For GP2, 2009 was the year of the establishment. A lack of opportunities in Formula 1 had prompted a lot of drivers back for their third and fourth cracks at the title, while sophomore Romain Grosjean was a long-term Renault development project reaching maturity.
It was a hostile environment to throw a rookie into, yet when the dust settled it was new arrival Nico Hulkenberg standing on top of the pile. True, Grosjean had departed the series mid-season to replace Nelson Piquet in F1, but even if the Swiss driver had stuck around, Hulkenberg would have emerged triumphant. After a slightly shaky start he'd started to get on terms with the car at Silverstone, and when he wheeled out clean sweep of pole and two wins in Germany, he reset the bar at a level that no-one was able to match.
As expected the main threat came from Barwa Addax, but it was Vitaly Petrov, not Grosjean, who was causing the problems. The Russian made huge strides forward in 2009, but while he had the ability to match Hulkenberg for pace, he didn't have the consistency. Hulkenberg wrapped things up with a round to spare, and then went to the final round in Portugal and won the feature race anyway - a fitting sign-off from a deserving champion.
Round 1: Barcelona
Pre-season expectations had been that the 2009 title would be scrapped out between Barwa Addax's Grosjean and Racing Engineering's Lucas di Grassi, and Grosjean delivered on his half of the deal with a dominant performance in the curtain-raiser at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Grosjean led Petrov across the line for an Addax one-two in the feature race to win by 2.5s, although the margin would have been even greater were it not for a late appearance by the safety car. That one of the wreckages being cleaned up under yellows belonged to di Grassi was an early blow for the Brazilian's title hopes, although with nine weekends ahead there was no reason for panic just yet.
Edoardo Mortara staked an early claim to rookie of the year honours with his win in Sunday's sprint race; the Arden driver holding off a charging Grosjean. It seemed encouraging at the time, although the Italian would prove unable to find the same sort of form during the rest of the season. Looking more anonymous was reigning F3 Euro Series champion Hulkenberg, who came away from his GP2 debut weekend with ART empty-handed.
Round 2: Monaco
Romain Grosjean leads Addax team-mate Vitaly Petrov at Monaco © LAT
Another dominant start to the weekend for Grosjean, who took pole and then finished ahead of Petrov for Barwa Addax's second one-two. di Grassi leap-frogged Hulkenberg in the pitstops to take the final place on the podium.
With two victories and a second place from three races, Grosjean was looking unstoppable. But remarkably, the Monaco feature race win would prove to be his last visit to the podium. On Sunday, the Swiss driver nearly vaulted himself over the barriers at Tabac following an ill-judged attempt to pass Andi Zuber, forcing the race to be red-flagged, and while Grosjean was unharmed, the crash coincided with a dramatic slide in his results.
ART Pastor Maldonado's gift for street circuits came to the fore with his win over DAMS' Jerome d'Ambrosio and Hulkenberg, although the experienced Venezuelan's victory came at the expense of Karun Chandhok, who retired with a broken driveshaft while leading.
Round 3: Istanbul
A maiden pole for Hulkenberg suggested that progress was being made on the German's side of the ART garage, but when he got distracted while dicing with Luca Filippi, Petrov took the opportunity to sneak past and open his victory account for the season.
Filippi held on for second - a rather overdue first podium of the year from one of the field's most seasoned veterans, particularly with the Italian having returned to what he considered his 'home' at Super Nova after a nomadic 2008.
Also leaving things late was di Grassi, who finally cracked his first win, albeit in the sprint race on Sunday. It hadn't been the start to the season that he'd been hoping for, particularly when you consider that he'd joined the reigning champion team, but the fact that Grosjean had just notched up his third non-scoring race in a row gave the illusion that di Grassi was gaining ground. It wasn't clear at that point that the real title threat had still not shown its hand, but that particular surprise was only a couple of races away.
Round 4: Silverstone
Britain yielded the first shock of the year when Alberto Valerio pulled a nice move on Romain Grosjean and shot off into the distance to earn his first GP2 win in the feature race - a result as popular as it was unexpected. And to the Brazilian's credit he did it properly, starting from the front row and then pulling off a nice move on Grosjean to take the lead on the eighth lap.
Polesitter Grosjean continued to drop back through the field and eventually finished fifth, with second-placed di Grassi pleased to have taken a further chunk out of the Swiss driver's lead. But just behind him was Hulkenberg. It wasn't apparent at the time, but the German would later point to Silverstone as the weekend where he and ART turned the corner in their understanding of the car. If di Grassi still considered Grosjean to be his main threat at that point, then the reality of the situation would soon become clear.
The sprint race was typically random, with Maldonado taking what would prove to be his final win of the season ahead of Andi Zuber and Karun Chandhok - the latter giving the new Ocean Racing Technology squad its first-ever podium. It was a less successful weekend for Petrov, who finished 15th on Saturday after being pushed wide at the first corner, and then failed to crack the points on Sunday.
Round 5: Nurburgring
Nico Hulkenberg scored a double win at the Nurburgring © LAT
On home turf and in changing conditions, Nico Hulkenberg became the only the second driver in GP2 history to register a perfect weekend - pole and two wins - and in doing so, moved into the championship lead.
