A new rule had been introduced at Oulton, instructing all cars to stop at 45 degrees to the garages during the pitstop. However, there appeared to be no rule for leaving the pits and several hairy moments ensued, thankfully with no consequences.
McCaig and Mardenborough ended their excellent stints one lap later, leaving Jones in second, and both Olly Bryant in the Z4 and Alex Buncombe in the GT-R rejoined before Matt Griffin reached Old Hall; the BMW crucially gaining some ten seconds on the Nissan in the process.
Bateman eventually brought the Audi in from the lead on Lap 16, having done enough to allow Bell to retain the lead, while Jones handed the SLS over to brother Godfrey one lap later; the Merc rejoining just ahead of Buncombe, Griffin and Richard Westbrook in the #31 Porsche.
With all stops completed and the pit window (just ten minutes this season, as opposed to 14 previously) once again closed, Bell led in the Audi by five seconds from Bryant, with a further 11 seconds back to the Jones/Buncombe/Griffin/Westbrook train that was about to welcome the Ferrari of Allan Simonsen to the party; the Dane having just taken seventh from the #11 Porsche of Michael Caine.
At the head of the field, Bryant was keeping Bell honest but could seemingly do no more than hold the gap at around five seconds. As the race entered its final third, however, it was clear that Griffin and co would have to quickly get past Jones and Buncombe if they wanted a crack at the win; and neither the Mercedes nor Nissan driver was willing to give up his place without a fight.
In GT4, while Warren Hughes was unchallenged in the Team WFR Ginetta, a highly entertaining scrap for second was taking shape, with the Evoras of Alistair Mackinnon and Phil Glew and the Ginetta of Mike Simpson nose to tail.
On Lap 21 the status quo in the fight for third was finally broken. First Griffin had a go at getting Buncombe – the brand-new Nissan running a slightly too-soft set-up in the wet – at Old Hall, but was repelled; and then the MTECH driver lost fifth to the Rosso Verde after a passing move that Griffin would later describe as ‘very brave’. One lap later, Richard Westbrook pulled a blinder to get by both Ferraris at Hislop’s. However, the Trackspeed driver was once more back in seventh as the cars ended the lap; what had happened? “I lined them up beautifully and nailed the move,” said Westbrook. “But then on the run-up Clay Hill a GT4 moved over to let us through and ended up baulking me, which allowed the others by again; I’d already done all the hard work!”
On Lap 22, Simonsen finally broke down Buncombe’s defences and found a way past the Nissan, with Griffin following suit lap later; and the Rosso Verde driver took third from the Mercedes at Lodge on that same lap. But when Griffin went for the place at Old Hall at the start of Lap 24, there was contact and the SLS spun and dropped to eighth; “I was on the inside at the corner – the marshal’s report says I was fully alongside – when he started to move across on me,” said Griffin. “I stood on the brakes and tried to pull out, but he kept coming across and I clipped his back end.”
But the action wasn’t confined to just this sector of the front, with the #9 JMH Nissan of Benji Hetherington fighting off Andrew Howard and Tim Harvey for ninth and Nick Tandy in the #10 Motorbase Porsche about to take 12th from the #32 997 of Joe Osborne; the Trackspeed driver struggling with the not-inconsiderable handicap of traction control failure, that would also cost him a place to the #5 Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari of Aaron Scott. Meanwhile, in GT4, Glew found a way past Mackinnon for second. Their fight was constantly interrupted by GT3 cars coming through, but it was very much a race of equals, as evidenced by the two drivers’ fastest race laps – 1:58.583 vs 1:58.653. The #48 of Glew would, however, ultimately prevail in this duel.
As the final minutes of the race ticked away, Simonsen had pulled away from the fight for fourth – which saw Griffin under immense pressure from Westbrook – but in no position to do anything about the two cars ahead of him. With nine seconds remaining on the clock, Matt Bell crossed the line to start his 32nd and final lap of the race.
But just a few moments later, there came reports that the Audi was slowing! This was immediately confirmed by in-car messages from Bell, who was reporting a fuel pick-up issue and – almost unbelievably – he had no choice but to pull off the track and stop; an assured and fully-deserved victory evaporating in that awful instant.
But United Autosport’s misfortune became Ecurie Ecosse’s triumph as Olly Bryant passed the stricken R8 and completed the final lap to take the chequered flag – a win for the reborn team on its British GT debut and also for the Barwell Motorsport-prepared BMW Z4 on its first race in the championship.
“I thought maybe he’d taken the flag the lap before and I’d got it wrong and there was another lap, but I carried on past him," said Bryant. "Not great for them having led from the start, but good for us. Really looking forward to race two, mixing it with the other guys and dealing with the spray.”
The Audi’s retirement meant that the podium was completed by the Rosso Verde and MTECH Ferraris.
“For once we had the car well sorted for the wet, which gives you a lot of confidence," said Hector Lester. "The restart was fine, I was three abreast at one point and it all got a bit mixed up. I had a good battle with Hetherington and Perfetti, which was fun before that. I hope the second race is wet, I’ll even take a shower of sleet!”
“It was very tense and hard out there," said Matt Griffin. "Myself, Allan and Richard were effectively all on the same piece of track. We’re all at the top of our game and factory drivers in various guises, so it was good. Westie got past me into Knickerbrook, and Simonsen made a very opportune move when a GT4 car baulked us both. It was then just qualifying laps in the rain. Westie was really putting a lot of pressure on me and I think he had more in his tyres than us. Duncan did a fantastic job. We’ve got a really good team at MTECH and a third place is a really good start to the season for us.”
Team WFR recorded an emphatic victory in GT4 – just like they had done so often in 2009 when they won the title – while the two Evoras completed the podium. Mike Simpson had a last-lap off that ripped the bodywork off the nose of the Century G50, but he completed the race to take fourth.
“I had to guess my braking point for the first few corners and just paced myself," said Jody Fannin. "I saw that the gap was building, and got a bit lucky with the safety car. The others got caught behind it, which was a bit of a bonus. This gave us an extra cushion and I handed over to Warren, and he did a great job.”
“It was a massive learning curve for me," admitted Sailesh Bolisetti. "It was raining, it was a new track, I couldn’t see and was a bit confused. I could only see the blinking red lights in the distance. The rolling start was ok, I was quite comfortable and it will get better by the next race.”
While things didn’t go so well for the GT3 Chevron, the GTC class GR8 of David Witt and Ray Grimes finished the race just behind the Century G50, with Witt enjoying getting stuck into the GT4 cars in the opening half of the race.
So an intriguing race had ended in dramatic circumstances, but had delivered a very popular – if largely unexpected – result. The teams now had a little over three hours to ready their cars for the second of the day’s races.