Two years ago, Romain Grosjean had completed a seven-race stint in Formula One with the Renault team. A few months later and he found himself left without a drive at the sport's top level. Determined to earn a return to F1, the Frenchman entered the GP2 Series with one aim. To win it.
The signs were good for Grosjean prior to the main season starting, having just claimed his second Asia Series title (even though the series only consisted of two rounds, and only one in Asia). To do so he had seen off the challenge of Jules Bianchi, and it was the two Frenchmen who began the main series season as joint title-favourites.
Grosjean claimed first blood at the season opener at Istanbul. After claiming pole position, he maintained his lead throughout the race despite late pressure from Sam Bird. Bianchi completed the podium, more than half a minute further back.
The sprint race saw Stefano Coletti come through to victory from fourth on the reverse grid, leading home Giedo van der Garde and Bird, whose pass on Charles Pic on the final lap put him level on points with Grosjean in the standings lead. Grosjean and Bianchi tangled at the final corner on the opening lap, spinning Bianchi round to the tail of the field and leaving Grosjean in need of a new front wing. They recovered to seventh and tenth respectively, Grosjean clinching the fastest lap in the process.
Bianchi claimed pole position for the second round in Barcelona, only to have it removed for ignoring yellow flags. Van der Garde inherited pole, and led early on ahead of Bird and Pic. Pic managed to jump both of the drivers ahead of him though during the pitstops to win the race. Grosjean finished a quiet fourth behind van der Garde and Bird, but was later disqualified for a technical infringement.
After recovering to seventh from a grid penalty, Bianchi began the sprint race from the front row. He made a poor getaway alongside polesitter Fabio Leimer however, and clashed with van der Garde as he attempted to defend. Leimer took a dominant win ahead of Dani Clos and Marcus Ericsson. Despite being taken out, van der Garde led the standings heading to Monaco, with Bird still (jointly) on top after finishing fifth in the sprint race. A point-less weekend for Grosjean left him fourth, eight points off the lead.
Qualifying in Monaco saw something of a dark moment for the GP2 Series, as the drivers quite literally tripped over each other as they tried to find a clear bit of track. Grosjean was one high-profile casualty after mounting his Dams teammate Pal Varhaug at Rascasse and ending up at the back of the grid. Van der Garde posted the fastest time of the session, but received a five-place penalty after running into Oliver Turvey. This meant that Bird inherited pole, despite being run into by his teammate Ericsson during the session.
The iSport man would fail to capitalise in the feature race however, as he stalled at the start. Davide Valsecchi inherited the lead – and the Italian held on under pressure from Racing Engineering stand-in Alvaro Parente to score the new Team AirAsia its first race win. Luca Filippi took advantage of clean air by coming in later to jump up to third after running tenth early on. Grosjean used a similar strategy to recover to fourth after starting from the back.
Pic took a lights-to-flag win from pole position in the sprint race. Arden's Josef Kral finished second, holding off Grosjean. Grosjean and Bird left the Principality as joint points leaders once again, even though the only points Bird scored all weekend were two bonus points for pole position. Pic was one point behind the duo, with van der Garde and Valsecchi tied for fourth just one point further behind. Everything seemed wide open.
The Addax team secured a front-row lockout in qualifying in their own back yard in Valencia, with Pic grabbing pole ahead of van der Garde. The race would be a bit of a disaster for the outfit however. First, Pic's car stopped on its way to the grid, preventing him from starting from pole position. Van der Garde looked set to win in his absence, but was handed a drive-through for ignoring yellow flags. This dropped him to fourth on the road, and although he managed to recover to finish second by the flag, Grosjean was some 15 seconds further up the road. Valsecchi continued his good form to complete the podium. Meanwhile Bianchi's torrid season continued as he got together with Ericsson at Turn 1 at the start, leaving both in the tyre wall.
The sprint race saw Esteban Gutierrez score his first GP2 win after his graduation from GP3 as champion. He took a comfortable win ahead of Luiz Razia and van der Garde. Grosjean meanwhile spun out of the race on the opening lap, but he maintained his points lead, one point ahead of van der Garde.
