ABU DHABI // A buzzing Abu Dhabi crowd finally got to grips with what all the GT1 World Championship fuss was about last night, as the Matech pairing of Thomas Mutsch and former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean clinched a comfortable flag-to-flag victory in the series' opening round at Yas Marina Circuit.
With Matech second car driver Natacha Gachnang's high-speed crash, which led to the cancellation of Friday's qualifying session, fresh in the mind, heightened drama - of a far more entertaining variety - dominated proceedings last night: genuine racing. Rolling starts, spins galore, flaming exhausts and numerous panel-to-panel collisions - the GT1 series debuted in real style. The mayhem at the first corner, as the 23-car field jostled for position, was reminiscent of NASCAR.
And unlike Formula One, so often criticised for its notorious absence of overtaking opportunities, the GT1 field spent the first half of the race switching positions with countless breathtaking passing moves. Even the hectic affair of driver changes and pit-stops, which have to be taken within 25 and 35 minutes of the hour-long race, cranked up the tension. Rival teams and crews waited and watched, each trying to grab the smallest of time advantages.
At the head of the field, Mutsch handed over to Grosjean with the German-Swiss pairing enjoying a healthy lead. Although Grosjean entered the track in sixth position, the remaining teams' pits ensured the former Renault man quickly regained the lead. The most interesting battle as the race entered its final stages was the engrossing duel between the Vitaphone Racing Team Maserati of Michael Bartels and the Phoenix Racing Corvette of Andrea Piccini.
Under the shrewd driving of Piccini's team-mate Mike Kezemans, the Corvette, which had started from the back of grid after failing the FIA's strict homologation requirements, had climbed through the field. Kezemans' effort got Piccini to within striking distance when he took the wheel and, after running less than a second behind Bartels for several laps, the Italian slipped by the German to clinch the final podium spot.
Having won the qualifying race, Phoenix Racing's Andreas Zuber and Hennerici Marc, who started 11th after also failing to meet homologation rules, recovered well to finish second behind the Matech team. Ultimately, however, it was the Mutsch-Grosjean pairing which triumphed, sealing a weekend of mixed fortunes for the Matech team and a glorious Yas debut for the GT1 series. Away from the GT1 action, the UAE's Mohammed al Owais and UK's Jonathan Simmonds clinched a victory each in the two races which marked round seven of the UAE Touring Car championship.
Champion al Owais struck first, strolling home by a mammoth 19 seconds in race one. And after a strong start in race two, al Owais looked favourite to make it two consecutive wins. But with just a few laps remaining, the Emirati pulled up with technical issues, handing championship-chasing Simmonds a timely win. "I am very happy with the result," said the Briton. "I have the momentum going into the final round this coming weekend."