Sam Bird made a strong start to his 2011 campaign with two podium finishes at Istanbul Park during this weekend’s GP2 Series opener.
Qualifying saw a tight duel between Sam and former F1 driver Romain Grosjean, with the Frenchman edging the Brit for pole position by a mere 8/100ths of a second. The rest of the field were further adrift with Filippi in third a full three tenths behind. This was a sign of things to come.
Indeed, Saturday’s feature race turned out to be a straight fight between Sam and Grosjean, with the two men lapping, at times, two to three seconds faster than the rest of the field.
The two front men pitted simultaneously but opted for different strategies, with Grosjean changing only the two rear tyres, and Sam all four. This meant a longer stop for Sam who exited the pits more than seconds behind Grosjean at which point the Dams driver must have thought the race was in the bag. However, his lead gradually disintegrated as Sam set fastest lap after fastest lap and only the Frenchman’s experience and spirited defending enabled him to keep the young Brit at bay.
Grosjean took victory a mere 3/10ths of a second ahead of Sam, who also bagged the extra point for fastest lap of the race. Such was the pace of the two lead men that ART’s Jules Bianchi in third took the chequered flag a full 35 seconds further adrift.
Sunday’s sprint race saw Sam start seventh, by virtue of the reversed grid format. He made good progress up the field, courtesy of some typically skilful overtaking and was challenging for the final podium position when, with six laps remaining, the safety car was deployed following a crash further down the order.
With the track clear of any debris, the safety car came back into the pits with only one lap remaining. Sam stalked Charles Pic for two thirds of the final lap and then sliced inside him at turn 10 to grab third place and his second podium in as many days.
Sam was interviewed by GP2 Series at the end of the Istanbul race weekend:
GP2 Series: Sam, two podiums and right up there in the championship: I guess it's been a pretty good weekend all round?
Sam: Yeah, absolutely: the aim this weekend was to come away with a bunch of points and get the ball running in the championship, and I think it started in really good form for myself and for the team. Nobody really knew what to expect here with the tyres and the track, it's all a bit new to everybody, so I'm just very thankful that we've come away from the weekend with a good haul of points, and now we've got a base on which to improve on going into Barcelona.
GP2 Series: We were talking about the tyres yesterday, but today you've had to come from further back to get onto the podium: how difficult was it to control them and get up there today?
Sam: It was quite difficult: I couldn't go as quick as I wanted to, and I think if I'd had clean air I could have really gone for it and gone really quickly today, because the car felt good. But it was just a case of looking after my tyres a little more, and kind of forcing the other guys into a couple of mistakes: I was trying to push them into mistakes but not push myself, if that makes any sense. It was quite difficult, they put up quite a fight, but we got there in the end: a little scare on the last lap [laughs] but we were able to get through that and get a podium.
GP2 Series: When Marcus [Ericsson] hit you?
Sam: Yeah. These things happen in racing, we're all trying to get to the grid next door, and everybody's committing themselves 100 per cent: sometimes people cross those lines of being on the edge to going over the edge, and these things happen. It's racing, Marcus and I will have a hug, and we'll get on just fine for the rest of the year [laughs].
GP2 Series: You were all over Pic for a few laps before the safety car, and I wondered if that would stop you moving up, but you had a nice move at turn 10 to get on the podium: talk me through the move.
Sam: I'd been lining him up for quite a few laps and I didn't expect the safety car, so I was just biding my time before that: you could see the rear tyre going off, I could see the little band of rubber going on his tyre, so I thought in a couple of laps you're going to be really struggling and I'll pick you off nice and easily, but then the safety car came out and spoiled my plan a little bit! [laughs] So I had to get on with it a bit more!
GP2 Series: Nevertheless you got it done and you're right there in the championship: does that mean anything for you and the team at this stage?
Sam: No, there are eight rounds to go: it doesn't matter right now. What I'm focused on is that we've got a good basis on which to carry on, it doesn't matter who's leading after round 1, it matters who's leading after round 9. It's a very encouraging start for myself and for the team, we know we've got the package in order to win races and get podiums, and to hopefully fight for the title: it's going to be very difficult, I hope I'll be up there at the end, but it's too early to even start looking at those sheets yet.
Sam leads the GP2 Series Championship, level on points with Grosjean. The next round takes place in Barcelona on 20th to 22nd May.