By Ollie Barstow

On a weekend that could signal his last appearance in A1 Grand Prix, Nico Hulkenberg potentially bid farewell to the series in style by claiming his and Germany's eighth win of the season following a punishing feature race in Durban that remarkably only saw nine drivers reach the chequered flag.

With commitments in the Formula Three Euroseries set to sideline him for the following round at least in Mexico and rumours persisting that he may choose to curtail a stunning breakthrough season from this moment, Hulkenberg certainly appeared in the mood to impress, marking his possible departure with an eighth win that now makes him the most coveted driver in A1 GP's short history.

Winning from pole position, Hulkenberg led home Great Britain's Robbie Kerr and New Zealand's Matt Halliday with a margin of over ten seconds pulled out over 12 laps following a late safety car period to clear just one of many close encounters with the South African walls.

Indeed, the biggest challenge for Germany and the other teams today was arguably reaching the finish, the myriad of crashes and mechanical failures causing some 14 retirements and seeing just a handful reach the end of the 49 lap race.

The first - and perhaps - most dramatic moment of the race occurred at the start, the tight funnel into the first corner hairpin expected to claim its fair share of victims. As it happens, much of the carnage had happened before drivers even reached the right-hander after both Ireland and Italy stalled on the grid.

As drivers darted out of the way, Ananda Mikola clipped a car in front of him. slid down the inside of turn one and with nowhere to go pinned both South Africa and India up against the wall. Delaying them rather then necessarily damaging them, all three managed to extricate themselves and dash to the pit lane for repairs.

Singapore's Christian Murchison was less lucky though after he was caught out by both stationary cars, clipping Enrico Toccacelo and hitting the wall, putting both out of the race. Canada's James Hinchcliffe would also fail to complete the first lap.

With the safety car deployed and the dust settled, the order revealed Nico Hulkenberg in the lead ahead of Jeroen Bleekemolen, who's magnificent start from fourth on the grid powered him past both France and New Zealand by the first corner. France had fallen to third, ahead of Switzerland, the fast-starting Great Britain from ninth on the grid and the tardy Matt Halliday who had dropped from third to sixth.

One of the big beneficiaries off the start line, China's Ho-Pin Tung was up to seventh from 14th, with Czech Republic, Portugal and Brazil rounding out the top ten.

Coming round to restart the race, Hulkenberg and Bleekemolen got the hammer down immediately but found themselves with a huge seven second lead over the remainder of the pack when Loic Duval snapped the throttle cable on his Lola as he attempted to stay on the tail of the Dutch car. With others unable to pass him until he peeled into the pit lane, the pack headed onto the pit straight well off the leaders.

Perhaps rather bemused by the issues surrounding the restart, Switzerland were left napping over the ensuing lap, with Robbie Kerr duly pouncing on Neel Jani and moving into third place.

Further back there was more contact between South Africa and Indonesia, although this time the blame was put down to an over-ambitious move by Mikola on Adrian Zaugg after he plunged down the inside at turn one and slammed into the side of his sparring partner. With Zaugg coasting to retirement, much to the disappointment of the fans, Mikola got only a few corners further before stuffing his car into the wall regardless.

It took just eight laps for the first round of pit stops to occur, Germany, Netherlands and Great Britain all diving into the pit lane to negate any potential safety cars on a circuit that had already claimed six retirements.

Six became seven though following a curious pit lane clash between Bleekemolen and Australia's Karl Reindler after the former was let out just as the latter came past, the Dutchman clipping his rival, breaking his suspension and putting him out of the race.

It was an incident that was quickly frowned upon by the officials because although Bleekemolen made it back onto the track behind Hulkenberg and with no obvious damage, a drive-through penalty was almost immediately administered, effectively ending Netherlands hopes of a podium.

With Switzerland and New Zealand pitting a lap later than the leaders - Halliday getting ahead of Jani in the process for third -, China assumed the lead, mirroring their tactics from Eastern Creek, Tung leading Portugal, Mexico and USA after all three moved up a place when gearbox woes forced Czech Republic into a spin on lap six. He would eventually retire on lap 24.

