Ayari rises from the ashes to grab Macau Grand Prix
Frenchman Soheil Ayari thrust his fist into the air in triumph just hours after clutching his steering wheel helplessly as his car disintegrated around him at 250 kilometres per hour nine laps into the Macau Grand Prix yesterday.
As luck would have it, an ensuing race stoppage gave his mechanics the precious minutes they needed to patch up his F3 machine and pave the way for an unlikely victory.
Ayari's triumph was the ultimate team effort, with compatriot Patrice Gay in the second Equipe de France Spiess Opel taking second place overall on aggregate for the two legs.
Third to finish was 19-year-old Brazilian Enrique Bernoldi in his Promatecme Renault.
Ayari completed the race distance in one hour, nine minutes and 22.240 seconds, a whopping 11.5 seconds clear of his teammate, with Bernoldi nearly 14 seconds away.
It was heartbreak yet again for eight-time veteran of the Macau F3 Grand Prix Max Angelelli in the Team BSR Spiess Opel. He seemed to have victory within his grasp when an error four laps from home at the Melco Hairpin took him from delight to despair.
Even worse was to come after the race when stewards struck his first-leg win and fourth overall status from the result book, a decision he said later he would not appeal.
The stewards found that Angelelli had deliberately stopped his car at post five (Lisboa Bend) whereby he blocked a passage, causing the race to be stopped.
It was also a day of complete frustration for Dutchman Tom Coronel in his TOM's Toyota. Consistently the quickest car around the 6.2-kilometre Guia street circuit, Coronel came to grief moments after Ayari but, unlike the eventual winner, his team could not patch his car up in time.
'Two minutes, two more minutes and we could have had the car back for the restart,' Coronel reflected.
But he did have some compensation in the second leg when he scythed through the field from the rear of the grid to claim second place and was later credited with the lap record at 2:15.950.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ayari could not hide his delight as he punched the air vigorously on his victory lap.
'I can't wait to see the video of the crash. I hope it's as good as [the video] from inside the car,' he told a packed press conference.
Ayari admitted he had thought for a split second that his race was over as he battled to keep his wildly out of control car off the walls.
'When I finally stopped and looked down the straight to the next bend [Lisboa Bend] and saw the rest of the cars stopped I said to myself 'great'. I knew that the damage to my car was mainly superficial and I could get back in the race,' he said.
The accident, which Ayari quaintly described as 'the beginning of my big fly', was part of a chain reaction caused by Coronel sliding his car into the armco at Mandarin Bend.
Angelelli, who was in hot pursuit of Coronel, braked heavily to dodge the Dutchman, who he expected to careen into his path. Ayari was stalking Angelelli and slammed into the rear of the Italian's car, triggering his mid-track pirouette.
Coronel continued on after hitting the armco, but as he set up to take the tight right-hand Lisboa Bend, he spun wildly to the right - the legacy of a flat rear tyre.
Patrice Gay and Portuguese driver Andre Couto in the Prema Powerteam Spiess Opel were able to avoid Coronel, but the remainder of the field came to a halt when Angelelli's car seemingly expired beside Coronel, blocking Lisboa Bend.
When it was finally restarted, Ayari was able to limp his car through the final three laps of the first leg.
He trailed Angelelli at that stage by 5.546 seconds, setting the scene for an absorbing second leg.
Because of the red flag, the first leg was shortened to 13 from 15 laps.
Ayari seized the lead on the first lap of the second leg, but Angelelli regained it under brakes at Lisboa Bend on the next lap.
The Frenchman shadowed Angelelli until he finally made his move on lap nine at Mandarin Bend and stormed away.
Angelelli's weekend quickly unravelled as Bernoldi also slipped by at Lisboa Bend. And as Ayari was disappearing into the distance, Coronel was closing from the rear at breakneck speed.
From 20th on the grid, he was through half the field by the third lap, sixth by lap seven, third by lap 11 and finally second on the penultimate lap.
While the Portuguese enclave echoed to cries of Vive la France, local fans were left to rue the bad luck of Couto who was fourth in the first leg, only to be dogged by a faulty fuel pump that banished him to the rear of the grid for leg two.