Bianchi had scored just eight points from the opening eight races after a mixture of some bad luck and bad judgement, but things finally came together for the Ferrari reserve driver at Silverstone. He claimed pole position in a rain-hit qualifying session on the Friday, and then came out on top of an epic mid-race battle with Christian Vietoris to finally secure his first GP2 main series victory at the 28th time of trying. Ericsson completed the podium behind Vietoris. Grosjean finished fourth, having started 13th due to a grid penalty received as part of his dreadful first lap in the Valencia sprint race.
Grosjean displayed his class again in the Sunday sprint race by working his way from fifth on the grid to win, getting past van der Garde and later Clos before stretching his lead to seven seconds. The win extended his points advantage to nine points.
At the sixth race weekend of the season at the Nurburgring it was Pic who took pole position, but the story of the weekend would be all about Filippi. After being replaced at Super Nova by the returning Adam Carroll, the Italian was handed a lifeline at Coloni just prior to the Nurburgring weekend. In qualifying he stuck it on the front row alongside Pic, but in the race he got the better of the young Frenchman during the pitstop phase to record his first GP2 win since the end of 2009. Pic and Grosjean joined him on the podium.
Damp conditions at the Eifel circuit brought an exciting sprint race on the Sunday morning. Bird led in the early stages after starting from pole, but spun out on the second lap. With van der Garde and Clos having made contact fighting over second place on the opening lap it was Bianchi who was there to benefit when Bird went off, ahead of Grosjean. Gutierrez would get ahead of Grosjean at the pitstops to momentarily make it an ART 1-2, but would be forced to retire when a wheel came lose.
Grosjean put Bianchi under pressure and eventually made his compatriot crack, making a mistake under breaking for the chicane on the penultimate lap to let Grosjean through to win. Filippi tried to take second from Bianchi at Turn 1 on the final lap, but made contact and spun – though he held onto third at the flag. Another strong weekend for Grosjean saw his lead over van der Garde in the points grow to 18.
It was Razia who took a rather surprise pole position one week later at the Hungaroring, but Ericsson jumped into the lead of the race at the start from third on the grid. The Swede built up a good lead over Razia until the pitstops, but everything unravelled for him there as he was released from his box into the path of the incoming Razia. This resulted in a drive-through penalty, with who else but Grosjean in the right place in the right time to benefit. Razia finished second with Pic in third.
Coletti picked up his third sprint race win of the year on Sunday, after storming through from 21st on the grid in changeable conditions. One of only a few to start the race on slick tyres, the Monegasque driver rose to 12th early on when those on wets used a safety car period to change to slicks. He then picked off driver after driver to quickly get up to third place before the rain began to fall again. Ahead of him Grosjean was pushing race leader Vietoris, forcing the German into a mistake. Grosjean got held up trying to avoid the spinning Vietoris, allowing Coletti to skip through into the lead. He held on to win after stopping again to fit wets, while Grosjean fell into the clutches of Gutierrez and slipped to third. Nonetheless, his lead over van der Garde had grown further to 25 points with just two weekends remaining – leaving him on the cusp of the title.
Rain always plays a part in any GP2 round at Spa-Francorchamps, and this year was no different. Vietoris claimed pole position by a huge margin of nearly 1.5 seconds, though he was lucky to keep hold of it after setting the time during yellow flags at the end of the session. He would go on to convert pole into victory in the feature race, which was also hit by rain. Grosjean had started down in seventh, but made his way up to third on the opening lap. He held onto the podium position behind Vietoris and Bianchi for the remainder of the race – enough for him to seal the title. His nearest rival van der Garde found the barriers on the exit of La Source on the opening lap, before later retiring.
Soon after the rain came down the safety car was out on track, with the mix of slower speeds and rain water somehow causing several of the cars to go into safe mode and slow to a crawl. One such crawler was Mikhail Aleshin, who was collected by Coletti – whose car was sent flying into the air. In the landing Coletti suffered compressed vertebrae, bringing an early end to his season.
Filippi won an exciting sprint race on the Sunday morning, overhauling polesitter Kral for the lead at a safety car restart after starting from fifth on the grid. Bianchi was on the podium again in second place with Kral rounding out the podium.
With the title won, the focus at the season finale at Monza was on the battle for the runner-up spot. Van der Garde had held the position since Valencia, but his non-scoring weekend at Spa left him just one point ahead of Bianchi, who had recovered superbly from his dreadful start to the season. Pic and Filippi were also well in contention, just seven and nine points away from van der Garde respectively.
