A point-less weekend for one and a double podium finish for the other around Valencia has led to just a single point separating Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia at the head of the GP2 Series standings, as the season reaches the halfway point.
Although fourth-year driver Razia claimed first blood with victory in the season-opener in Malaysia back in March, fifth-year racer Valsecchi moved ahead in convincing fashion with his three race wins from the Bahrain double-header.
At that stage the Italian looked like he might be tough to beat, but he's failed to replicate such dominating pace since.
In Barcelona the DAMS driver only qualified in seventh place, improving to fourth in the first race and then making the podium in third in the sprint race. Monaco's feature race saw a repeat of Barcelona, with a fourth place finish from a seventh-place start. However, a poor getaway to the sprint race led to him getting caught up in the pileup on the hill up towards Massenet and retirement.
Valsecchi was fourth fastest in qualifying in Valencia last weekend, but was rightly punished for running slowly through the final sector, blocking a rival and then racing him to the final corner to keep track position. That dropped him to sixth on the grid, but there was worst to come when he fell to 15th on the opening lap of the feature race.
He fought his way back through to eighth place in a scrappy race, but was handed another penalty for overtaking under the safety car, dropping him to 18th in the final classification. Any hopes of a fightback in the sprint race were ended when he ran into the turn two collision at the start, though he did recover to tenth.
While Valsecchi wreaked havoc in Bahrain, Razia ensured that he stayed in touch with four top-four finishes including two second places – although the final race should probably have delivered victory number two of the season had he been able to get by a struggling Tom Dillmann in the final laps.
A poor qualifying in Barcleona left the Arden International man languishing down in 13th on the grid for the feature race, but he pushed to a potentially vital eighth place finish and pole position for the sprint race – which he duly converted into victory.
Monaco qualifying gave Razia a solid fifth place, but he lost out considerably during the pitstop phase and dropped to ninth. When Esteban Gutierrez ahead of him tripped over a backmarker, Razia ran over debris and picked up a puncture. That left him 15th by the finish, and although he recovered to sixth the next day he was unable to fully capitalise on Valsecchi's issues.
There was another disappointing qualifying performance in Valencia for Razia as he could only manage 11th on the grid. That wouldn't be a sign of things to come however, as he got himself up into the battle for second, which would become the lead when James Calado pitted. Razia briefly took second place when Gutierrez assaulted Fabio Leimer at a restart, but the Mexican was soon back ahead and Razia would have to settle for third behind Marcus Ericsson.
Razia ran sixth for much of the sprint race, a distance off the five-way battle for victory. But as those ahead struggled with tyre wear in the closing stages, Razia came into his own and managed to snatch victory on the very last lap with a move around the outside of leaders Calado and Leimer.
Valsecchi and Razia have by no means always been the fastest this season, yet in a wide-open season they've been the only drivers to score multiple race victories. They've both displayed their ability to manage the Pirelli tyres well over a weekend, while other drivers have struggled to make the end of races before they start sliding around.
They've also largely managed to stay out of trouble out on track, and all this put together this has allowed them to lie 45 points clear of the opposition.
While Valsecchi and Razia have looked strong, they haven't looked imperious, and as Valsecchi showed in Valencia it doesn't take much to have a low-scoring (or not at all) weekend.
In the chasing pack, Calado and Gutierrez both have the raw pace and talent to beat anyone, Giedo van der Garde has the maturity to regularly pick up points while Max Chilton has displayed great consistency.
In their inexperience, Calado and Gutierrez have too often been unable to stay out of trouble – while Calado in particular seems to have been walking under too many ladders judging by his dreadful luck. While they've got the pace to catch the two out front, the Lotus GP pairing are going to need luck on their side and to make some better judgements in the heat of battle if they are going to score the results needed.
While van der Garde was the form man in Barcelona and Monaco, doubts remain over the competitiveness of his Caterham squad, whose total lack of form from this point onwards last season saw Valsecchi fail to score any points beyond Valencia. If he can't consistently be on the pace every weekend, there's no way he'll catch the two guys out front.
Chilton has looked quick in qualifying trim, and could have been on pole in Monaco, but his performances suggest he lacks a racing edge. This was most notably evident in Bahrain when he was the first in a long queue behind the out-of-sequence Nathanael Berthon, and looked close enough to pass into the final corner only to hold back on the move. An opportunistic Calado then dived down the inside of both Chilton and Berthon to gain a couple of places. While a repeat of his Monaco qualifying pace could finally give Chilton that race win before the end of the year, he won't be quick enough to close the deficit to Valsecchi and Razia.
Up next are the rounds at Silverstone, Hockenheim and the Hungaroring before Formula 1's summer break forces GP2 out of action for the month of August. Silverstone and Hockenheim in particular are circuits that Valsecchi and Razia have not performed particularly favourable at before, and which could benefit the likes of Calado and Gutierrez who know the circuit from lower formulae.
If there's a time for them to pounce, it's now.
GP2 Series Drivers' Championship standings after six of 12 rounds:
|2||Luiz Razia||Arden International||3||140|
|3||James Calado||Lotus GP||1||95|
|5||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham Racing||1||89|
|6||Esteban GutiÃ©rrez||Lotus GP||1||87|
|7||Fabio Leimer||Racing Engineering||65|
|8||Marcus Ericsson||iSport International||52|
|9||Nathanael Berthon||Racing Engineering||41|
|10||Johnny Cecotto Jr.||Barwa Addax Team||1||31|
|11||Stefano Coletti||Scuderia Coloni||31|
|13||Jolyon Palmer||iSport International||1||27|
|16||Fabio Onidi||Scuderia Coloni||12|
|17||Rodolfo Gonzalez||Caterham Racing||6|
|18||Stephane Richelmi||Trident Racing||4|
|19||Simon Trummer||Arden International||4|
|20||JuliÃ¡n Leal||Trident Racing||1|
|21||Fabrizio Crestani||Venezuela GP Lazarus||1|
|22||Brendon Hartley||Ocean Racing Technology||1|
|23||Josef Kral||Barwa Addax Team||0|
|24||Daniel de Jong||Rapax||0|
|25||Nigel Melker||Ocean Racing Technology||0|
|26||Dani Clos||Barwa Addax Team||0|
|28||Victor Guerin||Ocean Racing Technology||0|
|29||Giancarlo Serenelli||Venezuela GP Lazarus||0|
|30||Jon Lancaster||Ocean Racing Technology||0|