Arden's Bjorn Wirdheim began the 2003 the season where he left off last year, by taking a lights to flag victory at Imola today, despite race long pressure from Patrick Friesacher.

Out even before the race began with technical problems were Charouz ISR driver Jaroslav Janis and impressive Den Bla Avis rookie Robbie Kerr, who reduced the field to 18 cars by the time the red lights disappeared.

Wirdheim looked to have broken any opposition on the first lap by taking a 1.43secs lead ahead of Friesacher, with Ricado Sperifico, Vitanonio Liuzzi, Townsend Bell, Giorgio Pantano and Enrico Toccacelo leading the chasing pack.

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But Red Bull driver Friesacher soon proved he'd make a race of it in front of the F1 team bosses, by pulling away from Sperifico and soon reducing Wirdheim's advantage to less than a second.

The top two then extended their advantage to over four seconds, with the leading positions staying static until lap 14, when Bell spun out of fifth whilst under pressure from Pantano at the Tosa corner, dropping him to 15th.

However, Pantano received no reward for his efforts and pitted on the very same lap, then retired. He was soon joined by Schmidt and van Hooydonk.

Meanwhile, by lap 17, just 0.6secs separated the leaders, with Sperafico holding on to the final podium position ahead of Liuzzi, Toccacelo and Schroeder. Bell was beginning an impressive fightback after his earlier error and now up to 10th and threatening Baumgartner, whom he would pass on lap 22.

Both Kiesa and Baumgartner spun a few laps later after a clumsy move by Kiesa. They were able to rejoin the action in 10th and 11th places respectively.

But there were no such troubles for Wirdheim, and having soaked up race long pressure from Friesacher, the Swede took victory by just 0.3secs, with Sperafico a distant third.

Liuzzi, Toccacelo, Schroeder, Giammaria and Nguyen completed the points scorers.