The start of leg one of the 49th Macau Grand Prix was already behind schedule by the time the pit lane opened. However, the fact that they were behind by only five minutes was remarkable, when you took into account the chaos that broke out in...
The start of leg one of the 49th Macau Grand Prix was already behind schedule by the time the pit lane opened. However, the fact that they were behind by only five minutes was remarkable, when you took into account the chaos that broke out in the Formula Renault race that preceded it. Cars were being retrieved from all over the place, and as a consequence the track was very dirty in places.
Anyway, the grid lined up, the lights turned green and the front row men, Paolo Montin (Tom's) and Tristan Gommendy (ASM), both made good starts, Gommendy just edging ahead of the Italian as they all streamed into Mandarin Oriental Bend for the first time. Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) on the other hand, bogged down slightly and lost ground at the start. Now old hands at this event know that the first lap mayhem always occurs at the Lisboa Bend. Well not this time! This time, they didn't even get that far before it all started to go badly wrong. This time the crash was at the Mandarin Oriental.
Afterwards there was no clear consensus among those involved as to what exactly happened, except perhaps that they were all in agreement with Milos Pavlovic, the Target Racing driver being of the opinion that he had just had someone else's accident! What appeared to happen was that Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Tom's) brushed the wall slightly and bounced off into the path of Olivier Pla (ASM). As the Japanese recovered and drove away, the Frenchman tried to take avoiding action but had no place left to go. The result was that many of the following cars tangled, and Pla was out of the race on the spot, as were Pavlovic, Renaud Derlot (Arta-Signature-Elf), James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport), Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport), local driver Joseph Merszei (Alan Docking Racing) and Tatsuya Kataoka (Swiss Racing Team).
Needless to say, the Safety Car was scrambled, picking up the leaders fairly quickly. Montin had temporarily lost the lead the Gommendy on the first lap but had wrested it back and was not about to let go of it if he could help it. Unfortunately for him, he was now going to have to take a restart from behind the Safety Car. Gommendy was 3rd, behind Matsuura, who had taken advantage of a small mistake by the French driver and had squeezed through into 2nd. Narain Karthikeyan (in the only remaining Carlin Motorsport car) had passed Kovalainen at the start and was now 4th, with the Finn just behind him, and Yuji Ide (Arta-Signature-Elf) was in 6th place. In 7th was Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International). Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport), Robert Doornbos (Team Ghinzani) and Richard Antinucci (Promatecme International) followed him. Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) was 11th, with Ronnie Bremer (Manor Motorsport) behind him, followed by Takashi Kogure (MugenxDome Project), Cesar Campanico (Prema Powerteam), Hiranaka, Marcel Costa (Team Ghinzani), Marchy Lee (Manor Motorsport), Hiroki Yoshimoto (Now Motorsport), Cristiano Citron (Target Racing), Shinya Sato (Swiss Racing Team), Michael Ho (Team Carlin.Kolles), Lei Kit Meng (Manor Motorsport) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (Team Carlin.Kolles), Liuzzi having staggered into the pits for repairs after the Mandarin melee. The Italian would spend the first half of the race having the damage rectified and would then rejoin 8 laps down.
On the second Safety Car lap, Costa pitted and rejoined later but otherwise the cars stayed in formation and rumbled round for three laps while the wreckage was removed from the scene of the accident. At the restart Montin made absolutely sure of his position with a perfect getaway, while Gommendy was coming under pressure from Karthikeyan. Further down the order, Carbone had his hands full fending off Doornbos, the Dutch driver rapidly proving too much for the Brazilian. At the same time, Lei pitted which was not going to make a lot of difference to the end result, as he is hardly fast enough to get on terms with the front runners. He would rejoin to little effect.
As a result of the Safety Car, the field was now bunched up again, but at least they seemed to have calmed down a little, which was just as well really as there were still yellow flags at various points around the circuit. Meanwhile, Gommendy was trying his hardest to get past Matsuura, and he succeeded only to have Matsuura come back at him. It took a second attempt before he could make it stick. Meanwhile, Kovalainen had set the fastest race lap to this point and had squeezed past Karthikeyan to take 4th, and was now in pursuit of Matsuura, who now found that he had to watch his wing mirrors very carefully, thus allowing Gommendy to break away and set off after Montin.
