Team Germany prevailed in a topsy-turvy GT Cup qualifying race at Vallelunga, where tyre choice in a rain-affected contest played a significant part in the final result.
Steffen Görig began the race from fifth position in his German-liveried Porsche, but the car looked to be a podium contender rather than a potential winner during the opening stages.
Instead, it was Hiroshi Hamaguchi of Team Japan who led from pole and established an early advantage. He was followed by Salih Yoluc (Turkey), Miguel Ramos (Portugal) and Rinat Salikhov (Russia), but at this point Japan looked comfortable.
Of the chasing pack it was the Russian who had the pace to make progress, with Salikhov moving his Ferrari up to second spot by overhauling both Ramos and then Yoluc on the same lap. Hamaguchi still led by more than three seconds at this juncture – but then the rain arrived.
Team Japan's Lamborghini did not fare well on the slippery surface and had soon been passed by Salikhov's charging Russian entry. As the rain grew heavier, more cars began to struggle. A number of drivers hit problems in the tricky conditions, including Jean-Luc Beaubelique (France) and Fernando Navarrete (Spain).
Amid a flurry of spinning cars, the red flag was thrown. After stopping teams were permitted to make their driver change and switch tyres, with several electing to fit wets. This would prove crucial to the eventual outcome of the race.
At the restart Russia led away from Turkey and Japan, with the leading pair on wet rubber and the third-placed machine on slicks. Japan's hopes did not last long as Ukyo Sasahara suffered a puncture on the first racing lap and tumbled down the order, albeit not out of proceedings altogether.
Now driven by Denis Bulatov, the Russian Ferrari led from Turkey's Ayhancan Güven, but slicks were very much the order of the day and the wet-shod cars began to slip back. This allowed Christina Nielsen to move into the lead in the Team Denmark Honda, having taken over from Jens Reno Møller at half-distance. She was followed by Alfred Renauer (Germany) and Nico Verdonck (Belgium) in the battle for victory.
Nielsen defended robustly and used the top-end speed of her NSX GT3 to good advantage. However, with 10 minutes left on the clock, Renauer completed the race-winning pass. Nielsen still had work to do as Verdonck launched a bid for second spot. The Belgian squad had made remarkable progress after starting 21st with Louis Machiels at the wheel, with Verdonck continuing to charge up the order after taking over.
But on this occasion Nielsen would not be beaten. Verdonck made a bold move but could not get his Audi stopped in time and ran wide, allowing Nielsen a clean path to runner-up spot. Belgium finished third on the road but were hit with a 30-second post-race penalty, dropping them to eighth. This promoted Poland to third, a remarkable result after their Lamborghini had run a lap down at one stage, while the UK and Belarus also made considerable progress from 18th and 20th at the start to fourth and fifth at the flag.
Japan salvaged 10th – and will start from pole in the second qualifying race – while Russia and Turkey were 11th and 13th respectively on their wet tyres. The second contest gets underway tomorrow at 09.30, followed by the medal-deciding race at 15.15.
> Race 1 Results