With his first pole position of the season squared away, Maro Engel (Carlin Motorsport) was keen to open his account with a good podium finish at Oulton Park today. The young German made a textbook start as the lights went out, outdragging the opposition into the first corner, while the man alongside him on the grid, Stephen Jelley (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) seemed to go to sleep. Burdened with more wheelspin than he really needed, Jelley was passed for 2nd by Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing), which really wasn't the start to his season that Jelley needed. Elsewhere on the grid, Rodolfo Gonzalez (T-Sport) had taken off as if he was on fire, and was up in 5th, behind rookie Sam Bird (Carlin Motorsport) who had Sebastian Hohenthal (Fortec Motorsport) on his tail from the word go.
Meanwhile, from almost last on the grid, Hamad Al Fardan (Performance Racing) pulled into the pit lane at the very start of the race, suffering from mechanical woes. He was probably better off out of it given what happened next. The front runners got away smoothly enough, but in the mid- field, though, trouble was about to kick off. It was hard to know who was to blame, though it may have started when Rodolfo Avila (Performance Racing) clipped the pitwall, it may have been a separate but unrelated incident, but whatever the cause, when the dust cleared there were quite a few cars littering the scenery at Cascades. Certainly his team-mate, Ricardo Teixeira was off on the grass, while Sergio Perez (T-Sport) was also out of contention, despite having set National Class pole for the race. That handed the class lead to another Performance Racing runner, Cong Fu Cheng (also known as "Franky"), the Chinese being a surprised but grateful beneficiary of someone else's bad luck. Avila lurched round to the pits and retired, while Mario Moraes (Carlin Motorsport) also pitted, though he went back out again.
Despite the mayhem, the field came round to complete the first lap and the Safety Car went right on sitting in the pits. It seemed a little tardy, frankly. With Alberto Valerio (Carlin Motorsport) and Greg Mansell (Fortec Motorsport) scrapping wildly, it seemed a bit unwise to let the race continue at full pace. Meanwhile, John Martin (Alan Docking Racing) was way back having had a poor qualifying session; he was now trying to find his way up the order but had encountered an obstacle in the shape of Alistair Jackson (Raikkonen Robertson Racing). Martin's car looked pretty unwieldy but even so he should have been able to find his way past the National Class runner.
With two laps completed, the officials finally yielded to the inevitable and the Safety Car came out to take control of the race. Engel settled in behind it, leading from Asmer, Jelley, Bird, Hohenthal, Gonzalez, Jonathan Kennard (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), Atte Mustonen (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), Niall Breen (Carlin Motorsport) and Valerio. 11th was Greg Mansell, ahead of Esteban Guerrieri (Ultimate Motorsport), Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing) Cheng, Juan Pablo Garcia Samano (Fluid Motorsport), Sean Petterson (Fluid Motorsport), Viktor Jensen (Alan Docking Racing), Alex Waters (Promatecme), Jackson and Martin. 21st was Albert Costa (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), from Michael Devaney (Ultimate Motorsport) and Michael Meadows (Master Motorsport). Leo Mansell was dead last having spun behind the Safety Car. Meanwhile, Costa suddenly pulled over onto the grass on the Avenue, where he sat revving the engine for a while before getting out and stalking away.
Of course, given how cold it was, how many rookies we had, and how long the entire field was kept waiting in the collecting area, it was probably no surprise that there was chaos. At least the officials seemed determined that there would be no trouble at the restart. The last lap before the lights went out was run at a far brisker pace, which meant that everyone's tyres were warm enough to ensure they had some grip. As the Safety Car pulled off, Engel dropped back then floored it, missed a gear and came very close to losing out to Asmer. However, the German's nerve held and Asmer took a good look at the marbles on the line he would have to take if he kept his foot in, and lifted. A lap later and it was clear that Engel was making a break for it, despite threatening rain, missed gears or anything else that could possibly hamper his progress.
Back in the pack, Garcia was up to 2nd in the National Class and 16th overall having started from almost last. The rest of the class were building up behind him though and he looked as if he would have some trouble holding them off for long. Certainly he soon had Petterson crawling all over him, perhaps inspired by events at the front.
With the leading pack breaking away altogether, everyone else was bottled up behind Gonzalez, which meant Mustonen was all over Kennard, and really wanting to get past his team-mate, while Kennard couldn't give his full attention to passing Gonzalez because he had an annoying Finn looming in his wing mirrors. Further down Martin had passed Jackson and despatched Waters, while Devaney was also into the top ten, though there was too much work for either of them to do in what was left of the opening race of the season. All eyes were on the front though, as Asmer set the fastest lap in his pursuit of Engel. Gonzalez still had Kennard all over him, while Mustonen wouldn't quite quit. All of this was of no concern to Engel, especially as Jelley was chasing down Asmer in an attempt to salvage something from his awful start. All this meant that they were getting further and further ahead of the second block, especially as Gonzalez seemed to be dropping back.