The German won the feature race with a margin of nearly 14s over Piquet GP's Roldan Rodriguez, and then crossed the finish line a massive 26.4s clear of Alvaro Parente on Sunday morning to complete his clean sweep. That the momentum in the title fight was shifting was underlined further by the fact that the other championship protagonists again misfired, with di Grassi and Grosjean each taking just two points from the weekend and Petrov earning eight.
Completing the podiums in their place were Roldan Rodriguez and Andi Zuber on Saturday and Alvaro Parente and Kamui Kobayashi on Sunday - encouraging outcomes all round, particularly for Kobayashi, who had endured a nightmarish start to the season - but they barely registered a blip in terms of the bigger picture.
Round 6: Hungaroring
Hulkenberg's campaign continued to gather momentum with a third win on the trot, despite the German starting the feature race from fifth on the grid. di Grassi had pole and led early on, but Hulkenberg had stopped a couple of laps earlier and drove around the Racing Engineering car on its out-lap. Javier Villa was third - an overdue podium from one of the series veterans, particularly one driving for a team as well-credentialed as Super Nova.
Saturday was another disaster for Barwa Addax, with Grosjean starting from the back of the grid after crashing in qualifying and Petrov retiring at mid-distance, although Grosjean was able to salvage a fourth place on Sunday. It was a moot point though, as fallout between the Renault F1 team and Nelson Piquet meant that Hungary would be Grosjean's final appearance in a GP2 car.
The other story of the weekend was Giedo van der Garde's sprint race win for iSport, a team that, up to that point had been despairing at its lack of results. Winning a reversed-grid race was one thing though; the real question was whether it could deliver in a feature.
Round 7: Valencia
The talking point of the weekend - apart from the heat - was Grosjean's promotion to F1, and what this would mean in terms of the championship battle. Hulkenberg's campaign was going nicely to plan, but di Grassi was blowing hot and cold, and the jury was still out on Petrov, who'd only scored points twice since his successful Turkey weekend.
That changed just two corners into the first lap of the feature race, when Petrov was able to capitalise on a mistake by polesitter Hulkenberg and move into the lead. Hulkenberg never managed to find a way past and settled for second. He may have limited the damage in terms of points, but Petrov had sent the message that he hadn't spent the first half of the season riding on Grosjean's coat-tails.
Third was a good result for Arden rookie Sergio Perez, who had taken longer than he'd liked to get his head around the GP2 car, and he followed it up on Sunday by holding off a charging Petrov for second. Compounding the Russian's frustrations was the fact that Hulkenberg had won the race, giving him a 20 point lead with just six races remaining.
Round 8: Spa
Alvaro Parente leads at Spa-Francorchamps for Ocean © LAT
Hulkenberg didn't win - that honour went to Parente, who'd started from pole - but with Petrov having vanished at mid-distance with an engine failure, second was enough for the ART driver to put the title all but beyond reach. di Grassi was third, but from a championship point of view it was too little, too late.
iSport's late-season resurgence continued on Sunday with van der Garde picking up his second sprint race win of the season, and team-mate Diego Nunes taking third. The pair book-ended Rodriguez, but more impressive than all three was Perez, who just fell short of the podium after a brilliant drive from the back of the grid.
Where were all the contenders? Petrov got a point, but only after taking longer than he would have liked to get past new team-mate Davide Valsecchi. Hulkenberg joined D'Ambrosio in being wiped out at the first corner by Dani Clos, while di Grassi eliminated himself and Mortara with an overtaking attempt at the Bus Stop.
Round 9: Monza
Torrential rain delayed the start of the feature race by 40 minutes, but for van der Garde, it was worth the wait. Petrov, the only driver who had a mathematical (if minuscule) chance of beating Hulkenberg to the title, had started off well by claiming pole and leading most of the race, but van der Garde was closing him down and managed to leap-frog him during the stops to take his first feature race win of the year.
di Grassi was third, while Hulkenberg was stuck back in sixth, ironically choosing the most significant weekend of his season to produce one of his most anonymous performances.
But Hulkenberg required only one point from Sunday's race to secure the championship, and he put it beyond doubt with a third place behind first-time winner Luiz Razia and di Grassi. Petrov had challenged his rival early on, but a rare mistake dropped the Addax driver to fifth behind D'Ambrosio.
Round 10: Algarve
With the championship already done and dusted, the vibe in the Algarve paddock was more relaxed. It didn't too much to change the established order though; Hulkenberg blasting through from third on the grid and cruising to victory in the feature race ahead of Filippi and di Grassi.
Filippi went one better to win the final race of the season on Sunday, crossing the line ahead of Perez and Villa, but there was a final twist to play out. No fewer than six drivers were penalised during the race for passing the safety car before it had entered the pits, and a post-race investigation found Perez guilty of the same breach. The Mexican's penalty dumped him down to 11th and promoted Villa up to second ahead of Clos, but Racing Engineering's joy at snatching a final podium was soured by the fact that it had lost third in the teams' championship to Super Nova courtesy of Villa's promotion to second.
Hulkenberg was one of those penalised during the race and finished his GP2 season out of the points, while Petrov never even made it off the line after stalling on the dummy grid and being rear-ended by Michael Herck.
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