China, Portugal and Mexico lasted until lap eleven when all three pitted, but far from return to the track in the midst of the battle, a problem with the tyre change saw Tung have all his work undone, leaving him well outside the top ten when he resumed racing. Portugal on the other hand, having had their pit stop conducted by the Australian team as a consequence of the nation's last minute deal to compete, were up to fifth, ahead of a rather red-faced Netherlands, while Mexico was sandwiched in eighth between the recovering Malaysia and Ireland. Malaysia however would be back in the pit lane on lap 16, promoting Brazil into the top ten.

With the order shaken out as having Hulkenberg leading Kerr by 17 seconds, much of the attention began to surround the tussle for second place with the Brit having to spurn the advances of a racy Halliday. However, despite continuous pressure that rarely saw the duo separated by more than a second lap in, lap out, Kerr was retaining his reputation as tricky to overtake.

While the top six circulated closely but cautiously, those in the lower reaches of the top ten were rather more forthcoming with their manoeuvres, not least Jonathan Summerton, who was marking his debut with Team USA with an impressive drive through the field from 20th on the grid. Passing Ireland for eighth on lap 19, he followed it up with a move on Mexico for seventh on lap 32.

However, just a lap later Summerton would become the tenth retirement of the race when he slid wide out of turn seven, clouting the wall with the side of his car, the subsequent puncture on both the right-front and rear tyres sending him straight into the barriers on the next turn. Despite the seeming severity of the accident, a rather stunned Summerton climbed out of the car otherwise unharmed.

His crash prompted the return of the safety car for only the second time of the day giving Kerr a fighting chance at passing Hulkenberg, who saw his twenty second lead reduced to nothing with the race's time limit drawing nearer.

Unfortunately for Kerr, the Pakistan car would be between himself and Hulkenberg and when the race got back underway the German was already building upon his lead, setting the fastest lap straight away to douse any ignited hopes of a challenge to his position.

It did not take long for retirements twelve and thirteen to occur, with Richard Lyons ending a strong day with a crash in the wall on lap 39 as he battled with Salvador Duran for seventh. Mexico however, would go only three laps further when they were forced out with gearbox troubles with the end in sight.

Extending the theme of the day, Narain Karthikeyan, racing the communal spare car after his was destroyed following problems in qualifying, would end the day as the 14th and final retirement when he too succumbed to gearbox maladies,making him the sixth driver to retire with the same problem on an otherwise reliable formula car.

Nonetheless, India were still able to celebrate two points after the huge attrition rate allowed them to still be classified in ninth place, Karthikeyan's retirement as he crossed the line to start lap 44 preventing Nur Ali from claiming a shock two points for Pakistan. Nonetheless, Ali's steady run through the race was rewarded with tenth and a single point to get Pakistan off the mark this season.

Up at the front, Hulkenberg claimed his eighth win of the season, with Kerr managing to hold Halliday at bay to the chequered flag. Jani claimed fourth on a solid weekend for Switzerland, just ahead of Portugal, Alvaro Parente producing a superb result for a team that barely existed a week ago.

Bleekemolen was a frustrated sixth for Netherlands, knowing full well a podium was possible, while Bruno Junqueira secured points on his debut with a competitive drive to seventh place for Brazil. Malaysia meanwhile overcame their earlier problems to come home in eighth place and secure three points.

In the championship standings, Germany have extended their lead over New Zealand to 30 points, although it remains to be seen whether another of Willi Weber's prot?g?'s, Christian Vietoris, can match the feat of his predecessor at the next round in Mexico.

Nonetheless, the Formula BMW Champion has a healthy buffer over New Zealand, the team proving they can be quick with either Jonny Reid or Matt Halliday at the wheel as they move 12 points clear of France in the standings.

After slipping behind them after the sprint race, second for Great Britain moves them back into fourth place, just one and three points up on Switzerland and Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Portugal and Pakistan's first points of the season mean just Lebanon is yet to score in this year's championship, something they will be eager to resolve when the series heads to the Americas for the next round at the Monterrey circuit in Mexico.

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