ART Grand Prix got off on the right foot in the 2015 GP2 season in the Kingdom of Bahrain this weekend where Stoffel Vandoorne secured pole position, victory and fastest lap in the feature race on Saturday and then stood on the second step of the podium in the sprint race this afternoon. Nobuharu Matsushita completed the strong season opener with a brilliant debut drive that secured him two points finishes.
The opening race weekend of the GP2 2015 season was eagerly anticipated by ART Grand Prix and its drivers, the runner up champion in 2014, Stoffel Vandoorne, and the reigning Japanese F3 champion, rookie driver Nobuharu Matsushita. The work carried out over the winter months instantly paid off with a good free practice for Stoffel (4th) and Nobuharu (10th). Both drivers worked well in the two crucial areas: tyre management on the abrasive and burning hot Sakhir circuit and good speed over one lap with outstanding performances in qualifying as they delivered a 100% front row line up for ART Grand Price, Stoffel on pole and Nobuharu second.
Carried out under high temperatures, 35°C in the shade and 50°C on track, the first race was as much strategic as it was sportingly. Tyre degradation was at the heart of ART Grand Prix strategy, which opted to start on the medium tyres, and, unlike their main rivals, not change them during the safety car period on the 3rd lap. Stoffel stayed out in front for the first stint and pulled out a gap of 11 seconds over his main rival, Alexander Rossi, before making his pit stop with 10 laps to go. He emerged 21 seconds behind the American but overtook him to reclaim first place with just 2 laps to go and secure his first victory of the season.
Meanwhile Nobuharu dropped back from 2nd to 15th place at the start after almost stalling on the grid. The Japanese driver used the same strategy as Stoffel and was in 6th place at the finish, but was then punished with a five second penalty for weaving on the track ahead of an opponent while trying to warm his tyres after exiting the pits. Rounding out the top 10, Nobuharu still finished in the points in his debut GP2 race.
On Sunday, the temperature wasn’t quite as hot when Stoffel and Nobuharu start 8th and 10th respectively on the grid, to take part in the sprint race. The 21 year old Japanese racer got the better of his teammate at the start, driving brilliantly to fight with the front runners and was soon up into second position. Stoffel followed in Nobuharu’s footsteps, however he took great care of his tyres. On the 18th of 23 laps, Stoffel overtook Nobuharu who was then suffering tyre wear. Stoffel moved right up behind the leader but was still 3 seconds away when he took the checkered flag. Nobuharu scored more points with a 6th place finish.
Stoffel leads the drivers’ championship with 43 points while Nobuharu is 9th with 7 points. ART Grand Prix is 1st in the team’s classification, 15 points ahead of second place.
It was good to be back in Bahrain and secure the first pole position of the season, my fifth in a row. The feature race was quite exciting too! The safety car came on track at the worst time for us, but we had to stick with our strategy and keep going on the medium tyres. I pushed hard to open up the biggest gap I could on the drivers who had already pitted. I was P10 after my pit stop but we knew there was a huge difference between the medium and the soft tyres. Overtaking was so nice with fresh tyres, I had fantastic grip and the other cars were sitting ducks for me. At first, I thought Rossi was out of reach, but the team told me I could do it and I went for it, even though I couldn’t push too hard as I needed to keep my tyres alive because that was always going to be one of the keys to the weekend here in Bahrain. It was like that in the second race too and that’s what allowed me to gain so many positions without taking any risks to finish the race on dead tyres. It’s really great to start the season with a pole position, a win, a fastest lap and a podium. It could not be better, but let’s not forget to keep up this momentum in Barcelona.
I am very happy with my qualifying, but Stoffel was a rocket and I could not match his pace. Unfortunately, I almost stalled on the grid and I lost all the benefit of my front row position. I fought back and the safety car helped me to gain back a lot of positions without having to overtake. But it was not easy because I had to manage my tyres and get into a good rhythm. I feel sorry for the team because they deserved 6th position, but I got penalized because I weaved on track; I was just trying to warm my tyres up. The second race was really thrilling with a very good start this time and a lot of fights. Being second was fantastic but my tyres started to degrade. It was hard to see the chequered flag but I wanted to thank the team with big points. We could have climbed on the podium this weekend, but I’m proud with these two point-finishes for my debut on the series.
SEBASTIEN PHILIPPE (Team Manager):
I am proud of the team that has mastered his profession during the entire weekend. And of course we can congratulate ourselves on this remarkable result that allows us to consolidate the gains of the end of last season and those from winter so that we can approach 2015 with great ambitions. Individually, Stoffel had dazzling speed and intelligence in all circumstances. In the first race he had to keep his cool with a strategy that might seem risky, but paid off, and in the second where the secret was to attack the opposition to move up through the field while still having sufficiently fresh tyres to finish the race in good conditions. Nobuharu had a spectacular debut. He has proven to be very fast over one lap and also had a good race pace. He still has to improve his tyre management but let’s not forget that it was his first weekend in the series. On Sunday he showed courage by scoring more points while suffering back pain. This was a very successful weekend in extremely complex conditions that must be an example to the whole team to prepare the rest of the season.