A1 Grand Prix gained its tenth different winner on Sunday when Team Germany's Niko Hulkenberg charged to a dramatic feature race victory at Zandvoort in one of A1's most exciting races yet.

If the season opening A1 Grand Prix sprint race failed to ignite much excitement from the massive Zandvoort crowd then the feature race more than made up for it with almost non-stop action from start to finish and more than half a dozen potential winners.

The drama started before the lights went out when Team Switzerland's Sebastien Buemi failed to get away on the warm-up lap, causing a minor traffic jam that resulted in Team Malaysia's Alex Yoong clattering over the right rear corner of the Swiss entry. Undamaged by the clash Buemi was able to engage a gear and get away on the warm-up lap, although a subsequent jump start from the rear of the grid would add to his early race woes.

Yoong meanwhile bent something in the left rear suspension assembly on his machine and the Malaysia crew spent four laps repairing the damage before Yoong could start the race. Yoong would go on to set the fastest lap of the race but was unable to reduce the four lap deficit.

When the lights finally went out, polesitter and sprint race winner Adrian Zaugg failed to get away cleanly and was swamped in the Team South Africa entry as outside front row starter Salvador Duran forged ahead in the Team Mexico machine. Team France's Nicolas Lapierre slotted into second place as Zaugg's race came to an early end when he slid wide into the tyre barriers at turn three.

Mexico's lead lasted but one full tour of the 2.6-mile, 12 turn Zandvoort circuit before a mistake by Duran going into Tarzan allowed France to sneak through. On the following lap Hulkenberg in the German entry and a fast starting Darren Manning in the Team Great Britain car also got past Duran for second and third places while Lapierre and defending A1 champions France sailed into a big lead.

Lapierre led Hulkenberg by four seconds when the mandatory pit window opened on lap eight of a scheduled 45 followed by Manning, Duran and then a big scrap for fifth headed by the New Zealand entry of Matt Halliday.

Jeroen Bleekemolen was the first to pit, bringing the Team Netherlands car in from seventh place on lap nine. Although his stop was less than perfect, much to the dismay of the partisan main grandstand, the early pit call would prove to be decisive as Team Pakistan's Nur Ali, the only driver looking somewhat out of his depth on the A1 stage, spun to a halt on the entrance to pit road.

Some quick thinking on pit wall saw Manning, Team USA's Phil Giebler, a recovering Buemi in the Swiss entry and the so far under performing Team Brazil machine duck onto pit road for their stops before the safety car was called for.

The appearance of the safety car, just after track marshals had pushed the Pakistan car onto pit road and into its pit, was somewhat confusing as was the fact that under new A1 GP rules nobody is allowed to pit under safety car conditions.

Although Lapierre had missed out by failing to make his pitstop early, he used the lapped Pakistan entry to great effect on the lap 13 restart to pull out a huge gap by the time the rest of the pack crossed the start/finish line and by the end of lap 14 had opened up a massive 6.6secs lead over the chasing pack.

However it was at the end of lap 14 when Mother Nature played her trump card and over the next five laps a steady and increasingly heavy shower soaked the entire circuit creating a tonne of action in the pits as those drivers yet to make their stops came in and put wets on and many of those that had pitted earlier came back in for a second time.

One exception to the rule was Team USA, who kept their man Giebler out on slicks and by lap 20 he suddenly found himself with a 15 second lead over France with Germany a further four seconds back and Bleekemolen in the Dutch entry another five seconds in arrears.

However even though the rain had by now all but abated Giebler was easy prey for Lapierre, who swept by on lap 22 but such was Giebler's resistance the top four were suddenly separated by just nine seconds with just over 20 laps to go.

Hulkenberg and Bleekemolen made short work of Giebler, who still chose not to put wet tyres on, and set about closing on Lapierre, who appeared to be struggling badly in the legendary Tarzan corner. Using his local knowledge Bleekemolen put on an outstanding outside pass on Hulkenberg for second at Tarzan on lap 24 and then sensationally repeated the move for the lead on Lapierre a lap later.

