Having seen a maiden FIA F3000 victory slip away in his debut season, Italian pre-season favourite Vitantonio Liuzzi finally got it right to take a lights-to-flag victory in round one of the 2004 campaign at Imola.

As has become the norm in the series, the race was something of a procession once the opening lap skirmishes had been resolved, and Liuzzi was able to lead through the now mandatory pit-stops to take a comfortable eight-second victory over fellow front row starter Enrico Toccacelo.

Able to get a good start, the Arden International driver made the most of the empty road ahead of him, eking out a three-second advantage over Toccacelo in the opening part of the race. The pit-stops would be vital, however, as it was here that Liuzzi lost the chance of breaking his duck in 2003, but the Arden team performed a regulation tyre change on lap 14) and, with new tyres, the former world karting champion rejoined smartly, regaining the lead as the stops cycled through.

After 31 laps, there was little doubt that the series would have a new winner, with Liuzzi almost nine seconds ahead of Toccacelo, who had held on to his second spot through the mid-race interruptions.

"It is a perfect start to the season - and the first victory is, of course, always something special," Liuzzi said after stepping down from the podium, "The race was very exhausting and more difficult than it might have looked like, but I am more than happy now."

Toccacelo was never close enough to pressure his fellow countryman, and fell further behind after coming across a couple of tardy backmarkers, Ferdinando Monfardini in particular.

"I am pleased with my second position today," the Italian said of the BCN team's first podium, "I was able to keep Liuzzi?s pace in the first part of the race, but unfortunately some drivers blocked me after my pit-stop and I lost time."

If Toccacelo's result reflected the promise he and BCN had shown in pre-season testing, the same could not be said for Jose-Maria Lopez. The Argentine had frequently traded top spot on the winter timesheets, but dropped away from the leading pair early on, having had to wrest third place from Coloni stable-mate Jeffrey van Hooydonk. The CMS driver was pressing on sufficiently to set the race's fastest lap, but went just far enough over the edge to crash out, ripping the right-hand side from his car in a sizeable accident at Variante Alta.

That error should have allowed van Hooydonk back onto the podium, but the pit-stops had at least provided an opportunity for a change in the order, with rookie Robert Doornbos coming out the biggest beneficiary. The young Dutchman, in his first race with the Arden team, found himself elevated to third by Lopez's demise, and with a two-second gap back to new fourth-place man Raffaele Giammaria, was able to complete a strong 1-3 for the reigning champions.

"To score a podium in my first race is very satisfying," Doornbos admitted, "It was a tough drive, so I hope I'm still fit enough to celebrate this great result tonight!"

Giammaria and Tomas Enge both took advantage of van Hooydonk's drop down the order during the pit-stop window, with the Italian claiming a strong fourth place on his return from injury and the Czech on his return from sportscar racing.

Giammaria crashed heavily in the final group test at Barcelona last week, but showed no ill-effects of his brief stay in hospital and rewarded the hard work put in by the Durango-affiliated AEZ squad to have his car ready in time for Imola. Starting from seventh place, he quickly disposed of Enge at the start and held the Czech at bay for the rest of the race.

The final point-scoring positions fell to Yannick Schroeder and newcomer Alan van der Merwe, who enjoyed an energetic - if largely fruitless - scrap early on. The South African rookie was racing with a virus, but belied his weakened state to both make a cracking start - gaining four places off the line - and then dice with the vastly more experienced Frenchman. Although Schroeder eventually secured seventh spot, just a couple of tenths separated the two cars as they took the chequered flag.

van der Merwe also gained an important psychological point within the Super Nova camp, having finished ahead of fourth-year driver Patrick Friesacher. Although neither man has enjoyed a vast amount of pre-season testing because of the late signing of their deals, the managed to put in a respectable showing for David Sears' team, and crossed the line three-tenths of a second apart.

"I'm not very happy," was the Austrian's perhaps understandable estimation of events, "I made a bad start as, when I got on the throttle, I had too much wheelspin and lost one position. Then, going into the first corner, I was on the inside, but the guys in front of me braked really early, so those on the outside passed me. Finally, after the pit-stop, I seemed to have a problem with fifth and sixth gear, so it was a really bad weekend for me."

van der Merwe was happier with his result, but admitted that there was still work to be done to overcome the late start to his season.

"It was okay for the first race, but we really just have to sort out qualifying," he insisted, after gridding twelfth.

Among those joining Friesacher outside the points, Tony Schmidt completed the top ten at some distance from the Austrian, with Jan Heylen, Mathias Lauda and Rodrigo Ribeiro rounding out the unlapped runners at fairly equidistant margins. Lauda could have been better placed, but was forced to complete a drive-thru' penalty for cutting one of the chicane, leaving him a distant twelfth overall.

"After a bad qualifying, this was the best I could do," the Austrian rookie sighed, "The lap times were okay, but it was practically impossible to overtake. I was simply too nervous and hectic yesterday, and I have to fully concentrate on racing."

Joining Lopez on the retirement list, promising BCN rookie Esteban Guerrieri was unlucky to have his Lola's front wing collapse, sending him off track before the pit-stops had begun, while young Turk Can Artam barely got going at all, as his Coloni entry needed a first lap pit-stop before grinding to a halt on lap four.

"I am very disappointed with the result, but I guess that is part of racing - sometimes things are out of your control," Artam sighed, "My mechanics have been working hard in preparation for Imola over the last few weeks, and particularly over the weekend, but we have been let down by a technical part. We need now to understand why the problem occurred and make sure that it does not happen in future."