The question of who will be declared the 2015 GP3 champion will go down to the wire after neither of the remaining contenders was able to land a knock-out punch on Saturday morning in the first race at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
ART's Esteban Ocon could have effectively decided the matter in this race and he duly put in a determined drive to lead from lights to flag, while Trident's Luca Ghiotto struggled to find any consistent form. But crucially, a decision by the stewards meant that the race win ended up being handed to Ocon's team mate Marvin Kirchhöfer and Ocon left classified only a single place ahead of Ghiotto, leaving all to play for tomorrow in the last race of the season.
CLICK: Full GP3 race 1 results from Abu Dhabi
Ocon had started the race from pole position, with Arden's Kevin Ceccon alongside him on the front row and Kirchhöfer lined up in third place next to Ghiotto. Jimmy Eriksson took up in fifth next to Ceccon's team mate Emil Bernstorff, despite a scare for the Swede at the start of the formation lap where it appeared that his Koiranen GP car might have stalled.
When the lights went out to get the 18 lap race underway, Ceccon got the better start forcing Ocon to keep his foot down into the first left-hander, resulting in the ART running off the track but then rejoining still in the lead despite his transgression. However, it did not go unnoticed by the race stewards who soon handed down a game-changing five second penalty on the Frenchman for gaining an advantage by exceeding track limits.
Ceccon now had his hands full with Kirchhöfer, while things were not going well for Ghiotto who had been beaten into the first corner by Arden's Emil Bernstorff and then ambushed into the next corner by Eriksson to push him down to sixth place. Meanwhile contact with Alfonso Celis Jr put Adderly Fong out of the race on the first lap in his first appearance for Carlin in place of Jan Mardenborough this weekend, with his car left turned around and stalled on the track resulting in a brief safety car for recovery. Celis himself was able to limp back to pit lane to retire the ART,
When the race restarted, Ocon maintained the lead from Ceccon and Kirchhöfer with Bernstorff holding on to fourth from Eriksson. Ghiotto momentarily suffered another lost position when he was overtaken by Campos Racing's Álex Palou, but the Italian was in no mood for that sort of thing and swiftly took the place back. Desperate to claw back some ground on Ocon at the front, Ghiotto kept pushing and on lap 8 had a momentary off-track excursion of his own, although in his case there was no question of gaining an advantage and instead he was dropped back into the sights of Koiranen GP's Matt Parry.
Ghiotto finally got a break and gained a position on the next lap with the retirement of Ceccon from second place, the Arden suffering from mechanical failure and coming to a halt by the side of the track to trigger a virtual safety car which meant that drivers were required to maintain the existing gaps - including the 5.9s gap between Ocon in the lead and Ghiotto in sixth, a key statistic as far as the championship was concerned given Ocon's five second penalty to be applied after the race.
When the virtual safety car ended, Ocon got the better restart and immediately added a second and a half to his advantage. Further back there was minor contact between Jenzer Motorsport team mates Pål Varhaug and Ralph Boschung, and a slightly more serious incident in which Zaid Ashkanani (Campos Racing) was spun around by Michele Beretta (Trident); all cars were able to continue, but Beretta required to pit for a new front wing and the latter incident marked for a review by the stewards who duly decided on a five second penalty for the Italian.
Ocon's early advantage at the restart soon faded and the lead cars started to close up, which was exactly what Ocon didn't need given the penalty hanging over his head. The message had certainly been relayed to Kirchhöfer that he didn't have to do anything more than maintain his position and stay a second off the back of his team mate in order to pick up the race win. Bernstorff couldn't afford such a laid back approach as he came under attack from Eriksson, which drove him to close right up on the back of Kirchhöfer and spark a battle between the pair for what was effectively the race victory.
Meanwhile there seemed to be nothing that Ghiotto could do to improve form sixth position despite pushing hard, locking up and briefly running wide again on lap 14 in his haste which meant Parry once again threatened to take advantage. More significantly, Ghiotto was warned by the race stewards for not respecting track limits on multiple occasions - another occurrence and he would have a five second penalty of his own to match Ocon's.
Ocon had nursed his tyres through the middle part of the race and with the end now in sight he was finally able to put his foot down in the hopes that he would have enough rubber to help him pull away from the field and counteract his costly lap 1, turn 1 penalty. It was enough to see him cross the line three seconds clear of Kirchhöfer, but the leaders were too closely packed and once the five second penalty kicked in he was ejected from the podium and left in fourth place - still ahead of Ghiotto in fifth but not having been able to pull off the sort of decisive victory he had been hoping for in terms of the championship standings. Instead, Ocon will now take a mere six points lead over Ghiotto into the final race of the season - far too tight to call in a series where anything could happen in any given race.
Ocon's team mate Kirchhöfer had successfully withstood the pressure from Bernstorff to claim his fifth race win of the season, meaning that the pair will be taking their own close fight for third place in the drivers championship to the final race on Sunday. With Eriksson joining them to celebrate on the podium, neither of the title contenders was in evidence as the post-race celebrations got underway.
Having been unable to find his way around the wayward Ghiotto, Matt Parry finished in sixth place ahead of Carlin's Antonio Fuoco while Palou took eighth and with it the pole for race 2 under reverse grid rules. Also finishing in the points on Saturday morning were rookie driver Matevos Isaakyan (Koiranen GP) in only his second GP3 weekend, and the somewhat more experienced Artur Janosz (Trident) rounding out the top ten meaning that Varhaug and Borschung missed out after their earlier spat.
Just one race to go in this year's GP3 championship, and still the question of who will win the title remains unanswered. But one way or another, it will definitely be decided in 24 hours time when the shorter 14-lap race 2 gets underway at 1pm local time (9am GMT) on Sunday.
See full GP3 race 1 results from Abu Dhabi