With the Dutch crowd going crazy Bleekemolen proceeded to pull out a three second lead in just two laps as Hulkenberg also found a way past Lapierre at the turn 9/10 chicane. By then however the track was beginning to dry and Lapierre came back into the pits from third place on lap 30 for slick tyres.

This signalled another rash of stops as slick tyres suddenly became the thing to have again and although the race was heading towards its 70 minute time limit rather than its full 45-lap distance the difference in lap times between slicks and wets on a rapidly drying track was more than five seconds per lap.

Hulkenberg pitted from second on lap 31, which promoted the Team Italy entry of Pier Guidi Alessandro to second and Giebler back to third. Hulkenberg rejoined in fourth, without the worry of the French entry after Lapierre ran wide on his out lap and then promptly brought the Team France car back to its garage and retired with an unspecified mechanical problem.

All the while Bleekemolen stayed out on wets, gambling that time would run out before the slick runners caught and passed him. On lap 33, with 12 minutes remaining Bleekemolen led by more than 20 second although when Giebler passed Alessandro for second the gap soon began to shrink.

The once joyous Dutch crowd suddenly became very tense as Bleekemolen's lead came down by six to seven seconds per lap and by lap 35 with ten minutes remaining it was clear that the home teams gamble wasn't going to pay off.

Giebler caught Bleekemolen on lap 36 but thanks to some tenacious defending by the leader, third place Hulkenberg was able to close on both the leaders before following Giebler passed Bleekemolen through the fast sweepers following the Hugenholtz hairpin.

Hulkenberg's fresher slick tyres were too much for the courageous Giebler to cope with and on lap 37 Hulkenberg calmly moved Team Germany into the lead coming out of turn seven. With the clock ticking down Hulkenberg reeled off the final four minutes with ease, taking the chequered flag after 41 laps with nearly eight seconds to spare over Giebler, whose slick tyres had done well over 30 laps by the end of the race.

Behind the top two all the drama focused on Bleekemolen's struggles with his wet tyres. With three minutes to go the Dutch car was 18 seconds ahead of Team Australia's Ryan Briscoe, who had risen to fourth thanks to staying on the road while most of the other contenders ran off track at least once.

Despite the best efforts of both the driver and his legion of fans Bleekemolen fell to Briscoe half way around the final lap as Australia completed an unlikely podium.

Bleekemolen's fourth place was still greeted with huge applause from the crowd who fully appreciated his heroic efforts while Mexico's Salvador Duran emerged from a midfield pack that seemed to switch places on every single lap to take fifth.

Despite a late race clash with Team Singapore's Christian Murchison, Pier Guidi Alessandro brought the Team Italy entry home in sixth position with Manning seventh after a topsy turvy race.

After being blocked in his pit stall by Team Canada during his enforced second stop Manning then ran wide at Tarzan and dropped to tenth. However in the final six laps the Team GB entry moved passed Ananda Mikola in the Team Indonesia entry, Buemi in the Swiss car and the over-achieving Frankie Chen in the Chinese machine.

Buemi's up and down day ended in eighth place while Chen scored Team China's best ever result with a ninth place effort. Mikola held on for tenth despite several agricultural moments with New Zealand's Matt Halliday coming off best after a last lap clash with Brazil's Tuka Rocha for eleventh.

Further down the finishing order Team Ireland's Michael Devaney spun in the closing stages and, coupled with a ridiculously slow pitstop, finished 14th with series newcomers Greece and Singapore coping well with the mixed conditions to take 15th and 16th places respectively.

Yoong in the Malaysian entry was 17th with the Czech Republic the only other car running in the hands of Tomas Kostka, albeit many laps down after a lap one collision that resulted in Kostka losing his nose.

In addition to South Africa and France, Team India's Armaan Ebrahim also retired after numerous spins, as did Lebanon's Basil Shabaan and Pakistan's Nur Ali.

All in all the opening feature race of the year will be hard to top with superb wheel to wheel racing up and down the field. Some questionable officialdom regarding the safety car period and the continuation of last year's sticking wheel-nut bugbear aside, one of the biggest A1 crowds ever enjoyed two new winners and the discovery of plenty of new stars.

Jos who?

 

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