Enrico Toccacelo took an unexpected victory in the first round of the FIA F3000 Championship at the Nurburgring, the beneficiary of some close quarter contact between the series points leaders.
Starting from third on the grid, Toccacelo was elevated to the front of the field when championship leader Bjorn Wirdheim refused to yield to Ricardo Sperafico's vigorous advances, with the damage sustained by both cars dropping them to the tail of the field after respective pit-stops.
Wirdheim got the jump on the rest of the grid at the start, but Sperafico refused to be beaten and moved to the inside of the Swede when he ran wide on the exit of turn one. The two cars came close to touching on that occasion, but continued to battle their way to the Ford Kurve, where the Brazilian ran out of road with a rear puncture and Wirdheim incurred floor damage that dropped him down the order. Both returned to the pits for repairs and ended the race running together in twelfth and 13th positions.
Toccacelo was thus ideally placed to assume the lead, initially heading the two Red Bull Junior cars of Vitantonio Liuzzi and returnee Patrick Friesacher. The pair looked to be evenly matched, but were being dogged by the second Arden car of Townsend Bell as Toccacelo eased away at the front.
Bell's pressure eventually told, as he made a valid move to the inside of Friesacher at turn one on the fourth lap, but the Austrian - in his first race back since breaking an arm in Barcelona - did not appear to notice the red machine sliding up his inside and the pair made contact. Having been almost parallel to the Red Bull car, Bell's Lola rode up over its rear wheel before bouncing down on its rear wing and spinning across the track. Again both resumed, although, in this case, little could be done for either car when they got back to the pit-lane.
The incident nearly accounted for the Den Bla Avis car of Monaco winner Nicolas Kiesa, who just avoided Bell's stationary machine, and moved into third place as a result of his evasion tactics. Behind the Dane, Yannick Schroeder again had the leading Charouz car in the points, where he was followed by Toccacelo's Super Nova team-mate Derek Hill, Jeffrey van Hooydonk and Jaroslav Janis.
With the leading series protagonists out of the running, the scene was set for a Giorgio Pantano recovery drive, after the Italian had qualified only 14th but, despite making up early ground, the former karting ace threw away any hope he had of closing the gap on the points leader by nearly running into the back of van Hooydonk and then damaging his front wing at the chicane. Although he tried to press on with the damage, he only succeeded in running out of road at Ford, narrowly avoiding the Belgian and also his own Durango team-mate Raffaele Giammaria, who went on to score points in seventh.
Once the early lap incidents had been purged from the system, the race settled down into something of a procession, with Toccacelo comfortably ahead of Liuzzi, before a gap back Kiesa and Schroeder, both running solitary races. The main focus of attention - before it became apparent that Wirdheim and Sperafico would be running in close company at the tail of the field - came from the battle for fifth involving Hill, van Hooydonk, Janis, Giammaria, Phil Giebler and Tony Schmidt.
As Hill gradually edged away from the squabbling quintet in his mirrors, Janis made his move on van Hooydonk to secure sixth spot, leaving the Belgian to fend off the recovering Giammaria and ever improving Giebler, who had Schmidt in his wake, but not close enough to challenge until the final laps. As the German closed in, however, his Astromega team-mate made an error that saw Giammaria pick up another place, and forced Giebler to take evasive action, thwarting Schmidt's progress in the process.
At the front Toccacelo was coming under slightly more pressure from Liuzzi, but the Italian rookie was never close enough to challenge on the final lap and, having clouted the chicane bollards once already, played it careful on the run to the flag to ensure his best result since graduating from F3.
Toccacelo and Kiesa, who took an easy third, made the most of their runs to the front to vault ahead of Sperafico and Pantano in the points, and close the gap on Wirdheim at the top of the tree. Perhaps F3000 2003-style won't be a walkover after all....