No one can say that Saturday's GP3 race win at Monza came easily to Emil Bernstorff or was in any way handed to him. On the contrary, rarely had a victory in the series been quite so hard-won as this one as the ART driver was forced first to overpower Marvin Kirchhöfer in a no-holds-barred early duel, and then to race his way back to the leading trio who had long-since disappeared down the road.
It was a stunning drive for the 22-year-old from Northhampton, and he was rewarded with his third GP3 Series win and his second of the season - and this a much more fulfilling one than the last, which came at Spa hours after the end of the feature race courtesy of a post-race penalty for Esteban Ocon. It was Ocon who was his main opposition at Monza, too, and this week Bernstorff seemed fired up and intent on proving that he could beat his rival fair and square on track rather than in the race stewards' office, producing a brilliant drive in the process in what was overall a thrilling afternoon's racing.
CLICK: Full results from Saturday afternoon's GP3 race at Monza
After Luca Ghiotto's blistering pace in qualifying on a wet track earlier on Saturday, the question on everyone's lips was whether the brighter, dry and sunny afternoon conditions would allow any of his rivals a chance to get on an equal footing in the first 22-lap race of the weekend at Monza. Sharing the first row with the championship points leader, ART's Esteban Ocon had the best shot of ambushing Ghiotto when the lights out and there was also a chance for Matt Parry (Koiranen GP) and Kevin Ceccon (Arden) to take advantage from the second row should either of the front pair falter.
And remarkably, falter is exactly what the hitherto bulletproof Ghiotto promptly did, the Trident stalling on the grid and causing consternation as the cars behind had to react fast to weave around and avoid a collision. It was a godsend for Ocon who was unassailed at the front as he raced off to the first chicane, while Ceccon initially picked up second only to be quickly passed by a fired-up Parry
Meanwhile, starting from the third row, Bernstorff managed to fend off ART's Marvin Kirchhöfer in the run down to Roggia but both cars overshot the chicane and Kirchhöfer ended up being launched into the air by the kerbing. As Kirchhöfer battled to gather the car back under control, Carlin's Antonio Fuoco went off in avoidance and then sheared back across the track somehow without hitting anyone in the process before making heavy contact with the barriers on the other side of the track. Fuoco was able to limp back to the pits without the need for a safety car.
With Ocon and Parry pulling away at the front and Ceccon finding a clear piece of track to himself in third, Kirchhöfer was able to regain his momentum and get around Bernstorff. The Briton then pulled off a lovely pass through Roggia on lap 7 only for a composed Kirchhöfer to immediately counter-attack at Lesmo to regain the position as their fierce duel continued lap after lap. All the while, Koiranen GP's Jimmy Eriksson was maintaining a watching brief in sixth place ready to pounce if the pair ahead of him succeeded in taking each other out.
Bernstorff finally managed to secure fourth position on lap 8, but by this point he was 2.4s adrift of his team mate Ceccon down the road in third place. Nevertheless, Bernstorff was soon able to eat up that gap, and on lap 14 took advantage of Ceccon going in too deep at the first chicane to run wheel-to-wheel down to Roggia where he was able to seal the pass albeit the cost of a lock-up of his front left wheel. That didn't appear to affect his handling or his speed, however, and Bernstorff could now set his sights on hunting down the lead pair.
Ocon continued to head the field but he had been unable to pull away from Parry and remained very much under pressure, and neither man was running at the same pace as the fast-approaching Bernstorff. Sure enough, lap 16 saw Bernstorff effortlessly pass Parry for second in the first chicane, looking for all the world as though his Arden alone was fitted with the DRS devices used in F1 and GP2. Riding on Bernstorff's coattails, Ceccon tried a similar move on Parry next lap by but ended up having to take to the escape road instead, although he had enough of an advantage over Kirchhöfer to ensure he didn't lose a position as a result of the mishap.
Bernstorff now had Ocon in his grasp, but his first attempt to take the lead was thwarted by the Frenchman protecting his line into Rettifilo which forced Bernstorff to rattle over the kerbs at the start of lap 19. He wasn't able to make a move next time by either at the start of what was the penultimate lap. Aware that he was running out of time, Bernstorff switched attack and tried a move on the run into Roggia instead and caught Ocon unawares, taking the lead with a lap and half to go and then pulling away to safety in time for the chequered flag and a thoroughly well-deserved victory.
Behind them there was a fierce battle between Parry and Ceccon for the final podium position which went all the way to the final lap, with the local favourite finally managing to get his nose ahead through Curva Grande and warding off Parry's counter-attacks to beat him to the line by mere inches.
The pair were some four seconds ahead of Kirchhöfer who after the early thrilling tussle with Bernstorff had been left to his own devices as he came home a fairly lonely fifth place ahead of Eriksson. Seb Morris had been looking in line to finish in seventh place but his attempts to pass Eriksson on lap 16 had left him open to attack from behind by Jenzer Motorsport's Mathéo Tuscher, who duly got ahead going into Roggia. Morris was then caught out when Tuscher was slow out of the chicane and the Status Grand Prix car damaged its front wing running into the back of the Jenzer, leaving Morris limping home for the rest of the race and an easy target for first Campos Racing's Álex Palou and then his own team mate Alex Fontana to pass him before the chequered flag. It did leave Morris with the final points position, while Palou will pick up the Sunday race 2 pole position under reverse grid rules.
Just missing out on the top ten was Jenzer Motorsport's Ralph Boschung despite an impressive run from the back of the grid having being forced to sit out qualifying earlier in the day with technical problems. Mitchell Gilbert (Carlin) was 12th just ahead of Sandy Stuvik (Status Grand Prix) and Brandon Maïsano (Campos Racing).
Ghiotto's starting grid disaster means that the GP3 championship has now tightened up considerably, the Italian's overnight lead down to just 14 points from Ocon and Bernstorff moving into third place in the standings ahead of Kirchhöfer. With Ghiotto also now starting far down the grid in the second race of the weekend, the championship situation could yet be further transformed on Sunday.
The shorter 17-lap race 2 will get the green flag tomorrow morning at 9.25am local time (8.25am BST), followed by the second race of the weekend in the GP2 Series with the 21-lap sprint race set for 10.35am (9.35am BST).
See full results from Saturday afternoon's GP3 race at Monza