Alexandre Premat's storming double victory in the third round of the A1 Grand Prix Championship at the Estoril circuit in Portugal has given France a handy eight point lead in the standings and given all but a few competing nations a slim chance of overall honours.

France went four from six on Sunday thanks to a pair of faultless drives from Premat, who later said that while the opening 18 lap sprint race was tough, the main 36-lap feature went off without a hitch.

The third and final European stop on the inaugural A1 GP tour once again saw flashes of truly great single seater racing but also highlighted a few niggling problems once again.

Premat was a class above all day, matching Nicolas Lapierre's Lausitz double in fine fashion.

From third on the sprint race grid, Premat capitalised on a dreadfully slow, and potentially dangerous bunched start, to squeeze inside the pole-sitting Team Brazil machine of Nelson Piquet Jr as France, Brazil and Neel Jani in the Swiss entry went three wide through the first turn.

Once ahead, the French car gradually drew away from the opposition, pulling out as much as a four second lead as the race wore on. With the second place battle between Brazil and Switzerland gaining momentum however, Piquet Jr and Jani cut that gap in half with five laps remaining.

Although Piquet Jr did his best to breach the gap in the final three laps, Premat was able to maintain a two second advantage to the chequered flag, claiming maximum points and pole position for the standing start feature race.

The start of the feature proved crucial, as Piquet and fourth place start Jos Verstappen in the always well-supported Team Holland entry, both fell victim to one of the series' current niggles, and stalled. Despite having two of his closest rivals disappearing rather quickly in his rear-view mirror, Premat still came under fire from all sides as the field headed into turn one. Home nation hero Alvaro Parente tried to duck underneath the Frenchman while the Czech Republic's Tomas Enge took a look to Premat's outside. Both attacks were rebuked but the appearance of the safety car at the end of the opening lap gave the Portuguese entry a second bite at the cherry.

On the restart, Premat out-foxed Parente and was able to run unchallenged into the first turn. In clean air Premat was sensational, opening a gap of six seconds before two stranded cars caused a second safety car period on lap 12. It was during this interlude that all those who hadn't done so already, made their mandatory pit stops.

As in previous rounds, many teams found difficulties although France was not one of them, putting on a clean and quick stop and getting Premat back out in front easily. His nearest rivals were not so fortunate as Parente stalled and lost nearly a minute; Enge stalled and subsequently sped on pit road, resulting in a drive through penalty.

Those misfortunes promoted Switzerland into second place for the second restart although a recovering Piquet Jr, a lap down in the Brazilian entry, sat between Premat and Neel Jani. Although the Brazilian driver was able to unlap himself on the run down to turn one it would be the only time Premat would be passed by another car, even though Jos Verstappen's over the top lunge on Germany's Adrian Sutil half way round the restart lap resulted in another safety car period.

For this restart Jani was directly behind Premat and although the Swiss driver anticipated Premat's restart well, Premat was able to defend the lead into turn one and set about driving away from the field.

Over the final 16 laps of green flag racing, Premat cruised away to a seven second lead, allowing the rest of the field to provide the excitement behind him.

"The sprint race was quite tough and it was difficult to pull away from Brazil once I had passed them," said Premat, whose continuation of Lapierre's unbeaten performance in the last round has left France with an eight point lead over Brazil in the standings and a 16 point advantage over third place Switzerland. "I focused on my own race and drove a clean race to win this gave me pole for the feature race.

"The feature race was quite easy I had a good start and was surprised that Brazil stalled on the grid. After that it was easy to build up a lead. We had to be careful around the safety car period as Switzerland was very fast but I just used the power boost button and was able to defend my lead. It's a fantastic result for us to claim our fifth podium of the season and our fourth straight win."

 

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