Back-to-back in Baku: Giovinazzi wins GP2 Sprint Race

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Antonio Giovinazzi was on the top step of the podium again at Baku, finishing the Sprint Race ahead of Prema teammate Pierre Gasly and ART’s Sergey Sirotkin. Photo credit: GP2 Series Official Website

Prema Racing’s Antonio Giovinazzi joins an exclusive club of GP2 drivers who have won both the Feature and Sprint Races of a single round—a list that includes current F1 drivers Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, and Nico Hulkenberg.  Giovinazzi is the first GP2 driver to achieve such feat since Davide Valsecchi winning twice in Bahrain in 2012. Not to leading attention away from the young Italian, but this race was also notable for some dangerous driving during safety car restarts.

Following the chaos of the previous day’s Feature Race, drivers were a lot more careful during the start and it even took six laps until the first safety car period was deployed. ART Grand Prix’s Nobuharu Matsushita started from third but took the lead from the start and built up a good pace up front—that is, until the safety car came out and the madness started. This race may have outdone the previous one in terms of craziness.

With the safety car period ending, Matsushita restarted the race by accelerating as early as the exit of Turn 16. However, the field caught the safety car still making its way into the pit and Matsushita had to back off slightly, catching the drivers behind him off guard. The ART driver somehow managed to maintain the lead even after some drivers were caught out at Turn One with cold tires and brakes.

Shortly after, Trident’s Philo Paz Armand went to the wall, prompting the safety car to come back out. On the second restart, Matsushita bunched the field behind him, continuing to weave around the long main straight to keep his tires warm. Matsushita seemed to have accelerated after passing the DRS detection line but surprisingly slowed down again as he approached the designated safety car line near pit entry, before finally stepping on the gas again. Basically, this was Matsushita brake-testing the entire field (including his teammate Sirotkin) on a long high-speed straight.

This caused a massive jam behind him, most noticeably Rapax’s Gustav Malja losing his front wing after tagging the back of Mitch Evans. With bated breath, I watched everyone race down to Turn One as someone ran into Malja’s lose front wing, debris shattering down the main straight. It was a heart-stopping moment but thankfully, no huge accidents were caused although Malja, with no front wing, spun around Oliver Rowland and took out Evans’s Campos Racing teammate Sean Gelael on the first corner. Gelael was visibly furious as cameras caught him stomping back out of his car to the pit lane, while Malja was lividly complaining to his team crew about Matsushita’s dangerous driving.

Following Gelael and Malja’s retirement, another safety car period was deployed, with Matsushita still in the lead. Evans also retired with damage to the back of his car. After debris was cleared, Matsushita was again in charge of the restart for the third time. Russian Time’s Raffaelle Marciello attempted to pass for the lead down the first corner but locked up his cold tires. Unsighted, Matsushita turned into Marciello’s hurtling car and immediately retired. Teammates Evans and Gelael witnessed the incident while watching from pit lane and even applauded Matsushita’s retirement.

The race saw no more incidents after that and paved the way for an enthralling battle for the lead between Prema teammates Pierre Gasly and Giovinazzi. After the three safety car restarts, the two drivers kept their noses clean to move up from the back to the front of the field with Gasly running first followed by Giovinazzi at second.

Despite Giovinazzi’s DRS not working, he still managed to get a decent slipstream of his teammate on the main straight and at the last lap, overtook Gasly with a brilliant switch-back maneuver into Turn One. As Gasly defended the inside line, Giovinazzi took the outside line at corner entry, timed his move perfectly to get a quicker exit as his teammate ran wide. As such, Giovinazzi once again cruised to the checkered flag as he did the previous day, notching victories in both of GP2’s inaugural races at Baku. Both Prema drivers displayed excellent race craft on their fierce battle for the win.

Sergey Sirotkin was also on the podium again, finishing third. His pace was compromised due to damage to his front nose cone when he ran into the back of Matsushita’s car. The highly-rated Russian achieved a positive weekend at Baku to get himself back into the championship hunt.

On one weekend alone, Giovinazzi moved up to third in the championship standings after scoring no points in the first two rounds. Russian Time’s Artem Markelov survived the race to finish fifth, taking over the championship lead from Norman Nato after the latter came away with another DNF and no points.

GP2 race stewards investigated all safety car restarts and as I actually predicted, handed Nobuharu Matsushita a ban from the following round at Austria. It’s a hard punishment but I think this was necessary as his driving was absolutely appalling on the restarts. ART Grand Prix is, I believe, allowed to field a replacement driver.

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