the weekend’s races and is now tied with the Frenchman on points at the top of the standings, trailing him only on a tie-break.
The pair were almost inseparable in qualifying and in the opening feature race, with Grosjean always fractionally better placed, but Bird capitalised on contact between his rival and Jules Bianchi to turn the sprint race to his advantage.
He said: “The aim this weekend was to come away with a bunch of points and get the ball rolling in the championship, and I think it’s started really well for myself and for the team.”
Grosjean, whose short spell in F1 was followed by a championship victory in Auto GP, out-qualified Bird by 0.085sec and the pair ran away with the weekend’s opening race, leaving Bianchi trailing almost 36 seconds behind them as best of the rest.
iSport’s Bird lost second place at the start to Dani Clos but an accident further back in the field brought out an safety car and he was able to regain the place soon after the restart. He spent the rest of the opening stint closing in on Grosjean but dropped back again thanks to a poor pitstop.
The remainder of the race saw him eating into Grosjean’s advantage and he was soon within a second of the leader, forcing him into an error on the final lap. Solid defensive driving in the final two corners preserved Grosjean’s victory, and he crossed the line 0.3sec ahead of Bird.
“Trying to be careful”
Grosjean said: “I was trying to be careful, and then I saw he was closing a lot more than I was expecting. I had to push a bit, and basically my front right tyre was completely destroyed – we saw some drivers who had to pit twice because they destroyed the front tyres, and basically we were not expecting this so we have to learn from our mistake.
“We could keep the lead to the end, and it was quite interesting for me because I had to think about my driving style to find the best way to keep ahead of Sam. We had a nice fight for the last few laps so it was interesting, quite difficult to manage, but it’s these type of races where you learn the most and you improve yourself.”
Bird said: “I think it’s been a good way to open 2011 for GP2. Me and Romain were pushing like mad, and his car was moving about in the last six laps, and he obviously thought ‘oh crap, he’s quite quick, let’s get a move on!’
“It was a lot of fun, and he made a little mistake on the last lap and I kind of thought I’d have a go, and there was some traffic as well.
“I just really enjoyed today. It was a good, fun race, and credit to Pirelli for making a tyre that produced, in my opinion, one of the best races that I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in GP2.”
Opening lap contact
In Sunday’s sprint race the semi-reverse grid saw Bird and Grosjean start seventh and eighth, with Bianchi just ahead of them, and the two Frenchmen made contact at turn 14 on the opening lap. Grosjean was forced to pit, Bianchi dropped to the back, and Bird charged through the field after the leaders.
At the front Stefano Coletti had taken the lead off Clos and looked good for the win, but he had to survive a one-lap sprint for the line after a late safety car intervention. By then, Bird was up to fourth but was hit on the restart by team-mate Marcus Ericsson. The Swede dropped back, but Bird survived to snatch third off Charles Pic.
“These things happen in racing,” he said. “We’re all trying to get to the grid next door [F1], and everybody’s committing themselves 100 per cent. Sometimes people cross those lines from ‘being on the edge’ to ‘going over the edge’ and these things happen. It’s racing, Marcus and I will have a hug, and we’ll get on just fine for the rest of the year.”
Despite his strong start to the season, he is not thinking about the championship battle just yet: “There’s eight rounds to go – it doesn’t matter right now. What I’m focussed on is that we’ve got a good basis on which to carry on.
“It doesn’t matter who’s leading after round one, it matters who’s leading after round nine. It’s a very encouraging start for myself and for the team, we know we’ve got the package in order to win races and get podiums, and to hopefully fight for the title – it’s going to be very difficult, I hope I’ll be up there at the end, but it’s too early to even start looking at those sheets yet.”
For the other British drivers in the race, Jolyon Palmer of Arden and Carlin’s Max Chilton, there was less to celebrate – although both could consider themselves lucky not to have been worse affected by the spectacular first-lap accident that triggered an early safety car period in the feature race.
A general melee of cars saw Fabio Leimer forced over his former team-mate Chilton’s rear wheel, sending the Swiss driver’s car rolling over and across the racing line. Fortunately he avoided being hit by any other car, with Palmer running well off the track to avoid him.
Chilton was an immediate retirement, while Palmer fought to regain his lost places until making an error while duelling Davide Valsecchi. He said: “I made a mistake and damaged the front of the car, so had to pit to change the nose and tyres. When I rejoined it felt like the loneliest race of my life, but I put my head down and tried to focus on setting good lap times.”
Chilton said: “I had the inside line, and thought I was in a good position when I was suddenly aware of two white cars heading towards me. I thought someone was going to hit me and then I felt a big impact to my rear left which must have been Fabio. Then I spun round and could see Fabio rolling, before my car came to a rest on the side of the track.”
In the sprint race Palmer had a more successful outing, finishing ninth, while Chilton finished 17th.
Palmer said: “As the race wore on I started moving through the field. The safety car period didn’t help because my car was feeling good but on the final lap I managed to gain two places and finish ninth to end a solid weekend where I feel as a team we learnt a huge amount. Hopefully in Spain I can get some solid points on a track I know.”
That race was also disrupted by a dangerous crash but this time the driver involved was not as lucky as the uninjured Leimer.
Julian Leal of Rapax hit Davide Rigon, sending the Coloni driver hard into the barriers. Rigon, who was signed as a tester by Ferrari following his second Superleague championship victory, will need surgery for multiple fractures to his tibia and fibula.
Team owner Paolo Coloni said: “We are quite shocked because Davide is very popular with everyone in the team, and he is a very experienced driver. He had the Ferrari doctor with him immediately, and the damage is quite serious.”