France maintained its run of success in the A1 Grand Prix series, but was helped to a flattering feature race success at Sepang by problems for chief rivals Britain and Switzerland.

Starting from pole, sprint race winner Alex Premat made a poor start, but a strong-arm move towards the pitwall prevented Neel Jani from pushing the Swiss car into the lead, and allowed Robbie Kerr's British machine to jump into second spot as the leaders exited the turn 1-2 complex.

Still on the grid at this point were expected frontrunners Brazil and Holland, both of whom stalled, while Stephen Simpson started the South African entry from the pit-lane after a late battery change. Hayanari Shimoda lined up at the back of the field after having stalled on the parade lap.

Behind the squabbling British and Swiss entries - the fight allowing France to eke out a two-second lead early on - Ireland got the better of New Zealand and Malaysia to make up for a poor opening sequence in race one that effectively squandered a second row qualifying spot, while Italy and Pakistan made the most of the traditional melee at turn one to vault into seventh and eighth respectively.

Adam Khan, however, was already struggling with the green-and-white Pakistan car, and quickly dropped back through the order, USA and Canada the first to take advantage of his problems, despite Khan using his power boost voraciously.

The second lap had already started dramatically, with China's Tengyi Jiang rolling over the top of Portugal's Alvaro Parente at turn one, leaving the red Lola stranded in the gravel and the new British F3 champion with a right-rear puncture. Pakistan then joined the list of retirees, having received a helping hand from India's Armaan Ebrahim which turned Khan sharp left into the barriers.

France was able to maintain its gap at the front as Britain and Switzerland continued to scrap over second, but Kerr was already showing signs of his first race brake problems returning, the Arden-run GB car locking up at every opportunity. That increased Switzerland's appetite for the fight, with Jani looking for the slightest gap in order to resume his pursuit of Premat.

The chance finally came on lap eleven, but not before Kerr had put up stiff resistance through the opening combination. Getting a better exit from the final hairpin, Jani got a run on the British car into turn one but, despite edging ahead, found Kerr retaliating down the inside. That still gave the Swiss driver the advantage into turn two but, again, Kerr held firm through three and four.

At turn ten, however, the British brake problems hit back - as they had in race one - Kerr running wide enough to allow his rival to cut back inside and finally claim second spot at turn eleven. France, but now however, had stretched its advantage to more than three seconds...

Italy and Indonesia had opened the pit-stop window on lap ten, but the key players only followed them in a couple of laps later, with Ireland, Canada and Germany all pitting from leading positions. While Sean McIntosh and Timo Scheider were able to rejoin in less than 50 seconds, however, Ireland's day again took a turn for the worst, with Ralph Firman the victim of a sticking wheel nut, and taking over a minute to complete his stop, dropping to 18th on the road as a result.

New Zealand showed how things should be done, the WSR squad turning Matt Halliday around in a sprightly 46.2secs as the Kiwi battled with USA and the recovering Japan, New Zealand and the Americans both gaining places on Ireland. Malaysia's Alex Yoong, meanwhile, almost threw away the home team's chance of points by coming in a little too hot for his stop on the next lap, the yellow Lola appearing to clip the barriers as the ex-F1 pilot attempted to get it slowed down. After that, a 52-second stop appeared relatively calm...

France was the first of the frontrunners to stop, allowing Switzerland to assume temporary control of proceedings, but Premat was returned to the track in a lightning 40.5secs, the quickest of the race, to put the pressure firmly back on to his pursuers.

Britain, still running behind Switzerland, if a little more distantly, was the next to stop, but saw all hope of a points finish - let alone a podium - disappear as the left rear wheel refused to seat properly. An alternative was produced, and also caused problems, before Kerr finally rejoined after a lifetime 110secs.

The battle for second was thrown wide open when Switzerland also suffered problems, the wheel nut issue clearly not having been solved since it reared its head throughout the opening rounds. Although Jani was only stationery for a shade over 53 seconds, it dropped the Swiss car into a frenetic battle for the second podium spot with Mexico - who had yet to stop - the Czech Republic, Italy and Malaysia.

"I think we could have won easily," Jani sighed, "In the first race, I was fighting the car but, in this one, it was fantastic. As soon as I passed Robbie, I was able to catch Alex quickly - it was the opposite to the first race, and we had a really good chance. But then the pit-stop took about half a century!

"The car was so good that, when I got out of the pits, I was coming through the field really easily and passed about three cars on one lap. The power boost button helped, of course, but, with these cars, you can follow quite easily the car in front and get close in the corners without losing any grip."

While Premat made good his escape at the front, Jani began to pick off those between himself and the Frenchman, with Tomas Enge succumbing meekly at the final corner on lap 20 as Jani moved into third on the road, before picking off Luis Diaz for second shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, Kerr's sorry afternoon came to an end when the GB car coasted to a halt at about the same time, while the battle for fifth and sixth between Italy and Canada ended in tears for McIntosh when he misjudged his move on Enrico Toccacelo and wiped the nose from his white machine. Toccacelo somehow escaped unscathed from the heavy contact.

Further back, there were battles aplenty, with Germany, the USA and Ireland all in close contention for the minor points. While another slip from Yoong saw Malaysia and New Zealand swap sixth and seventh spots, a similar indiscretion from Scheider saw Bryan Herta pounce in the garishly-liveried American machine.

The cause of the incidents quickly became apparent, however, with the first drops of rain becoming visible. The precipitation, which was only occurring on the far side of the circuit, prompted a couple of comedy moments in the pits as, first, the Dutch team considered fitting wets during its late mandatory pit-stop - that was wets on the rear only mind you, before sense prevailed - and Mexico went the whole hog, and sent Diaz back out on a full set of grooves for the final lap.

Tricky conditions aside, France remained untroubled to the flag, Premat backing off enough to flatter the Swiss team with a much reduced gap to second.

"I used the power boost button just once, to pass Neel, and, after that, the race was quiet," the winner reported, "After the start, I was in front, but I was lucky because Neel was fighting with Robbie Kerr.

"The car was great to drive, but I decided with my engineer that it was best to do a pit-stop in the middle of the race, as the car was becoming difficult. The team did a great pit-stop - I knew Neel was pushing really hard, but the mechanics did a good stop and got me out about 15 seconds in front of him. With ten laps to go before the end, I was already backing off and looking after the car."

Enge took third for the Czech Republic, heading Italy, Malaysia and New Zealand across the line to claim the country's best result of the season so far.

"We were very unlucky in the first race, because of a bad qualifying position," the IRL driver commented, "At the back of the field, there is more chance of an accident and that is what happened to me. I also had a gearbox problem, so the car was awful.

"However, the mechanics did a great job between races, and got the car ready just in time to get out of the pit-lane for the second race. It was perfect, and we had a good pit-stop, although we lost a few seconds to Italy, but I was able to make this time up and finish third.'

In a fitting finale, Yoong inspired the natives by repassing Halliday on the final lap, claiming another top five position for the home team and lifting Malaysia to an impressive sixth overall in the points, just six marks back from Great Britain and level with the Netherlands.

Having stalled on the grid, Nelson Piquet Jr completed another strong recovery drive, battling with Australia's Will Davison in the closing stages before slipping ahead to claim the final point of the afternoon. The Brazilian was just over three seconds shy of Ireland's Ralph Firman at the chequered flag, the Irishman salvaging ninth after his long pit-stop.

It could have been eighth - or even seventh - for the former Jordan F1 pilot, as he diced with Timo Scheider and Bryan Herta in the final laps. Herta eventually led the closely-matched group across the line, and was himself only seven-tenths behind Yoong.

 

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