McLaren junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne has won the opening round of the 2014 GP2 championship after producing a sparkling performance in his very first race in the series.
The Belgian youngster took the lead at the start of the race and commanded proceedings from there on in, ensuring that he maintained a steady gap to his rivals before inheriting the lead from the long-running Simon Trummer, who opted to pit with just two laps to go on a somewhat misjudged strategy.
However, it was a less fruitful day for the American drivers on the grid as Conor Daly finished down in 12th place, whilst Alexander Rossi had a luckless race to finish in P22.
Pole-sitter Jolyon Palmer made a bad start in his DAMS to allow Vandoorne into the lead and teammate Stephane Richelmi up into second place, whilst further back 2013 GP3 runner-up Facu Regalia was forced into an early retirement. After a few laps of jostling for position, the race calmed when the safety car was deployed following a crash between Axcil Jefferies and Kimiya Sato, giving Vandoorne a chance to compose himself and control the pack from the front.
When the safety car finally peeled into the pits, a number of drivers followed suit for a fresh set of hard tires. Vandoorne kept hold of his lead ahead of Carlin’s Julian Leal and Palmer, who had fought back from P6 into the top three.
A number of drivers had elected to start on the hard tire, though, and were at the head of the field as a result. This reverse strategy proved to be a stroke of genius as the track continued to rubber in and get quicker, thus giving them the advantage when they switched to the option tire. Arthur Pic and Takuya Izawa both benefitted greatly and fought their way into the top ten, but out in front, Simon Trummer elected to go it alone.
Having stalled on the grid, Trummer had raced well to get into the lead after every other driver had stopped, but instead of pitting earlier and giving him more laps on the quicker tire, Rapax opted to bring him in with just two laps to go. Nevertheless, he managed to fight past a few cars on the soft compound, and eventually crossed the line in a well-earned seventh place.
Vandoorne was the star of the day, though. Having cut his teeth in the Renault-backed series, the move to GP2 was one that many expected to truly prove his star quality, and he certainly showed his worth in the feature race on Saturday. The Belgian driver eventually crossed the line 1.5 seconds ahead of Leal, and claimed a maiden GP2 win on debut.
On the podium, Vandoorne was clearly elated, and he was joined in celebrating by a number of the McLaren F1 team members including Ron Dennis and Eric Boullier, who hold him in high regard. However, he will have to fight back from P8 tomorrow in the sprint race as part of the reverse grid.
For Daly and Rossi, tomorrow should be about aiming to pick up some points and avoid leaving Bahrain empty handed.