It was the car to have in 2003, and BMS Scuderia Italia proved that the Ferrari 550 Maranello was still a potent force in the FIA GT Championship as Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari headed home team-mates Matteo Bobbi and Gabriel Gardel in round one at Monza.

After an action-packed high-attrition race Gollin received his second consecutive win at the historic Italian venue as a 29th birthday present, as the two BMS cars led home the newer GPC Giesse Squadra Corse 575 M Maranellos, which finished their first-ever race in third and fourth places.

In N-GT, Stephane Ortelli and Emmanuel Collard took a strong win, finishing seventh overall in their Freisinger Yukos Porsche 996 GT3, chased by the GPC Giesse Ferrari of Fabrizio de Simone and Christian Pescatori, with Proton Competition claiming its first ever podium in third.

It has all looked so different in a chilly but dry warm-up session, when the #7 RML Saleen of Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton set the fastest time ahead of the pole-setting BMS Ferrari Gollin and Cappellari. Tom Coronel's Lister Storm was third to hint at an open competition come the race. In N-GT, the #62 GPC Giesse Ferrari 360 Modena set the best time, ahead of the #50 and #99 Freisinger-run Porsches.

A frosty morning at Monza was replaced by blue skies and sunshine, although temperatures remained low. Despite the conditions, however, some 25,000 spectators came to the circuit to see the first round of the 2004 series, and were treated to a 'home' win for Ferrari.

The result has given the BMS team a healthy early lead, with 18 points, while Gollin and Cappellari took the lead of the driver's classification for the first time in their partnership.

"It was almost a problem-free day for us," former single-seater aspirant Gollin explained, "We had to be careful about the fuel consumption, but we chose not to make a final splash like we'd originally planned. But it worked out very well, and we are now leading the championship for the first time, and I hope to stay there all season!"

"I did the middle stint today, and it was not an easy one," Cappellari admitted, "I had to save the tyres for Fabrizio's stint, because I know that he never asks to change tyres, and because of that I had to drive very carefully. Also, the track was very dirty and slippery with oil in one corner. But it was a very good race and a great result."

The reigning champions made a dominant start to the season, starting from pole and leading throughout the 87-lap race. The #1 and #2 cars pulled away from the rest of the field, followed only by the #5 Saleen. Although Bobbi led early on, Gollin and Cappellari eventually took the win, finishing 44.7secs ahead of their Italian and Swiss team-mates, who had been delayed by two extra pit-stops and a spin.

"It was a big shame for me today, because we were aiming for victory and we knew that we would have been able to do it," Bobbi reported, "In the first stint, I was
pushing really hard and had an interesting fight with Fabrizio. But then we got a big problem with the radio, and it was very difficult to communicate with the team.

"The problems increased during Gabriele's stint so, when he came back in the pits, the team wasn't ready for him and he had to drive off again. We had to come back in a second time and later once more for a brief splash-and-dash. So we had at least one more stop than everyone else did.

"During my last stint, there was some oil on the track, but I was pushing very hard and completely forgot about it - so I spun off. Considering all that, I think second place is a very good result. Obviously, I don't like being second, but the championship is very long and it's only just started. It's Fabrizio's birthday today, so you could consider this race my present for him. But we have a very good car and I think it's going to be an interesting fight for the championship between me and Fabrizio."

"I'm glad to be on podium in my first race, but of course I'm not completely happy with the result," BMS newcomer Gardel echoed, "We were leading for the better part of the race and then we lost the position, due to the misunderstanding with the radio. I had to do a double-stint on the same tyres, which was rather hard for me. We were lucky after all and managed to clinch second place, so the championship is open and that's important for us and the team."

The BMS-supported Care Racing Ferrari had looked like making it a one-two-three for the 550 Maranello - as was occasionally the case last season - but a spin into the
gravel due to oil on the track dropped the #3 car of Lilian Bryner, Enzo Calderari and Stefano Livio down to fifth place.

Despite running as a new team and with new cars, Monza provided a dream start - and points in both categories - for GPC Giesse Squadra Corse. Team owner Gianpaolo Coppi was delighted with the performance of his squad, which is now lying in second place in both the GT and N-GT categories.

