Neel Jani put Switzerland firmly back on top in the championship chase in the A1GP feature race in Durban this weekend, by keeping a calm head as all sorts of chaos reigned behind.

On a scorching day - and with the very nature of a street circuit bound to make some drivers a little hot under the collar - action was always going to be fast and frantic, but perhaps no one anticipated quite how many thrills and spills would be packed into the 70-minute affair under the South African sun. There were no fewer than four safety car periods, innumerable collisions, a red flag rather than a chequered flag to conclude proceedings, and a serious dent in New Zealand and Germany's title chances.

Whilst Jani made a textbook getaway from pole position in the Swiss machine, fellow front row sitter and earlier sprint race first-time winner Robert Wickens was slow away, allowing New Zealand, Brazil and Great Britain to capitalise, despite a scare for the latter prior to the start when both the alternator and battery had to be changed on the grid.

Further back, meanwhile, the first of the fun and games was just about to get underway, as CongFu Cheng and series newcomer Filipe Albuquerque collided, launching the latter up into the air and sending the former clattering into the wall. With a number of other cars all getting involved too, it was the cue for safety car period number one.

China, Lebanon, the USA, Mexico and South Africa were all forced to pit for repairs, with Mexico the biggest loser as David Garza rejoined the fray a lap down. When the safety car disappeared, Jani led from Jonny Reid, Bruno Junqueira, Oliver Jarvis and Wickens, but no sooner had the racing got underway once more than there was yet another contretemps into the notoriously tight and tricky turn one hairpin.

This time John Martin in the Australian entry tagged Michael Ammerm?ller from behind, spinning the German around and subsequently dragging Ireland's Adam Carroll into the mix for good measure. Lo?c Duval somehow escaped sustaining any damage to the French car, before Indonesian Satrio Hermanto piled into Ammerm?ller, and Pakistan's Adam Khan hit the back of Hermanto. Time for safety car period number two...

Once the safety car had left the track again five laps later, everyone finally made it around the first corner all in one piece - nine laps in - but New Zealand was the next nation to suffer misfortune as Reid required a nose change at his first pit-stop after colliding with Mexico's David Garza in the pit-lane, dropping Black Beauty well down the pecking order. Further back, home hero Adrian Zaugg's miserable weekend continued as the South African was delayed by a sticking wheel.

France now led, and following Duval's qualifying troubles, les bleus clearly intended making up some places by staying out as long as possible, an audacious strategy that would pay dividends later in the race. Portugal's Albuquerque would also lead the race during the first pit-stop window, an impressive achievement for the 22-year-old's maiden competitive A1GP weekend.

To further add to his cup of woe, Reid was handed a drive-through penalty for the collision with Garza, whilst Jani would encounter some difficulty in getting past new boy Parthiva Sureshwaren, catapulted into the Indian entry at late notice following regular driver Narain Karthikeyan's wrist injury sustained during practice. Sureshwaren led the field by dint of staying out longer than anyone else, but frustrated Jani who - unable to find a way by - saw Wickens gaining ground fast.

The order following the first flurry of stops was thus Switzerland, Canada, Great Britain and France - Duval the principal beneficiary having moved up four places from eighth into fourth.

Wickens continued to pile the pressure on the race leader, as the Toronto native began to scent a double victory from the weekend, whilst only slightly behind Duval was starting to hound Jarvis for third place. Further back still Cheng was the main man on the move, as the promising young Chinese star successfully attacked first Italian Edoardo Piscopo and then, a couple of laps later, Brazil's Bruno Junqueira, who would subsequently be shown a warning flag.

The top three came into the pits en masse second time around, with Duval again staying out longer in an effort to make up ground. Though he would only remain on-track one lap longer this time, it was enough to hoist the 25-year-old - making what is almost certainly his final A1GP appearance of the 2007/08 campaign - up past Jarvis, who overshot the hairpin in an attempt to regain the position.

On lap 39, though - with nine tours remaining, just half a second separating the two leaders and France and Great Britain in close attendance behind - high drama struck once more. Wickens spun on the exit of turn one, and in trying to rejoin slammed into the unsighted Jarvis, putting both men out on the spot and elevating France up into second place.

The safety car left the pits for a third time, but immediately upon its returning to the pit-lane anarchy reigned again, as fans' favourite Zaugg - who had made strong progress up the order following his earlier delay to move past both Italy and Brazil - attempted an overly-ambitious manoeuvre into turn one, out-braked himself and careered into the unfortunate Jeroen Bleekemolen, who had similarly been rear-ended by Ammerm?ller at the end of the sprint race. Five cars were implicated in the ensuing m?l?e.

"I didn't pay enough attention to warming the brakes behind the safety car," a repentant Zaugg rued afterwards. "I went down the inside, but I had never tried that before and it was very slippery. I'm very sorry for Holland - I should have known better."

The impact put the Dutchman out of his newly-inherited third place, but following a final short safety car period the race was red-flagged and the result counted back a lap, meaning the former DTM and sportscar ace ultimately only lost one position. The final finishing order was Switzerland, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Malaysia - Fairuz Fauzy doing well from twelfth on the grid - China (for whom Cheng also set fastest lap, thereby gaining an extra point for his trouble), South Africa, Italy, Brazil and New Zealand.

Lebanon's Khalil Beschir, meanwhile, was heartbroken as he had been on course to score his nation's first-ever championship point when the action was stopped with just one lap remaining.

For Jani, though, who had been suffering from stomach cramps and dehydration weekend-long, the result was a welcome boost to Switzerland's title aspirations, as well as a timely payback for the braking problem that had cost the 24-year-old victory in the same race two years ago.

"I was happy the race stopped under the safety car in the end," the former Champ Car and GP2 star admitted afterwards. "I was knackered!

"I had a lot of stomach pain and cramps and obviously many runs to the toilet, so this morning I felt really bad. I got two litres of fluids by drip and was a little bit better afterwards, but the cramps and everything were still going on, so the race was really tough.

"I just tried to control the situation and not push too hard. I saw all the crashes in my mirrors. I really felt how dehydrated I was and felt my concentration going away towards the end of the race, so I'm very happy it all worked out.

"My mechanics did a superb job. They got the car ready and the pit-stops were good, so I have to thank the team that they gave me the car again and I just had to drive it."

"We lost the race in New Zealand because of the pit-stop," added a delighted Duval, "and we got second place here because of the pit-stop. The team did a great job - we overtook everybody! On the track we were faster than them, and fortunately for us Canada spun; I was pretty lucky actually because I almost crashed into him.

"It was just a great race, maybe the best in A1GP for me. It's like a victory for us, so I feel really happy. I want to thank all my team because it's the last race for me, and I want to wish them the best for the rest of the season."

World Series by Renault ace Albuquerque, for his part, was over the moon at taking comfortably his country's finest result of the season to-date - and matching Portugal's highest-ever A1GP finish from the series' inaugural campaign.

"I was pushing all the time," he underlined, "and it was easy to make mistakes because the tyres were getting worse. I made some mistakes too, but it happens to everyone and it's not easy to push for over 40 laps without making a mistake. I'm happy with third place."

Following the Durban weekend, Switzerland has now stretched out a ten-point advantage in the nations' title standings over nearest challengers France, with erstwhile leaders New Zealand a further ten points in arrears in third, the Kiwis having notched up a scant two points over the course of the meeting. South Africa and Germany have slipped further back in fourth and fifth positions respectively, with Great Britain, the Netherlands and Canada conversely all gaining ground in sixth, seventh and eighth.

To see the feature race results in full, click here

To see the updated A1GP points table in full, click here

 

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