Heikki Kovalainen shrugged off a 14-place qualifying penalty to show the GP2 field exactly why he was installed as pre-season favourite at the Nurburgring.

The Finn again used an early pit-stop strategy to help give him a run on the field, which had already been decimated by a string of start-line stalls and then a five-car pile-up instigated by Borja Garcia at turn one.

Kovalainen's ploy allowed him to rise to the front of the field, easing ahead of early leader Giorgio Pantano as the Italian made his stop. The pair then romped away from the remaining runners, with Nico Rosberg also belying his own 14-place penalty to take a comfortable third place.

Rosberg's ART Grand Prix team-mat, Alex Premat, eventually claimed fourth place, but not before he had been involved in a frantic battle that could have seen him take any position between fourth and eighth. A last lap pass on Nelson Piquet Jr eventually secured fourth for the Frenchman, with Neel Jani holding off the equally rapid Clivio Piccione for sixth.

Gianmaria Bruni had run second to Pantano for a long time at the start of the race, but eventually found his tyres going off and slid back through the field to take a lonely eighth place at the flag.

The race began in almost farcical circumstances, with the luckless Hiroki Yoshimoto again the victim of gremlins before the warm-up lap. That was only the beginning, however, as BCN team-mate Ernesto Viso and Arden's Nicolas Lapierre then stalled at the first attempt to start the race, prompting another formation lap while the two stricken cars were removed to the pits. Even then, the pantomime wasn't over, however, with Ryan Sharp and Scott Speed spotted waving their arms at the second start.

Another warm-up lap around the scorching 'Ring later, the race finally got underway, although Rosberg and Can Artam both made slow getaways, the German dropping to the back of the field as his ART Dallara crawled off the line.

Apparently undistracted by the goings-on behind him, Pantano made a good start, fending off Bruni into the first corner, as Jani attempted to find a way past fellow second row starter Jose Maria Lopez. Further back, however, Jani's team-mate, Borja Garcia, was about to try a kamikaze move down the inside, eventually accounting for four drivers other than himself in an incident that brought out the safety car and delayed racing proper until what should have been roughly the fifth lap.

Eliminated in the Garcia-inspired melee was Monaco race winner Adam Carroll, the Irishman the unwitting brake for the Spaniard's car, while Olivier Pla, Alex Negrao and Ferdinando Monfardini all became involved, the Italian ending up perched on top of his Brazilian rival.

Pantano retained his advantage at the restart - despite the leader, and others, apparently not spotting the green flag - heading Bruni, Jani, Lopez and Nelson Piquet Jr into the fourth lap of the race. The Brazilian had used the chaos at the start to vault himself into a points position, as had the chasing Piccione, Fairuz Fauzy and Hiroki Yoshimoto, the Japanese driver having rejoined the back of the grid between aborted starts.

Kovalainen, meanwhile, was further back, and opted to make an early stop in an effort to find a clear track and make up valuable ground on his rivals. The ploy appeared to have worked wonderfully as, when Pantano peeled off for his pit-stop around lap ten, the Finn was able to move ahead of the Italian as he emerged from the pits. Rosberg had also opted for the early stop tactic but, having lost ground at the start, wasn't quite close enough to also jump the Super Nova driver.

Pantano's pit-stop left Bruni out front, and the Coloni driver pushed hard in an effort to extend his advantage sufficiently to retain the advantage after his stop. Bruni stayed out for a further five laps, eventually pitting with Piccione - who had climbed to second by that stage - and third placed Lopez, and resumed ahead of Rosberg - but, crucially, after the Kovalainen-Pantano battle had already gone through. Bruni put his head down in an attempt to claw back the deficit but, pushing too hard, spun and dropped behind Rosberg.

Piccione, meanwhile, had suffered a poor stop, the Durango crew facing a repeat of the left wheelnut problem that had hobbled Kovalainen in Monaco. Piccione wasn't the only one to suffer, either, as Piquet had earlier lost time to an identical problem. The two drivers then found themselves chasing the same piece of track, pursuing a high-speed train in Bruni's wake, led by Jani - who had taken his turn in the lead when Bruni pitted - and Lopez, the quartet finding themselves bunched up as Bruni began to suffer grip problems.

