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.