Mitch Evans - Photo Credit: Alastair Staley/GP3 Media Service

Mitch Evans - Photo Credit: Alastair Staley/GP3 Media Service

Pre-season favourite Mitch Evans got his GP3 Series title challenge off to the best possible start with victory in the opening race of the season, after the two drivers ahead of him during the early stages were penalised for jump starts.

German Daniel Abt made a lightning getaway from sixth on the grid to move into the lead at the start of his debut race, ahead of polesitter Antonio Felix da Costa and fourth-place starter Evans. Conor Daly meanwhile got a very poor launch from the front row and fell to sixth on the opening lap.

Abt's start was a bit too fast for the stewards' liking though and he was handed a drive-through penalty, surrendering the lead at the end of lap six and falling towards the back of the pack. Felix da Costa was also penalised, despite his discrepancy being far less obvious to the eye.

This gave Evans the lead, but the safety car came out instantly, after Kevin Ceccon had come to a halt on the inside of turn nine. The young Italian ace had failed to set a qualifying time after a mechanical failure during the earlier session, but had been making good progress in his Ocean Racing Technology car before stopping.

After the restart Evans ran away with it out front, the MW Arden driver building up a lead of 2.6 seconds by the flag to repeat his race one victory from the same circuit 12 months ago.

Marlon Stockinger finished a fine second place for Status Grand Prix, considerably bettering his best result from last season of tenth place.

Aaro Vainio was another to repeat his result from 2011's Barcelona race one in third place, but only after the young Finn had shrugged off the advances of impressive debutant Patric Niederhauser. The Jenzer Motorsport driver got down the inside of Vainio at turn one a few laps from the finish, but Vainio was able to pull back alongside immediately and regain the place.

Friday practice pacesetter Matias Laine finished in fifth, making a good improvement on his best result from 2011 of just 14th. He crossed the line just ahead of Daly, who had lost a further two places to eighth on lap two before regaining them thanks to the penalties for the leaders.

Tio Ellinas was also close behind in seventh, making a great comeback from 16th on the grid after a penalty for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying. That was after gearbox issues had restricted him to just an outlap in free practice ahead of his GP3 debut. Another debutant Robert Visoiu took eighth place after getting past David Fumanelli a few laps from the finish. Alex Brundle scored a point in his first GP3 race in tenth.

Dmitry Suranovich was 11th, chased across the line by Tamas Pal Kiss, the recovering Abt and Felix da Costa, Irishman Robert Cregan, Fabiano Machado, Antonio Spavone – another to be penalised for a jump start, Kotaro Sakurai and Jakub Klasterka.

Carmen Jorda, John Wartique and Vicky Piria made it to the finish on their GP3 debuts, while William Buller crossed the line in 23rd after his car had come to a halt, like Ceccon's, at turn nine. Buller was able to get going again, but had been running eighth ahead of Ellinas before that issue.

Alice Powell was eliminated together with Ethan Ringel after a tangle between turns two and three at the start.

Race two takes place at 08:25 BST on Sunday.