Heikki Kovalainen underlined his status as GP2 pre-season favourite by winning the opening round of the new series from fifth on the grid, maintaining the Arden International team's success rate in F1 feeder series.

Jose Maria Lopez took second for DAMS, with Scott Speed completing the podium in a race that provided drama right from the start, when Kovalainen's pole-winning Arden team-mate Nicolas Lapierre failed to show on the grid.

The Frenchman was among those restricted to a handful of laps in Friday's free practice session, and spun off late in qualifying, albeit with top spot secured. Whether either 'incident' had a bearing on his absence from the grid remains to be seen, but it was a disappointing start of the overnight points leader.

Reliability issues continued to hinder several of the 23 cars left to take the start, with Nelson Piquet Jr and Clivio Piccione among those requiring a push to join the formation lap. The organisers had already decreed that both Imola races would utilise a rolling start to minimise stress on the fragile clutch system, but that was of little consolation to those - Piquet especially - who had secured useful grid slots only to fail to get away on the rolling lap.

After the pace car had pulled off, it was 'emergency polesitter' Giorgio Pantano who led the field into its first competitive lap and, with third-placed Ernesto Viso being slightly tardy in planting his right foot, the Italian and Jose Maria Lopez were able to make a break heading into Tamburello.

As the leading pair pulled away, Viso found himself under pressure from Kovalainen, but managed to resist the Finn for five laps before eventually ceding position at Tosa. Further back, the order had already been reshuffled, with Fairuz Fauzy and Borja Garcia sharing a moment at Rivazza, Alex Negrao spinning at Variante Alta and various teams opting for an early first pit-stop.

Pantano, meanwhile, began to extend his advantage at the front, dropping Lopez gradually with every lap, while Kovalainen slowly reeled the Argentine in after leaving Viso in his wake - and in the grasp of Scott Speed and Adam Carroll, who ran line astern early on.

It soon became clear that the two frontrunners were both pushing on in the hope that they could build up a decent margin ahead of what would be a relatively late first stop. Pantano finally stopped on lap 13, narrowly avoiding jaywalking BCN boss Enrique Scalabroni as he attempted to rejoin. The momentary delay dropped Pantano to fourth on the road, but the real running order had extra confusion heaped upon it as drivers incurred stop-go penalties and mechanical niggles that add further pit-stops to the strategies devised by their teams.

What was clear, however, was that Lopez now led decisively, and the Argentine continued to enjoy his advantage for a further twelve laps, finally stopping on lap 25 - a distance well beyond what most teams had achieved in testing. The DAMS driver's margin allowed him to resume in second place, again behind Pantano, and it appeared that, dramas notwithstanding, the pair would be in the mix at the end.

Kovalainen was back running in third place once the order settled down, but was being chased by the likes of Ferdinando Monfardini and Fairuz Fauzy, both of whom opted for longer first stints even than the leader. Speed and Carroll both remained in the points frame at two-thirds distance, as did Gianmaria Bruni and Nico Rosberg, who continued to duel over what was effectively sixth spot, but Viso was missing, a victim of the sort of pit-stop problem that affected BCN in 2004, dropping down the order. The Venezuelan would eventually make twice the number of pit visits officially required, coming home in tenth place, with only the bonus points for fastest lap as consolation.

Viso was not the only one to suffer in the pits, for several drivers required push starts to rejoin, among them Monfardini, who saw his hopes of surprise points disappear at his first stop, and piquet, whose afternoon just went downhill after his non-start at the formation lap.

Pantano and Lopez had eased out a comfortable margin by the time of their second and final stops, and both frontrunners dived into the pits with four laps to run. There were no problems for either, but the advantage proved insufficient to prevent the chasing Carroll and Kovalainen - the Irishman having got ahead of his Finnish rival during Kovalainen's second stop - from moving ahead.

Showing two stops on his telemetry, Carroll appeared to be on course for at least a top finish just days after completing his deal to join Super Nova, but surprised many by ducking into the pits with two laps to run. It transpired that what appeared, at first glance, to be his second stop was in fact one of several penalties handed out by the stewards, and the Irishman rejoined down in sixth place.

Kovalainen now enjoyed a handy lead over second place - where Lopez ran alone. The Argentine had rejoined immediately behind Pantano, but powered past the Super Nova car on the run to Tamburello. Pantano clearly had a problem, but soldiered on for a couple more tours before parking up. By that point, Speed and Bruni had both moved past the Italian, while Carroll's position improved by one shortly afterwards.

As Kovalainen took the flag to provide what many had predicted as the opening race result, the fight for the final points - and the leading positions on Sunday's grid - continued, eventually leaving Neel Jani - who had made his way almost unnoticed up the order - in sixth, ahead of ART twins Premat and Rosberg, who will now occupy the front row for the 17-lap sprint race that follows.

Somehow, Olivier Pla survived his numerous off-track excursions to fill the 'unlucky' ninth spot, coming home ahead of fastest man Viso. Among the retirements, Borja Garcia spun the second Racing Engineering car out at Tosa, while the luckless Hiroki Yoshimoto called it a day after spending some time parked up in pit-lane. Negrao, Monfardini, Ryan Sharp and Juan Cruz Alvarez completed the list of those not to make it to the flag, while Fauzy and Can Artam were both among those classified despite not covering the full distance.

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