Although his 575 M Maranellos started from only ninth and tenth on the grid, steady races and a high level of attrition brought them up to third and fourth by the end, while the Ferrari 360 Modena of de Simone and Pescatori was a good second in N-GT.

"We started the team on 6 January," Coppi explained, "But, in three months, we have built up a good team. We are really happy, and I want to thank all my staff, the
mechanics, the drivers, for the confidence they have had in my project, as well as Pirelli and all the technical partners and the sponsors. It was a crazy project, but sometimes crazy things work."

"The car was great today - we had some big problems on Friday and Saturday and, in light of that, I'm really happy with the race result," GPC's Fabio Babini said, "We were the leading Pirelli car and we managed to score our first podium right in our first race."

"I'm really delighted with the result today," added lead driver Philipp Peter, "We've worked very hard in those last few days, and I'm so happy with what Gian Paolo Coppi put together. It's an amazing team, so my thanks go to him! It's good motivation for everyone to have us getting so close to the BMS cars. Monza is not an easy track for us, so we're very happy with what we have achieved."

Despite boasting the strong pairing of Emanuele Naspetti and Mike Hezemans, the second GPC car could do very little about wresting away the final podium position.

"We had different wings and set-up than the other car, as we didn't know anymore, so we were trying other things," Hezemans said, "We had a lot of oversteer, and then we lost 50 seconds with a wheel problem during the pit-stop. But even so, we couldn't catch them - we lost time in I lost time in both sessions. The other car was just a bit faster.

"It was very hard but, for the rest, it was okay. I am very, very happy to finish the race, after failing to finish at all last season in the Viper The cars are nice and strong, but we still have to work hard. "

JMB Racing, also starting with new cars and new drivers this weekend, saw one car go out at the start, with the #17 Ferrari 575 M Maranello stopping with engine problems, while the #18 car of Bert Longin, Ian Khan and Christophe Pillon made steady progress and took two points for seventh place.

It was a different, and difficult, race for the various Saleens, despite fastest lap for newcomers Vitaphone Racing. Fastest in free practice, and third on the grid, the black-and-turquoise S7-R of DTM refugees Uwe Alzen and Michael Bartels was extremely rapid in the early section of the race, with Alzen in particular pushing hard and
challenging the BMS Ferrari cars for the lead. But the promise shown throughout the weekend ended when the car went over the kerbs, cutting the cooling and oil lines and suspension, leaking liquid onto the floor and causing the German duo to retire on lap ten.

The race was even shorter for the #4 Saleen, also run by Konrad Motorsport, as Walter Lechner Jr was involved in a first-lap incident with the #14 Lister, which broke the yellow Saleen's wheel.

"I think that was one of the shortest races in my life - two kilometres," Lechner said, "I am really disappointed. The start was not too bad, I stayed on the left, waiting, and I think Coronel couldn't see me, as he went so quickly from right to left. It broke my wheel, and that was it."

"I was fighting with a Ferrari, and I just did not see him there!" was Coronel's similar assessment of the incident.

After setting the best time in the warm-up, the #7 RML example ran strongly early on, but both the #7 and the #8 entries suffered from punctures, which delayed them significantly. Despite that, however, the #8 car of Chris Goodwin and Miguel Ramos took the final point for eighth, while Erdos and Newton finished ninth in GT.

The Graham Nash Saleen had looked certain of a points finish, after a steady start with Jesus Diaz Villarroel and Harald Becker, before the very fast Paolo Ruberti got in the car. But, first a puncture, and then a gearbox problem placed the car tenth in GT, and last of the fourteen classified cars.

"Paolo got into the car and, on his second or third lap, the left rear just exploded," GNM team manager Gordon Davies revealed, "We don't know why, as there is nothing left of it. He went out again and everything was fine.

"Then, he reported that there was a bit of a gearbox issue, that it wouldn't change gear, heard the noise came in - the gear had exploded, and punctured a hole in the side of the casing. But the car was good, Villarroel and Becker were getting used to the car, and their times were consistent, and everything was fine. We were definitely aiming for a points finish. Paolo was quick, and he knows the circuit, so we could have easily finished sixth. But that's motorsport."

