Two cars at the front of the GP3 grid failed to get underway at the start of the first of two Sunday races at Sochi Autodrom and Trident's Luca Ghiotto took advantage of the mayhem to put himself into the lead of the race by the end of the first lap, and he was able to hold onto that advantage over his chief rival Esteban Ocon all the way through to the chequered flag 15 laps later.
CLICK: Full Sunday morning GP3 race 1 results from Sochi Autodrom.
GP3 was in new territory on Sunday at Sochi Autodrom, with two races being held on the same morning after Carlos Sainz' crash during F1 practice on Saturday had forced the postponement of race 1. The day's schedule had been adjusted to accommodate the enforced change with racing starting an hour earlier and race 1 being shortened by five laps in order to fit everything in before the F1 Russian Grand Prix.
The delay meant that the race was held under perfect blue skies and brilliant if chilly early morning sunshine. The grid for the race remained as expected, with ART's Esteban Ocon having claimed pole from Jenzer Motorsport's Mathéo Tuscher, and Arden's Kevin Ceccon and Campos Racing's Alex Palou on the second row. Carlin's Jann Mardenborough lined up in fifth place but he had a new neighbour on the grid in the form of championship leader Ghiotto after the Trident man was promoted a place thanks to a three-place grid penalty for Koiranen GP's Matt Parry, who had been deemed to have blocked Campos Racing's Konstantin Tereshchenko during the Saturday morning qualifying. At the back of the grid, Jenzer Motorsport's Pål Varhaug has been given permission by the race stewards to take part despite missing the 107 per cent cut-off time due to the rapidly changing damp conditions in the session.
When the lights went out, Ocon made a perfect start and leapt away from the grid which was thrown into chaos by both Tuscher and Ceccon failing to move. Ghiotto was the big winner as all the drivers were forced to dodge the sudden obstacle course at the front, using the opportunity to move straight into second place behind Ocon. He was clearly the fastest of the two cars and pressed his advantage on the back straight to claim the race lead, which he managed to keep despite a slight lock-up heading through the final corners of the first lap.
Tuscher and Ceccon had finally managed to get underway but in Ceccon's case he was probably wishing he hadn't bothered, as he was then taken out by his team mate Aleksander Bosak at the end of the first lap to being out a safety car; joining them on the sidelines was Varhaug who had also spun out early in the lap. Meanwhile Tuscher managed to finish the first lap without incident, but then had to return to pit lane to retire in order to have his technical issues investigated in preparation for race 2.
When the safety car came in at the end of lap 4, Ghiotto led Ocon to the restart ahead of Emil Bernstorff (Arden), Palou, Antonio Fuoco (Carlin), Mardenborough, Parry, Artur Janosz (Trident), Jimmy Eriksson (Koiranen GP) and Alfonso Celis Jr. (ART) with Jenzer Motorsport's Ralph Boschung running just outside the points in 11th. Ocon wasn't able to do anything about Ghiotto, but Mardenborough pulled off a nice move on his team mate for fourth and Boschung successfully promoted himself up into tenth place with a quick pass on Celis. Boschung's success was short-lived however and he immediately came under intense pressure for the position from the fast-charging Marvin Kirchhöfer in the ART and eventually was forced to concede the spot.
As the shortened race reached midway, Ghiotto punched out a fastest lap to pull over a second clear from Ocon at the front. Trying to respond, Ocon ran wide on lap 9 and ended up more than doubling the gap between himself and the leader to three seconds. Otherwise, the top four were all running close together on track and with degradation not expected to be a problem on the 3.634-mile, 19-turn street circuit it seemed that overtaking chances from this point on would be few and far between.
While Ghiotto's win was no longer in doubt and Ocon was looking safe in second from Bernstorff despite his minor bout of off-roading, there was a good battle brewing for fourth between Palou and a feisty Mardenborough and between Parry and his team mate Eriksson for seventh. Kirchhöfer had been hoping to press home his early advantage after picking up a further position with a pass on Janosz, but he found himself stalled in ninth place and unable to challenge Eriksson for the extra place that would confer the race 2 pole position under reverse grid rules - a potentially crucial moment in terms of his own dwindling championship hopes.
Ultimately there were no changes in the closing minutes of the race, despite a mistake from Parry at the start of the final lap opening half a door for Eriksson to think about pouncing. While evidently disappointed at missing out on the win, Ocon did manage to claim the fastest lap to pick up a valuable bonus point and cut Ghiotto's winning margin to just 1.5s. Even so, the Italian has still opened up a 15 point advantage over Ocon in the championship standings with this morning's win.
There will now be a mandatory two hour break before the second GP3 race of the day and of the weekend, but the gap will be neatly filled by the 21-lap GP2 sprint race which gets underway at 10.05am local time (8:05am BST).
See full Sunday morning GP3 race 1 results from Sochi Autodrom.