David Schilke, GP2 correspondent
Catheram’s Dutch driver combined a strong race start and brilliant pit strategy to claim this weekend’s first GP2 Series race at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. The five year series veteran claimed victory less than a second ahead of today’s polesitter, James Calado and Scuderia Coloni’s Stefano Coletti.
"I had a very good start, and after that I could do the pace from the front: I didn't expect them to pit so early, and I still had good tyres when I decided to pit one lap later, so I pushed like hell. The pit entry was quite tricky - I nearly missed the white line! [laughs] But in the end it was all perfect: we changed the two tyres, and I came out in front. After that it was just maintain the pace, and control the tyres," smiled Van der Garde.
The European tour for the 2012 GP2 season started off with Calado on pole with Fabio Leimer alongside. The front pair were slow off the start line while behind them Stéphane Richelmi and Max Chilton fared even worse. That allowed van der Garde and Stefano Coletti to jump up behind the leading pair as the field settled down before the mandatory pitstops.
Calado and Leimer came in on the same lap for their stops and were released from their boxes at the same time, leading to a drag race to pit exit. Calado came out in front with his Racing Engineering rival all over his gearbox. Van der Garde stopped the following lap and only replaced his rear wheels, a move which saved enough time for him to leap ahead of Calado.
"Before the race we decided to do only two," explained Van der Garde, "after last year I learnt from my mistake, where I was leading quite comfortably, we changed 4 tyres and Charles [Pic] changed 2, and he passed me after the pits. So I said let's go for 2 and see if it goes to the end of the race, and it did."
As a four way battle waged on Leimer was found to have been released into the pit lane unsafely by his team and was forced to take a drive through penalty. That left Calado and Coletti to fight over the podium order with Van der Garde. Despite the pressure the Dutch racer held on to take his first win of the 2012 season. Calado was second with Coletti third.
"It was nice to get the experience," said Calado, "and it's my first time on the podium in a feature race so I'm reasonably happy: it's some good points for myself and the team, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
Coletti talked about a scary moment in today's race, "I made a huge mistake coming into the pits: I almost hit the wall because I braked too late! [laughs] I went sideways and the anti-stall kicked in, and I lost 2 or 3 seconds in the pit entry, and when I came out I was maybe 5 or 6 seconds behind them, so I had to push to catch up to them, so when I got there my tyres were almost gone! I tried to pass them immediately, but I started to have understeer and oversteer behind James [Calado], so I decided to stay behind."
Points leader Davide Valsecchi was fourth with Nathanaël Berthon rounding out the top five. Esteban Gutierrez earned the fastest lap but could only manage to finish tenth, while Leimer crossed the line in a disappointing 12th after his penalty. With the top eight finishers reversed for tomorrow’s Sprint race Luiz Razia will start on pole with Chilton alongside. With luck the pair will have a much better start off the line than observed today. Expect Valsecchi to be strong tomorrow as he seeks to extend his title lead along with Fabio Onidi, who will start the race in third.