Romain Grosjean secured his second GP2 Asia Series title after ART rival Jules Bianchi’s race ended on the opening lap of the sprint race at Imola.
Dubbed “battle of the French” by Addax’s Giedo van der Garde, who finished second in Saturday’s feature race behind Grosjean, fans were denied the opportunity to see two of GP2’s best drivers compete for the title.
The race was won by Racing Engineering’s Daniel Clos, who started on the front row with pole-sitter Fairuz Fauzy, but the Spaniard got off the line well to take the lead as Fauzy lost several places. As Clos powered on, Fauzy locked up into the first corner, collecting Bianchi and Stefano Coletti in the same incident.
Aided by the first-lap retirements, Grosjean rose from eighth to fourth in the DAMS, behind van der Garde, but despite pressuring the Dutchman for much of the race, Grosjean had to contend with a lively challenge from reigning GP3 Series champion Esteban Gutiérrez in the second ART, and opted to defend fourth place rather than try to keep up with van der Garde, with the Mexican challenging into the Variante Alta chicane, and again at Tamburello, but the Frenchman left the track, with the Stewards deciding after the race that he gained an advantage and handed out a drive-through penalty, adding 20 seconds to his time, meaning the new champion finished seventh and without a point.
Super Nova’s Johnny Cecotto was also penalized by the Stewards after they found that the Venezuelan caused a collision with iSport’s Sam Bird which resulted in the Brit’s early retirement.
Cecotto was also handed a drive through penalty and twenty-seconds were added to his final result, but remained 19th.
As a result of Grosjean’s penalty, Gutiérrez finished fourth, ahead of Coloni's Michael Herck, who benefitted from Trident’s Rodolfo Gonzalez retirement after 14 laps to secure his third consecutive points finish, with Grosjean’s DAMS team-mate Pal Varhaug taking the final points-paying position.
Despite leading from the first corner, Clos was unable to race clear in the same way Grosjean had in the feature race, with Rapax’s Fabio Leimer close behind, but despite several efforts to get through Clos had enough in reserve to pull away, eventually finishing a second ahead of the Swiss driver.
Van der Garde’s third place in the sprint race confirmed he finished third in the drivers’ standing following Coletti’s retirement, behind Grosjean and Bianchi.
As well as being Grosjean’s second GP2 Asia title, it is also DAMS’ second Asian title win after current F1 drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Jérôme d’Ambrosio guided the French team to glory in the 2008-09 Series.
“We made a great job and I think we kept improving through all the Series,” said Grosjean. “Today again was a good experience because it is my first sprint race of the season after someone crashed into me in Abu Dhabi’s sprint race on the first lap.
“I think we can still improve some more and now I know it is up to us to analyze the data and what we want to do during the four days of testing next month and how we can improve the team.
“I am very proud to be part of DAMS and help to bring them back to the top. The Asia Series’ level this year was really high because only Christian Vietoris was missing for now. It was a good benchmark for everyone.”
Grosjean, who drove seven races for the Renault F1 team in 2009 alongside Fernando Alonso after Nelson Piquet Jr was sacked, is considered one of the favorites for the GP2 Main Series Championship which begins in May as a support race for Formula One’s Turkish Grand Prix, and then follows the series around Europe, culminating with the Italian Grand Prix on September 11.
ART’s Bianchi is likely to be his main rival, along with van der Garde, iSport’s Sam Bird, and Racing Engineering’s Clos, with all four drivers pushing for an F1 drive for 2012.
Grosjean added: “There will be many. At the moment, I see Lotus ART as one of the strongest teams. I am sure that Barwa [Addax] will be there along with iSport. There will also definitely be Racing Engineering because Dani [Clos] now has quite a lot of experience. But there could be others as well because in GP2, pretty much, anything can happen.”
The GP2 teams will be back in testing at Silverstone from April 5-6 and then Barcelona from April 19-20 as preparation for the start of the main series.