Jules Bianchi took the occasion of the first round of the GP2 Asia Series – and the first race with new GP2 car – to announce his intentions on the category by taking his maiden win.
The Frenchman had been fast in the European based series last year, but only collected a trio of second places on his way to third in the points standings. However, starting his second season with the ART squad Bianchi took the lead on the first lap and – shuffling during the compulsory pitstops aside – never lost it.
Bianchi car's – the green and yellow of Lotus Cars replacing ART's familiar red and white – started from second on the grid after losing out to Romain Grosjean in qualifying by four tenths of a second. But even before the swing into the first left hander it was Bianchi who was ahead. However, as GP2 races so often seem to the first lap brought a healthy slice of chaos and damage.
While Bianchi and Grosjean were duelling towards turn one Dani Clos had stalled his Racing Engineering charge on the second row of the grid. Nearly everyone seemed to have made it safely past the vulnerable Clos until Luis Razia – already engrossed in his own battle off the line – jinked out and was faced with the rear of Clos' car.
The impact flicked Razia onto two wheels – the car teetering on the point of a roll – and into the barriers on the left of the track (thankfully the floor of the new car taking the hit, rather than the roll hoop). The crash also collected DAMS driver Pal Varhaug, who having gone between Clos and the barriers in his own act of avoidance had Razia land all but on top of him.
Yellow flags flew – though even that caused an accident when Rodolfo Gonzalez hit Charles Pic as the latter slowed down – then red flags while the three cars (and the associated wreckage) were cleared from the grid.
Once underway again it was Grosjean and Bianchi who dominated the race – leaving Team AirAsia driver Davide Valsecchi in third place. DAMS man Grosjean – running in the yellow and black colours of last season's Renault F1 racer – looked comfortable faster than Bianchi, able to stay with his countryman and when Grosjean ran wide at turn 15 and lost a second it took him only two laps to latch back onto Bianchi's rear wing.
The performance advantage from qualifying was still there but on the Yas Marina circuit well known for its limited passing opportunities Bianchi was able to hold the lead.
The two were inseparable. Even when they made their pitstops – one lap apart, Grosjean on lap 13, Bianchi lap 14 – they quickly joined up on track. Both had changed both the rear tyres, the race also the first competitive outing with Pirelli rubber and both made slow getaways, the pit crew pushing Bianchi away.
While Bianchi emerged from Yas Marina's convoluted pit exit with what appeared to be large gap, Grosjean – tyres already up to temperature – was soon back in his normal place – half a second behind Bianchi. The ex-F1 driver (Grosjean was racing in F1 as Bianchi was winning the 2009 F3 Euroseries) was trying everything. The series was using a shorter version of the track – using a cut-through to miss off the hairpin at the beginning of the back straight and Grosjean was eager to make as much of the remaining straight to gain on Bianchi.
Time after time he opted for a wide arcing line trying to take extra speed down the straight and into the heaving braking zone at its end, but Grosjean was never able to make a serious challenge for the lead.
Meanwhile Fabio Leimer, Jolyon Palmer and Pic had assumed the top three place by virtue of pitting late.
Palmer was the first to blink – pitting and tumbling down the order to 18th. The F2 runner-up's GP2 debut was completed in 14th, with a broken front wing and after he had been tipped into a spin by Michael Herck at the turn 11 chicane.
Pic and Leimer stayed out longer, both only pitting when the 'real' leader (Bianchi) caught them as the Pirellis began to show their age in the final third of the race.
Once released from behind Leimer Bianchi changed. If you could accuse the track layout of preserving Bianchi's lead for much of the race for the final few, clear, laps it was pace that took him to the checkered flag.
A lap of 1:38.799 compared to Grosjean's 39.623 gave Bianchi a buffer – only increased when he threw in a 1:83.1 as the race drew to a close – the final 6.8 second advantage the complete antithsis of much of the event.
Valsecchi held onto third – putting Tony Fernades's team on the podium with Renault and Lotus Cars backed rivals. He held off Marcus Ericcson and Giedo van der Garde for the spot, Ericcson taking fourth on the final lap.
Josef Kral, Sam Bird and Max Chilton completed the points postions, Chilton taking eighth to put his Carlin run car on pole position for tomorrow's race. However, the Briton only took the position from Stefano Coletti at turn eight by cutting across the chicane, thus gaining an advantage that stewards may frown upon.