The #74 ISR Audi didn’t start the race due to heavy chassis damage in qualifying. Driver Fabio Onidi suffered a cracked verterbrae in the crash at the Ascari chicane. The #4 WRT Audi, which had a less serious incident in the same session, started from the pitlane – as did the Emil Frey Jaguar.
With pro driver Pierre Kaffer at the wheel, the #66 Rinaldi Ferrari nipped into the lead at the first corner, past its #333 sister car, which had Rinat Salikhov driving. Everyone got through the chicane safely (albeit with a few dives down the escape road), but the safety car came out at the end of lap one nonetheless due to two BMWs coming together on Curva Grande – the #12 TDS car of Eric Dermont and the #78 Team Russia machine of Leo Machitski.
Machitski managed to get going again, but had to struggle back to the pits with a puncture and rear bodywork damage. The safety car came in after a lap so the racing proper could get underway. Kaffer led Salikhov, Babini in the #19 Lamborghini, Broniszewski in the #11 Kessel Ferrari, de Leener in the #52 AF Corse Ferrari and Smith in the #7 Bentley. Next up was Vernay in seventh in the #1 WRT Audi, followed by Abril in the #84 HTP Bentley, Meadows in the Leonard Aston Martin and Reip in the #23 Nissan rounding out the top 10.
Babini was soon on the move, getting ahead of Salikhov without much trouble, while Vernay briefly headed Smith, but the two switched positions again and Vernay came under pressure from his compatriot Abril’s Bentley. After 15 minutes of running, the Emil Frey Jaguar came into the pits pouring smoke from its bonnet vents – an all-too-familiar sight for the privateer Swiss team unfortunately. Meanwhile, Fabio Mancini in the #25 Glorax Ferrari had moved into the lead of the Am class off the grid and was running 34th overall.
The next position change was Reip on Meadows for ninth at the first chicane, pulled off in fine style by the Belgian. Further ahead, Smith was getting the Bentley into its stride and made short work of de Leener’s Ferrari. Meadows then fell into the clutches of DTM ace Daniel Junacdella in the #98 ROWE Mercedes.
Further down the field, Alvaro Parente in the #59 McLaren got turned around at the chicane by a Mercedes, while Strauss had to pit early after circulating slowly in the #22 Pro-Am Nissan with what was later confirmed to be high oil pressure. Karim Oijeh was also in trouble, beaching the Boutsen BMW. Kaffer came into the pits from the lead for the first properly scheduled stop of the race in the #66, with Am driver Steve Parry electing to run a long middle stint and letting Kaffer in again at the end.
“I think we’re going very well,” said Kaffer when he got out. “I had a bit of luck with the first corner and the restart. We decided on this slightly different strategy so Steve could avoid all the traffic at the start.”
The #66 Rinaldi car’s stop allowed Babini move into the lead in the Lamborghini and stretch out a gap of 18 seconds as the first hour came to a close. Salikhov was putting up a very solid effort in second to mantain the lead in Pro-Am, with Broniszewski lapping slightly slower in the third-place #11 Kessel Ferrari.
De Leener’s great first stint was unfortunately cut short by a puncture that saw the yellow #52 Ferrari tumble down the order, while there were drive-through penalties for the #75 ISR Audi (Bonanomi), #18 Black Falcon Mercedes (Engel) and #63 Lamborghini (Venturini) for jumping the start.
Yellow flags came out with just 10 minutes of the first hour remaining due to the #33 Car Collecton Mercedes of Miguel Toril finding the gravel trap. Haupt in the #21 Black Falcon Mercedes then went too wide exiting the first chicane, but managed to scrabble back on to the track.
Up front, Babini had got the gap up to 21 seconds, but Salikhov then pitted to hand the #333 Ferrari over to pole-winning driver Norbert Siedler for the middle stint. Max Buhk then brought the #8 Bentley in with a puncture – but this was around the planned stop time anyway, so Soulet wasn’t caught napping for the driver change.
Duncan Cameron pitted from just outside the top 10 to hand the #51 AF Corse to Ferrari over to Matt Griffin, while Stef Dusseldorp was slapped with a drive-through penalty for overtaking under yellows and Abril handed the #84 Bentley to Harold Primat. As the first hour finished, leader Babini had completed 31 laps.
Images: Dan Bathie