Quick thinking allied to a fast start by ART's Marvin Kirchhöfer allowed the German driver to get the jump on battling championship rivals Esteban Ocon and Luca Ghiotto in the run down to turn 1, and once out in front he calmly controlled the race for the next 20 laps all the way through to the chequered flag.
CLICK: Full GP3 race 1 results from Bahrain International Circuit
Ocon and Ghiotto had been alongside each other on the front row of the grid for the start of the race, with Arden's Kevin Ceccon left all alone on the second row for GP3's first ever race on the 15-turn, 3.363-mile Bahrain International Circuit after Campos Racing's Alex Palou as forced to pull onto pit road at the end of the formation lap with technical issues.
When the lights went out, Ocon got a sluggish start and was forced to slice across the front of the field in a desperate bid to hold onto the lead. That was enough to fend off Ghiotto in the Trident car, but the hole left by the absent Palou on the second row had left a space for Ocon's ART team mate Kirchhöfer to dive through on the inside and take the lead into turn 1.
There was plenty of kerb-hopping jostling right through the field on the opening laps, with minor wheel-banging and contact causing damage to various front wings. Trident's Michele Beretta and Arden's Aleksander Bosak were both forced to pit lane for repairs while others including Koiranen GP's Matt Parry and Jenzer Motorsport's Pål Varhaug able to continue with more minor damage.
Kirchhöfer was successfully converting his early lead to a comfortable one second margin over Ocon at the front, with Ghiotto in third ahead of the Arden team mates Emil Bernstorff and Kevin Ceccon, Koiranen's Jimmy Eriksson and Trident's Artur Janosz.
Behind him there was a spirited to-and-fro battle for eighth place between ART's Alfonso Celis Jr and Carlin's Jann Mardenborough, which was finally decided in favour of the newly-confirmed 2016 Force India F1 test and development driver. Eriksson was next on the move with a nice overtake on Ceccon on lap 5; the Italian's attempt to retake the position only managed to leave him wide open to being passed by Janosz instead, which meant that he ended up dropping from fifth to seventh in very short order.
After a fairly breathless, all-action start the race finally settled into something more orderly as the drivers focused on saving their tyres and put themselves into a strong position toward the end of the race for when tyre degradation became an issue. During this spell, Kirchhöfer stretched his lead out to two seconds at one point but then seemed to back off somewhat, allowing Ocon and Ghiotto to gradually close back up on the race leader. In the process Ghiotto set the early fastest lap of the race in the process and closed right up to the back of Ocon, but found no way past when he was there.
As the race passed the midway point, Mardenborough had once again revived his duel with Celis for eighth. Celis found himself some breathing space by passing Ceccon ahead of him, and when Mardenborough tried to do likewise in an ambitious move around the outside of Ceccon in turn 10 on lap 13 he ended up being forced wide as the rear tyres of the two cars made contact. The Briton was able to hold on to the car without too much time lost, and two laps later he was finally able to make the move on Ceccon stick on the second time of asking.
Further back there was a great four-way battle for 11th between Matt Parry, Antonio Fuoco (Carlin), Pal Varhaug (Jenzer Motorsport) and Seb Morris (Status Grand Prix). Parry initially just about held on at the front of the pack despite front wing damage to the Koiranen #12 until finally succumbing to Fuoco's sustained attack, while Varhaug was obliged to leave the field of battle and retire due to a badly askew rear wing.
At the front, Kirchhöfer continued to maintain a decent if not exactly dominant gap over Ocon at the front, but behind the ART pair it seemed that Ghiotto had paid for his early burst of pace, finding himself successfully challenged for third by Bernstorff in turn 1 on lap 17 - a potentially huge moment for the 2015 championship battle.
Ghiotto had no comeback and quickly dropped away form the three leaders, but it was clear that Bernstorff wasn't ready to settle for merely third and he was soon clamped to the back of Ocon's car going into the final lap. Ocon tried everything possible to ward off the attack, but Bernstorff had the better traction and finally forced his way through at turn 8 to take second spot behind Kirchhöfer just in time for the chequered flag, the German taking his fourth win of the season and fifth of his GP3 career to date.
Off the podium, Ghiotto held on to fourth which meant that he lost only three championship points to Ocon on the day. While the battle for the drivers title will clearly go to the wire, the same can't be said for the team championship which was clinched by ART with Kirchhöfer and Ocon successfully finishing in the top three on Friday.
Behind Ghiotto, Eriksson was almost five seconds further back down the road in a lonely fifth ahead of Janosz, while a late move by Mardenborough finally saw the Briton grab seventh place from Celis who as compensation wins pole position for the Saturday morning race 2 under reverse grid rules.
The final points positions were taken by Antonio Fuoco and Jenzer Motorsport's Ralph Boschung, while the battling Matt Parry just lost out in 11th place ahead of Boschung's team mate Mathéo Tuscher and Status Grand Prix's Sandy Stuvik, after Kevin Ceccon suffered for his early pace and collapsed down the standings in the second half of the race, ending up in 14th place.
GP3 newcomer Matevos Isaakyan (Koiranen GP) has an eventful but ultimately short day. Starting from 21st place on the grid he drove an exceptional opening stint and made it as high as tenth place, but in the process comprehensively cooked his tyres. That, and some minor damage to the car, meant he was forced to retire in pit lane after 13 laps.
Saturday's race 2 will be a slightly shorter affair - 30 minutes as opposed to the 40 minutes for Friday's event - and will take place first thing in the morning at 9am local time (6am GMT).
See full GP3 race 1 results from Bahrain International Circuit