Alex Premat extended France's winning run to seven races in the A1 Grand Prix series at Sepang, but had to work for the victory and could still lose it.

Poleman Neel Jani made the better start, leaving Premat to challenge around the outside, before falling into the clutches of Britain's Robbie Kerr as the switchback corner unfolded.

Kerr's challenge, which had taken the GB car very close to the pit-wall at the start, was aided by Irish rival Ralph Firman Jr, who touched the rear of the French machine into turn one, unsettling it enough for Kerr to squeeze through into second.

Once the dust had settled - and there was a lot of it after Italy's Enrico Toccacelo had received a shove into the dirt from Indonesia - Jani enjoyed a comfortable advantage over Kerr, with France under pressure from both New Zealand and Brazil. Premat, however, was already settling in, and quickly pulled out a gap to his pursuers as he set his sights on Kerr.

Behind the battling NZ and Brazilian cars, Jos Verstappen vaulted the Dutch machine into sixth, with Fairuz Fauzy giving the home crowd something to cheer by getting ahead of Ireland, as Firman struggled to recover from his brush with France.

By the start of lap two, the top three had pulled away from the chasing pack, with Premat now right with Kerr. As Jani made good his early escape, the two red, white and blue cars behind indulged in something of a frenetic scrap, with Premat attempting to exploit every possible passing opportunity. Repeated looks into the first corner eventually saw the Frenchman ease ahead, only to run wide and allow Kerr back into second. It was the same story at turn four, Premat again unable to keep the French car tight enough on exit, but finally the move stuck at turn eleven - all on the same lap - as Kerr made the slightest of errors.

Once ahead, Premat was able to stretch away from the Arden-run GB machine, quickly closing onto the back of Jani, who was already struggling with understeer in the silver Swiss entry. Despite having run out of power boost in trying to pass Kerr, the French car still looked the faster, although Premat now had to modulate his pace to that of the leader, who continued to do a tidy job and left little opportunity to pass.

"The start was good, I went up the inside and pulled up alongside Neel Jani, but he closed the door and I had to pull back," Kerr reflected later, "I had to keep my head down and keep concentrating, but I had problems with the brakes and ran wide. The brakes had no feel and I had understeer into the corners."

As Kerr dropped away from the lead battle, Piquet became a threat, but the Brazilian was unable to close enough to challenge, and had to be content to run comfortably ahead of Verstappen, who had disposed of New Zealand for fifth. The Kiwis continued to hold sixth, comfortably ahead of Ireland, Firman having passed Fauzy for seventh in the opening stages.

The Malaysian remained a threat, however, although Portugal was close enough to pick up on any mistake. Team USA edged into the final points position, but Bryan Herta could not rest, as 16-year old Armaan Ebrahim remained in touch, having made up four places over his grid slot. The young Indian drove a composed race, under pressure from the more experienced - if slightly jet-lagged - Timo Scheider.

Mathias Lauda and Luis Diaz aside, the action remained up front, with Premat all over Jani with more than half the race to run. The Swiss car was increasingly struggling with understeer, Jani struggling to hold his line around the key corners, but cutting back enough to keep Premat on his toes. The two came close to touching on several occasions, with Jani having to use up his boost well before the final laps in order to hold on to his slim advantage.

Premat, however, was not to be denied and, having sized his rival up for several laps, made a decisive move into turn two. The French car nosed ahead, but Premat's pace was just too much, allowing Jani to cut back inside. Premat kept his foot in, however, his outside line now giving him the inside for the left-handed second turn.

Jani was not to be cowed and, keeping with the Frenchman, made a move of his own into turn four, only to be rebuffed in robust fashion. The stewards will undoubtedly take a look at the number of moves made by Premat in his defence, but the effort was enough to keep the DAMS-run car ahead, Premat easing out to 1.2secs by the flag.

"I used my power boost button to try and get past Robbie Kerr and, in my mind, was thinking everyone can make a mistake and hoped that those in front would do," the Frenchman said, "Neel and I had a few corners very close and it was very hard. Now I hope to get a good start in the next race and get a good gap for the championship. That will be enough."

Jani took second but, when asked if he thought he was going to win the race, commented that he had never been confident.

"Not really," he sighed, "Even at the start, I felt a lot of understeer and I knew that, once Alex got past Robbie, it would be very difficult. On the last lap, I couldn't hold him any more and had to let him past. I just hope we can change the set-up for the next race."

The Swiss car finished four seconds clear of Kerr, who kept Piquet at bay to the end. Verstappen was equally adrift in fifth, with New Zealand managing to hold off a late Firman charge to pip Ireland to sixth. Malaysia took points on home soil, ahead of Portugal and the USA, Herta cruelly denying Ebrahim India's first scoring finish.

Twenty of the 24 teams completed the race, with Australia leading the retirements, pitting twice, first after losing bodywork in a clash on the first lap and then with a front left puncture after completing just four laps. Both Lebanon and Indonesia retired with mechanical problems, although Ananda Mikola also had to pit at the end of lap one after damaging his front wing in the scrabble to the first corner.

 

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