Pic boosted his hopes with a third pole position of the season in qualifying, but lost out to front row starter Filippi at the beginning of the race. The Italian ran away to victory, scooping an important bonus point for pole in the process. Pic successfully kept Grosjean at bay to finish second – also moving him into second place overall. Bianchi and van der Garde meanwhile had both suffered disastrous qualifying sessions and started from the tenth row of the grid. Bianchi successfully recovered to eighth, not only scoring one point but also securing pole for the sprint race. Van der Garde's hopes though were dashed when he got tangled up in an incident at the start and finished a lap down. Pic had one point over Filippi going into the very last race, with Bianchi and van der Garde tied and two further points behind.
Bianchi's start from pole wasn't the best, and he was swamped by second row starter Vietoris. The German went on to win after keeping Leimer at bay – repeating his victory from last year's Monza sprint race in the process. Bianchi finished third, two places ahead of Filippi. Pic meanwhile was forced into retirement after making contact with Grosjean at the first chicane. The race results left Filippi and Bianchi tied on points for second – but the Italian took the fastest lap bonus point just to make sure.
Here are TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk's top five drivers of the 2011 GP2 Series season:
5. Stefano Coletti – Monegasque driver was unfancied pre-season with the Trident team, but he went on to record sprint race wins in Turkey and Hungary to add to the one he scored in Abu Dhabi in February. Season cruelly cut short by injury at Spa, just as in 2009. Looks set for Coloni switch for a second full GP2 campaign in 2012.
4. Jules Bianchi – It would have been inconceivable for Bianchi to be in this top five after the start to the season he had. Recovered well to third in the points by scoring in every one of the last ten races, but even then he wasn't as quick as would have been expected pre-season. More than ready for F1, despite a disappointing couple of years in GP2.
3. Charles Pic – Pic's fine wins in Barcelona and Monaco left him well in the title fight early on, but things fell apart after pole in Valencia. Still demonstrated pace with poles in Hungary and Italy, though failed to convert into wins on both occasions. Has earned his place in F1 with Marussia, even if it was money that sealed him the deal.
2. Luca Filippi – The Italian GP2 veteran showed flashes of speed during the first half of the year with Super Nova, but found another level upon his return to the Coloni team on the eve of the Nurburgring races. It's all too late for him to get an F1 seat, but he has at least reminded us that he's actually a very good driver.
1. Romain Grosjean – In winning the title, Grosjean did little more than was expected of him, but he has successfully proved the doubters wrong – and secured himself a well-deserved return to Formula 1. He could have won the title easier without the technical infringement in Barcelona that caused a point-less weekend, too.
Final 2011 GP3 Series drivers' standings:
|2||Luca Filippi||Super Nova Racing/Scuderia Coloni||54|
|3||Jules Bianchi||Lotus ART||53|
|4||Charles Pic||Barwa Addax Team||52|
|5||Giedo van der Garde||Barwa Addax Team||49|
|6||Sam Bird||iSport International||45|
|7||Christian Vietoris||Racing Engineering||35|
|8||Davide Valsecchi||Caterham Team AirAsia||30|
|9||Dani Clos||Racing Engineering||30|
|10||Marcus Ericsson||iSport International||25|
|11||Stefano Coletti||Trident Racing||22|
|12||Luiz Razia||Caterham Team AirAsia||19|
|13||Esteban Gutierrez||Lotus ART||15|
|15||Josef KrÃ¡l||Arden International||15|
|16||Ãlvaro Parente||Racing Engineering/Carlin||8|
|17||Adam Carroll||Super Nova Racing||6|
|18||Fairuz Fauzy||Super Nova Racing||5|
|19||Brendon Hartley||Ocean Racing Technology||4|
|21||Michael Herck||Scuderia Coloni||1|
|22||Kevin Mirocha||Ocean Racing Technology||0|
|24||Johnny Cecotto, Jr.||Ocean Racing Technology||0|
|26||Rodolfo Gonzalez||Trident Racing||0|
|28||Jolyon Palmer||Arden International||0|
|29||Davide Rigon||Scuderia Coloni||0|
|30||Kevin Ceccon||Scuderia Coloni||0|
|31||Stephane Richelmi||Trident Racing||0|