Despite a number of problems, the Zwaans Chrysler Viper cars improved steadily over the weekend and, with Christophe Bouchut and Marc Goossens sharing the car with team-owner Arjan van der Zwaan, a good race saw the objective of scoring points achieved. The car, which was that run by Henrik Roos in 2003, finished sixth. The second car, now shared by Roos, Klaus Abbelen and Rob van der Zwaan stopped on the track, having run out of fuel due to a problem during the previous pit-stop.

"It didn't put in 100 litres, but only 80, and, just as we were going to call the car in for a stop, it ran out of fuel," the owner driver sighed, "But, considering the little time we had to fix and build up the #10 car, it's unbelievable that it is still running and finished in the points.

"In two weeks time, it will have a faster engine installed, which will solve the problems it had. Thanks to Bouchut, we managed to get enough speed out of the car. It would have taken us five races for us to get to that point. I hope he might be able to race with us again. It's a good start for us. We need to be better organised as a team, but we know now what we have to do, and we'll be better in three weeks time for Valencia. "

Despite good early race performances for both the Lister Racing and Creation Autosportif Storms, neither made it to the chequered flag. Despite its brush with the Konrad Saleen at the start, the #14 'works' car continued in the race, and had overtaken the #7 RML Saleen for fourth place to join the fight for third, when a broken water hose stopped the car on lap 19. Jamie Campbell-Walter brought the # 27 Creation Lister up to fifth place but, after the first pit-stop, new team-mate Jamie Derbyshire christened his FIA GT debut by spinning into the gravel.

"We were running fifth, catching Babini, who finished third, so I think that, had Jamie's stint gone well, we could have finished on the podium," Campbell-Walter reckoned, "But someone had gone off at Ascari, putting gravel on the track, he spun on the gravel, spun into the gravel, and hit the barriers."

Reversing the positions from the final race of 2003, Ortelli and French team-mate Collard took a comfortable win in the first round of the championship, their Porsche 996
GT3 finishing in seventh place overall. They finished with a good margin over the second-placed car, the GPC Giesse Ferrari 360 Modena driven by Monza's October winner de Simone and Pescatori.

"This is my first N-GT win in Italy," Ortelli explained, "Last year, I finished second behind Fabrizio de Simone, and this time I'm in front of him, which is great. We had a very good fight with Fabrizio in the first lap. He passed me at the start, then I could pass him back.

"It was very a strong start of the season for us. It wasn't an easy race, but I enjoyed it. I had to push like crazy, but I could maintain my lead and then increase it, thanks to the fight going on behind me. I could give a bit of a lead to Emmanuel, and he did a very good job. It's our third joint victory, so it seems like together, we are really
strong."

"The car was perfect today - we had no problems whatsoever," Collard explained, "But, despite the great result, it was still a rather tough weekend for us. We won, but the Ferrari was just behind. It's not going to be too easy this year. There's a big competition between us, so we'll have to see what the future will bring."

Like their GT class team-mates, Pescatori and de Simone were pleased with the performance of the GPC Giesse operation.

"I have to give my best compliments to all the team," de Somine said, "From the first to the last lap, the package was impressive. We didn't have the chance to do any testing, but I'm very happy with the car - it's been a good step up from last year's version. It wasn't really a hard race. It started out really well when we had a good
fight with both the Porsches.The tyres were very consistent as well. Today has been a great start of the season; it's looking very good for the future."

The race also saw the first podium finish for long-time GT competitors Proton Competition, with German father and son team of Gerold and Christian Ried taking third place. They changed from a Porsche 911 GT2 to their current 996 GT3 car at the Brno round last year, and scored their first point in Monza last year.

"This is our first time up here on the podium, so it's a completely new situation for us," Christian Ried smiled, "Obviously, I'm very happy about the race result. We had to start from the back of the grid after changing our engine yesterday, but we didn't have any problems in the race and now we're here - perfect!"

The final points went to the Italian team, AB Motorsport, with drivers Antonio de Castro, Renato Premoli and Bruno Barbaro.

In the classification, Freisinger Yukos Motorsport has a narrow lead of two points over GPC Giesse, with Proton Competition lying third. The Russian-crewed #77 Freisinger Yukos car stopped on the track and did not finish, while the #99 Freisinger Motorsport Porsche of Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr, which was lying second for the first third of the race, had problems at Ascari, hitting the kerb and sustaining damage. It later rejoined but, due to the time lost in the pits, was not classified.