In the National Class Cheng was now coming under pressure from Petterson, while Garcia was dropping back and being bullied by Martin and Moraes, the young Brazilian trying hard to make up lost ground. Garcia let them though, Moraes hacked past Martin, and Garcia promptly lost a place to Jensen as well. He really wasn't having the best of days. Nor, it seemed, was Petterson, who suddenly fell back, leaving Cheng out on his own in the lead.
At the front, Engel responded to the challenge of Asmer by setting first one then another fastest lap, while Kennard launched a major challenge on Gonzalez. Gonzalez held his line, defending to the best of his considerable ability. He probably wasn't being helped by the spots of rain that were threatening to turn into something more serious anytime now. Engel saw the rain come and eased off as much as he thought he could get away with, while Jelley pressed on in his attempt to deal with Asmer. Bird was another one coming under massive pressure, in his case from fellow- rookie Hohenthal, who was easily keeping pace with the front-runners. A little bit back from them, Gonzalez, Kennard, Mustonen and Breen were running in a 16-wheel train with no one able to break away.
While Devaney pitted, his engine sounding rough, Asmer was trying to shake off Jelley. His efforts netted him the latest fastest lap of the race but Engel was such a way ahead by then that catching him never looked plausible. Meanwhile, Breen was all over Mustonen, and nearly got his opportunity when Kennard ran wide at Old Hall, holding the two of them up. Further back Moraes had a bit of a moment and took a trip through the gravel. He was another not having the best of mornings.
With the clocking ticking down towards the end of the race, the pace was still intense, despite more spots of rain. Hohenthal was the next driver to claim a fastest lap, while in the National Class Waters and Meadows went wheel to wheel over the start/finish line. Waters couldn't quite hold the place, and lost ground after that. Cheng, meanwhile, was leading the class by a convincing margin, while Viktor Jensen was struggling round suffering from a very "blurry" world, his visor coated in oil from someone else's gearbox or engine. Right at the back, Jackson had a new friend, having been caught by Leo Mansell. Mansell, like Waters, should have been able to pass the National Class runner easily, but just didn't seem to be able to make it stick. Eventually, the officials showed Jackson the "driving standards" flag, but by then Mansell was through anyway. Whether he'd have been shown the flag if he hadn't been blocking a Mansell boy is debatable.
At the front, Engel continued on his way to the flag, while the cluster of cars behind Gonzalez built up even further when Valerio joined on the end, taking Greg Mansell with him. The queue had turned into a 24- wheeled train and it only needed a mistake from one of them to see a drastic reshuffle. The only driver who looked unperturbed by any of this was Mustonen, but perhaps that shouldn't surprise anyone. Gonzalez was still blithely holding Kennard and company up, and Kennard couldn't find a way past no matter what he did. The first reshuffle came as Valerio missed the chicane out and ended up being passed by Mansell. The Brazilian must have been kicking himself for that error, though not as much as Gonzalez was likely to be doing. He's soaked up the pressure for lap after lap only to lose out to Kennard with less than two minutes of the race to run. He settled into 7th, and concentrated on keeping Mustonen back while Kennard streaked away into the distance, plainly demonstrating how badly he'd been held up all this time.
Things then settled again, though Mustonen kept plugging away at Gonzalez, trying all sorts to pass the Venezuelan. Nothing quite worked, but he wouldn't stop trying, even attempting a slingshot across the line at the chequered flag. Engel crossed the line well ahead of Asmer, while Jelley put in a late charge that came to nothing in the end. He'd really left it that little bit too late to undo the damage.
And so Engel came home to win the first race of the season, from Asmer and Jelley. The Old Guard were showing the youngsters how it's done. Bird was 4th, the first of the rookies, leading home Hohenthal, Kennard, Gonzalez, Mustonen, Breen and Greg Mansell. Valerio finished outside the points in 11th, ahead of Grubmuller, National Class winner Cheng, Petterson, Martin who passed Jensen at the last minute, Jensen, Meadows, Waters and Leo Mansell. 21st was Jackson from Moraes and Devaney. Considering we sent 31 of them out, we might have expected to get more than 22 back!
Perhaps they'll be better behaved in the second race of the day.
The extra point for fastest lap went to Hohenthal in the Championship Class and Cheng in the National Class.