Matech Competition, and driving duo Thomas Mutsch and Romain Grosjean announced their intentions to be a serious challenger for the FIA GT1 World Championship with a commanding win in the 'championship race' of the first race weekend.
After months of negativity, a series organiser strong-armed into watering down its original intention and fears for the quality of the racing, the series proved itself worthy of the lofty title, the hour long race having all the action you expect from a top series.
After all the uncertainty, it was perhaps most fitting that first silverware of the season went to Matech, a Swiss 'tuner' running the Ford GT – exactly the kind of operation the series was aimed at when it took the unusual step of minimising factory involvement.
The team effectively led the race from lights to flag – though official lap charts will tell you otherwise thanks to the ten minute pit-stop window that briefly shuffled the field – German Mutsch getting to turn one first, seeing off the challenge of Andrea Bertolini who started alongside them on the front row. The first corners saw no repeat of the qualifying race chaos, though a slow Triple H Maserati out of turn one did its best to panic the drivers further down the grid. The No.8 car of the heavily fancied Young Driver AMR failed to make it beyond lap one, the main early casualty.
Instead most of the chaos was reserved for a little later in the lap with a pair of Nissan GT-Rs tangling bunching up the field resulting in the Hexis AMR car of Clivio Piccione being spun out, though he was able to get back on track, though he would retire later, and finish 18th, one place ahead of their teammates in a weekend to forget for the Aston Martin contingent.
Mutsch and Bertolini had held station at the head of the field with Ricardo Zonta and Andy Zuber having leapt up to the top four after starting ninth and eleventh respectively, with the second Vitaphone Maserati, that failed to complete a single racing lap in the earlier race having fought up to sixth already with Enrique Bernoldi in the cockpit.
Andy Zuber quickly made his way into third, overtaking Zonta's Rieter Lamborghini at the end of the back straight, by far the favourite overtaking opportunity throughout the two races. The Austrian, who had won the qualifying race but was demoted 10 places (along with all the other Corvettes), soon caught up the leading duo as Mutsch seemed to holding up the Maserati, Bertolini seldom more than half a second behind the Ford's rear wing.
The three followed each other almost in lock step, with less a second covering all three of them, until the pit window opened. Just as it did the trio were thundering down the back straight, Bertolini looking at his best chance at pasting the Matech entry in the race.
Mutsch, a veteran of FIA GT3 campaigns took a defensive line down the straight, daring the Italian to try and drive round the outside into the tight turn eight, and Bertolini rose to the challenge.
He pulled out to the right from underneath the leader's rear wing but failed to make any headway, and as Mutsch took the apex of the corner almost unchallenged Bertolini was forced to try and hold off the opportunistic Zuber who now had designs on second place.
The lead battle was almost three wide as they headed into turn 11, Zuber ploughing down the inside of Bertolini into second.
But as soon as battle was truly joined it was broken as Mutsch peeled off into the pits, the pitstop window barely ajar, to hand over to Romain Grosjean.
The pitstop was far smoother than their qualifying race example the car in and out smoothly, Grosjean immediately on a terrifying pace, becoming the first driver to dip down into the 2:07 bracket allowing him to carry on safely in the pit-adjusted lead when Bertolini handed over to Michael Bartels.
The real challenge for Grosjean's lead was when Zuber pitted the Phoenix/Carsport Corvette to hand over to Marc Hennerici. As the German emerged from the pitlane it looked like something you might expect from a WRC super special, a wall separating two cars on an even, equal course.
It was Grosjean and the Ford GT that emerged into the lead, the advantage stretching out to two seconds by the time the Corvette was up to pace.
It was at that point Grosjean went from being part of the GT1 World Championship's big name window dressing to a genuine contender for the title. For several laps the Frenchman was two seconds faster than his challengers irretrievably strectching out his lead.
Behind it was a story of the second of the Phoenix/Carsport cars mounting its own comeback having started from the pitlane in the qualifying race. The no.14 car devoid of a right-front wing lost during an apparently physical charge Andrea Piccini was chasing down Bartels in the Maserati, the Italian the only man even near capable of matching the leaders pace.
With a quarter of the race left the yellow Corvette had caught the Maserati and after a brief scare at the final corner, Piccini dangerously close to rear-ending the Maserati under breaking for the final corner. However, that proved only a brief delay of the inevitable, the pair quickly back together before Piccini was bale to make the pass at, guess where, turn eight with ten minutes left in the race, and though he would try and catch his teammate for second it was fruitless.
Grosjean took the checkered flag by a whopping 23 seconds ahead of the Phoenix pair, who give their team the lead in the teams standings.
The two Vitaphone Maseratis sandwiched The Zonta/Daniel Lamborghini, while the Triple H MC12s sat either side of the other Reiter Murcielago, The Mad Croc Corvette of Alex Muller and Xavier Maassen picking up the final point for tenth.