Doornbos was still on the move as well, gaining another place, this time at the expense of Jouanny. He also set a faster lap time than Kovalainen's. The pace was now hotting up again. Finally, Kovalainen made his move, taking Matsuura on the run up to Lisboa, only to have the Japanese come back at him immediately. As a result, the Finn slipped back and found Karthikeyan breathing down his neck again. While all this was going on, British series contenders Antinucci, Bremer, Carbone and Kerr were bottled up behind Jouanny and fighting over 8th place. Eventually Kerr passed Carbone, who managed to bang his Dallara into the wall somewhere out beyond Lisboa. He wasn't sure where, just that it was at "one of those corners out there!" So he'd really learned the circuit well.He would fall back even further before the race ended.
Karthikeyan was now attacking Kovalainen again, with rather more enthusiasm than the Finn felt was warranted. At the same time, Montin was coming under pressure as Gommendy gained on him. The trouble was, the Italian was now coming up to lap Lei which would make holding Gommendy off a lot more difficult. The one advantage that Montin had was that Gommendy had a train of drivers right behind him, in the shape of Matsuura, Kovalainen, Karthikeyan, Ide and Doornbos. There was quite a large gap after that, but they were running in very tight formation at this point. Next up was Jouanny, who still had Antinucci and Bremer right behind him, though the three of them had managed to break away from Kerr, who in turn was leaving Carbone behind. The Brazilian was now struggling and was falling back into the grasp of Kogure and Hiranaka. Kovalainen was clearly now on a charge and he promptly set another fastest lap, even though he was still stuck behind Matsuura and was desperately looking for a way past. He finally found a way, passing the Japanese at Lisboa, with Karthikeyan making an attempt to follow through too. Matsuura managed to close the door on the Indian driver.
Someone not finding any advantages at Lisboa was Bremer, as he went off in a big way all on his own there. Quite what John Booth said to him afterwards, history does not record. However, his manager Piers Hunnisett claimed that it was part of an attempt to get into the "Crash" videos.
A lap later and Karthikeyan was past Matsuura, and once again setting out in pursuit of Kovalainen, while Carbone lost a place to Kogure. At the front, Montin had lapped Lei and was now pushing on to try and get away from Gommendy, setting the latest of a string of fastest laps on the way. With two thirds of the race distance run, the pressure was still on at the front. Gommendy couldn't quite shake off Kovalainen and Karthikeyan, while Doornbos was trying everything he could think of to force his way past Matsuura. Suddenly, there was a change as Kovalainen lost it on the way up from San Francisco, by some miracle missing the bridge supports that he spun between, but damaging the rear wing so that it just wobbled around after that. Needless to say, the handling of the car was badly affected by it. As a result, he lost a place to Karthikeyan and was now 4th. As Karthikeyan was the fastest driver on the track at this point, this was no real surprise. Doornbos was having less success when it came to Matsuura, who had already lost a place to Ide, but it was a truly impressive performance for a Macau rookie. Behind him, Carbone continued to drop back and lost another place, this time to Campanico. Further back, Sato had a damaged nose, though he was going so slowly it obviously wasn't making a lot of difference, and Ho had been in to the pits to serve a drive-through penalty.
Meanwhile, Montin was still leading from Gommendy, while Karthikeyan was now safe from Kovalainen, who was having trouble holding off Ide. Matsuura was under intense pressure from Doornbos now, and was having to work hard to keep him behind. Behind them Jouanny, Antinucci and Kerr had been joined by Kogure, while both Campanico and Carbone were having a quiet last few laps, running pretty much on their own. Costa had Sato behind him, while Yoshimoto and Lee and Hiranaka and Citron were running in pairs, ahead of Ho and Lei, who was a lap down after his pit stop. Karthikeyan made a couple more attempts at passing Gommendy before the end, but Gommendy was having none of it and defended his position fiercely.
And so, as the flag dropped at the end of the first leg, the order was Montin, from Gommendy, Karthikeyan, Kovalainen, Ide, Matsuura, Doornbos, Jouanny, Antinucci and Kerr. Outside the top ten, Kogure finished ahead of Carbone, Costa, Yoshimoto, Lee, Hiranaka, Citron, Sato, Ho and Lei. There were no other finishers.