It has been a dominant Formula Two season for Andy Soucek, with the Spaniard clinching the revived series' inaugural championship with three races to run, and he continued his form with a convincing victory in the first race of the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
"It feels very, very special," Soucek smiled after the race. "I've never had that feeling. Obviously when you win a race you are always happy and I am happier today than I was at Imola when I clinched the championship. I'm negotiating for a seat next year in Formula One and I think everybody is looking carefully at what I'm doing, so I really had to perform well."
The victory was Soucek's sixth in fifteen races. Add to that his three second places, and it's clear how the Spaniard has managed to outdistance his championship challengers: no one else has more than two victories, and his nearest rival, Robert Wickens, has five retirements to Soucek's one. With his speed and consistency, it's no wonder Soucek is 47 points clear of Wickens and the rest of the field.
It had been Wickens on the pole position for the start, but the Canadian stumbled as the lights went green, and as Soucek saw a familiar P1 waiting for him, he wasted no time in claiming the lead into the first corner for himself.
Mikhail Aleshin and Tristan Vautier, who was taking his first F2 start, also made their way around the sluggish Wickens. Vautier, who moved up from Formula Palmer Audi for the final race weekend, pressed Aleshin but could not make his way past. Wickens, determined to make up for the poor start, in turn applied pressure on Vautier, but it did not last long, as he had to pull off with mechanical problems on lap five.
Aleshin kept Soucek in sight, but was not able to make in impression on the champion. At the finish, the gap was 4.389 seconds in the Spaniard's favour.
Vautier couldn't quite stay on Aleshin's tail, either, and the gap stretched out to 3.256 seconds by the end of the race. Still, a podium in his first race was more than a creditable result for the 20-year-old F2 debutant.
It was no cakewalk for Vautier, though, as his fellow Frenchman Julien Jousse, already a race winner in F2, was determined to score a fifth podium of the season. His full-season experience was certainly an advantage, but Vautier was not going to give in easily.
By the halftime mark, Jousse was close on Vautier's tail, after the latter made a mistake, losing most of a second in one lap, and the battle between the two would be the most spectacular of the race. Jousse was driving at ten-tenths, his car skittering on the edge of grip. He tried passes on the inside and on the outside, but Vautier held on firm, scoring a third place on his debut, 0.335 seconds ahead of Jousse.
Philipp Eng took fifth place, over five seconds adrift of Jousse, and with Mirko Bortolotti on his tail.
Tomorrow's season-ending race is not just for bragging rights, though, as second place in the championship is still up for grabs. Wickens holds a slim one-point lead over Aleshin -- with Bortolotti a further seven points back -- after his DNF today.
However, he will be starting that race, too, from pole position, as he claimed his fifth pole position in this morning's second qualifying session, 0.067 seconds faster than Soucek, with a blinding lap as the chequered flag came out to end the session.
While Wickens is well adrift of Soucek in the points, his qualifying has been as impressive as Soucek's race form: five pole positions in sixteen races, to three for Tobias Hegewald and two for Soucek. No other driver has more than one pole to his name.
Eng was a close third in the session, just 38 thousandths of a second behind Soucek, and will start behind Wickens for the finale, with Nicola de Marco next to him.
With Hegewald and Kazim Vasiliauskas occupying the third row, Wickens' main challenger for the championship runner-up position, Aleshin, has his work cut out for him.
The young Russian starts seventh, next to his first-race rival, Vautier, after his hot lap turned out to be cooler than it looked. Aleshin came out early for his final run, and was able to set a time of 1:38.470 with no traffic to interfere with his run, but it turned out not to be enough for even the third row.
Bortolotti, who has an eight-point deficit to Wickens, needs a victory with Wickens finishing no better than eighth. With Wickens on pole, and Bortolotti mired in 13th grid position, that now looks like a highly unlikely outcome for the Italian.
In the meantime, with both Wickens and Soucek focused on showing good form to in order to secure top-level racing seats for 2010, another hard-fought race can be expected as the "new" Formula Two series wraps up its first season.