With late-stopper Alex Premat eventually out of the way, Pantano began slowly closing on Kovalainen in what was now the lead battle, but the action was more frenetic in the scrap for fourth, with Bruni frantically trying to fend off the advances of those in his mirrors. Jani was the first to find a way through, while the pack shuffled in his wake, Lopez first in line to find a way past the Coloni car when Bruni ran wide on lap 18.

The Italian's dropping pace was enough to allow Premat to join the queue, along with Piquet and the fast recovering Piccione, and, when Bruni locked up at the chicane, Premat was able to slip-stream down the following straight and pass into turn one. Piquet pounced a couple of laps later, almost immediately catching up with Premat, as the Frenchman closed on the Jani-Lopez battle. Lopez then got a little too close to the Racing Engineering car for comfort, almost ramming Jani into turn one, before Piquet surprised Premat at the other end of the lap, the pair making contact on the exit of the Coca-Cola Kurve as Piquet moved ahead.

A lap later, the Brazilian was past Lopez for fifth and, with the Argentine's pressure departing stage right at Shell two tours further on, took the opportunity to pass Jani for fourth in similar fashion to his despatching of Premat. The Frenchman, however, remained a threat, and also forced his way inside Jani at turn one two laps from home. Piccione, too, was on the move, slipping past Bruni on lap 32 and closing on the Swiss driver as the flag loomed, but it was Premat who had the final say in the battle for minor points by reversing positions with Piquet on the very last tour, completing an ART 3-4 and ensuring that all three drivers penalised for yellow flag infringements in qualifying finished at the head of the field.

Despite the 'Ring's reputation for attrition, only two other drivers retired. Viso, having started from the pit-lane, made up a couple of positions before a faulty wheel nut immediately after his stop caused the Venezuelan to drop out, while Juan Cruz Alvarez spun out of ninth place at the same place as Lopez had perished.

Kovalainen, however, enjoyed a faultless race, vaulting 16 positions between aborted start and finish, picking up pace in the closing stages to keep Pantano at bay.

"We planned our strategy to be adaptable to what was happening on the track," the Finn revealed, "I got stuck in traffic straight away, so we stopped early. However, I had had a good start, and ended up ninth or tenth on the first lap, and that was half the game. We had a good stop, and the car was very, very good straight out of the pits. I was struggling with grip towards the end, which we expected, and Giorgio was very fast, but I kept myself clean, didn't make any mistakes, and eventually he gave up."

Pantano offered a resigned shrug in the direction of his Super Nova crew in parc ferme, frustrated at seeing a ten-point haul lost on what has been his strongest weekend of the season so far.

"Second isn't what I wanted today," the Italian sighed, desperate to put his championship campaign back on track before Kovalainen disappears, "We didn't have any grip in the first few laps, so we changed tyres and then the car came good. We were quicker than Kovalainen, but he was quick too and there was no way past him. I stayed as close as I could, but it was difficult."

For Rosberg, third place once again appeared a surprise and, as in Monaco a week ago, the German was rewarded for his stunning early pace.

"I was really pushing in the beginning to get up the order, and then, after a couple of laps, it was a case of 'you're P3, chill out'," he smiled, "We just considered the gap behind us - I didn't care about the guys in front anymore - and thought 'we're third, let's stick with that'."

Having joined the out-of-luck Carroll as a two-time winner this season, Kovalainen extended his points advantage at the head of the drivers' table to eleven over both Bruni and Speed, who made three pit-stops as he set about picking up two valuable points for fastest lap. Carroll is now fourth, with Rosberg fifth and Lopez sixth. Bruni will start the extended distance 'sprint' race from pole on Sunday, with Piccione alongside. If the racing in the lead group is as frenetic as it was in the feature, expect things to change again.



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