Gabriele Tarquini took an important step towards the 2009 World Touring Car title after winning a chaotic first race of the day at Imola.

The Italian was almost eliminated in a first corner pile-up, but held steady to remain in front to keep Yvan Muller and Rob Huff at bay to the chequered flag. Closest rival Augusto Farfus failed to finish.

A frantic race that could prove pivotal to the title fight, the rolling start and the long home straight always threatened to cause problems into the tight first corner chicane and, as expected, carnage ensued when Rickard Rydell, starting fourth, clipped Huff under braking, possibly brought on by the Chevrolet being sent into his path by another driver himself.

Causing Huff to bump into the rear of Muller ahead of him, the Frenchman clipped Tarquini too as they slid through the left-hander, with all three drivers holding on despite almost spinning.

However, the concertina effect of the front three being forced to slow down would simply bunch up the chasing field, with Rydell going on to bounce over the kerbs and tag Jordi Gene. Spinning in front of the chasing pack, several cars were sent scattering around him, but Tiago Monteiro and Jorg Muller were not so lucky as they made contact and were forced to retire.

Despite almost getting away, Rydell would also be eliminated when he was clipped by Farfus, the Brazilian's attempts to thread his way through being ruined when he slid into the Swede's path.

Once the dust had cleared and the safety car was deployed, Tarquini held firm ahead of Muller and Huff, while Alex Zanardi, Tom Coronel and James Thompson were the big winners from the melee as they vaulted from the mid-pack into fourth, fifth and sixth.

Following the chaotic opening, the race began to calm down with the top three stretching away from Zanardi, who in turn was putting significant air between himself and Coronel.

Instead, the battle for sixth attracted much of the attention, with Thompson gallantly resisting the attentions of Stefano D'Aste, the LADA driver using all his experience to resist the Italian. Indeed, D'Aste briefly overtook Thompson on lap five, only for the Briton, who won at Imola last season in a Honda, to strike back immediately and regain the position.

D'Aste himself was having a tough time keeping ahead though, holding off the attentions of Alain Menu, Sergio Hernandez and Andy Priaulx, while even the second LADA of Jaap Van Lagen was getting in contention too.

With D'Aste continuing to pressure Thompson, he attempted another pass on lap eight, but was once again eased onto the outside line through the second half of the chicane as the Priora scrambled back through. However, on this occasion, Menu attempted to capitalise, but tagged the Wiechers-Sport BMW into a spin, the Swiss driver allowing Hernandez and Priaulx through too.

LADA's fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse too when Van Lagen ran wide at turn one on lap nine and allowed the chasing pack to swamp him. Bouncing over the kerb on the exit of turn three, Van Lagen slid across into the path of Kristian Poulsen's BMW, which fired him off into the gravel trap. Clipping the barrier, the Priora would roll over once before ending up on its side.

While the Dutchman was able to extricate himself from the badly damaged car, the safety car was brought back onto circuit. Staying out for two laps, it meant there would be a two lap sprint to the chequered flag.

Nonetheless, Tarquini got the hammer down at the restart and Muller was unable to get close enough to his team-mate over the remaining two laps, the SEAT pair staying as they were across the finish line.

Huff remained third for his seventh podium finish of the season, while Zanardi and Coronel completed strong results in fourth and fifth, the latter taking a big points haul in the Independents category too.

Almost as significantly, Thompson's superb display of defensive driving was rewarded with a sixth place finish, the result marking LADA's first points at this level and one that will help make up for their Oschersleben heartbreak.

The front row for the sprint race will be made up of Hernandez in second and Menu on pole position after Priaulx, who was eighth at the restart, suffered two offs that would leave him 15th at the chequered flag.

 

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