Giorgio Pantano has claimed his first win of the season in style, leading all the way from start to finish despite a safety car period, storming his way to the checkered flag ahead of Romain Grosjean and Andreas Zuber.
When the lights went out the Italian disappeared from pole, while Grosjean made an equally good start to get past a bogged down Adam Carroll and slide inside Zuber into turn one. Behind them was mayhem as Pastor Maldonado was pushed wide, Sébastien Buemi was tapped into a spin, while Ben Hanley spinning in avoidance behind him. Carroll's poor start pushed him back into the pack as did Bruno Senna's, who soon suffered the added discomfort of losing a piece of his front wing in an accident.
As the top three pulled away Karun Chandhok led Vitaly Petrov, Javier Villa, Jérôme D'Ambrosio and Carroll, but with Pantano walking away the battle behind him was at fever pitch, with Zuber all over the back of Grosjean but just unable to find a way past, while Petrov was equally resolute in defense from a fast charging Villa. With the competition on a knife edge, it was clear that pitstops were going to be crucial.
Villa had a lucky escape during his stop: as he was released by his team Maldonado came from nowhere and cut straight across the Spaniard's front, forcing an emergency stop before he could get away again. The delay was enough that he was unable to jump Petrov, while the Venezuelan came out on the tail of the D'Ambrosio / Buemi / Carroll battle, with all four drivers swapping position all over the track until the Belgian and Maldonado had to finally return to the pits and retirement.
When Alberto Valerio spun and stalled in the middle of the long, fast turn eight there was no option but to bring out the safety car, giving the lead trio the chance to come in for their stops, returning in the same order to line up ahead of the rest of the field. When the safety car peeled off it was a straight sprint to the finish line, with just five laps remaining in the race. Buemi and Villa pushed each other all over the track, with the Swiss driver pulling Carroll through with him as the Spaniard ran wide to avoid a backmarker, but all eyes were on the battle at the front of the field.
It was a sprint that was easily controlled by Pantano, who crossed the line 1.7 seconds ahead of Grosjean and Zuber, who was delayed enough by backmarkers at the restart to deny him the attack he had been waiting all race to perform, but picked up the fastest lap for his efforts.
Chandhok opened his points account with a fine fourth place drive, ahead of Petrov, Buemi, Villa and Carroll, with the Spaniard taking seventh place at the end of the back straight on the last lap, in a move that must have had the Ulsterman flashing back to the same place two years ago when Lewis Hamilton made the exact same move.
The win pushed Pantano into a strong early lead in the championship on 21 points, ahead of Zuber on 13 and Grosjean on 12, with the trio toasting their good fortune on the podium with champagne and thinking of the battle to come tomorrow.
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