Road America: Friday qualifying notes

SIMON PAGENAUD STEALS FRIDAY POLE FOR CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC FINALE, BUILDS CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD TO 13 POINTS OVER GRAHAM RAHAL ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin (September 22, 2006) -- Coming into this weekend's Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic ...

SIMON PAGENAUD STEALS FRIDAY POLE FOR CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC FINALE, BUILDS CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD TO 13 POINTS OVER GRAHAM RAHAL

ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin (September 22, 2006) -- Coming into this weekend's Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda season finale at Road America, Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) had a bit of a cushion to work with, as he led Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) by 12 points in the quest for the series title.

But the Team Australia driver didn't rest on his laurels, vaulting to the top of the time charts on his last trip around the 4.048-mile Road America circuit to lead first-round qualifying for Sunday's Gehl Champ Car Atlantic Championship Finale. Pagenaud secured a front-row starting spot with his performance but more importantly, he upped his lead to 13 points over Rahal in the quest for the $2 million prize awarded to the Atlantic series champion.

The last lap charge by Pagenaud that stopped the clocks at 2:19.063 (104.793 mph) ended a session-long run by Rahal that saw the teenager atop the charts for most of the 45-minute outing. Rahal's Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing machine was the class of the field on the wet track that greeted the drivers, leading by more than two full seconds at the midway point of the session.

But the rains that drenched the Elkhart Lake area all day finally relented as the session started, and the track conditions improved with each passing lap. As drier lines emerged through the turns, times began to drop and the field closed in on the times set by the Ohioan. Pagenaud made his first move on his seventh lap, leapfrogging Rahal for the session lead, but Rahal answered the challenge on his next pass, retaking the point at the session's halfway point.

Early qualifying leader Richard Philippe (#33 Indeck/Layer 7) brought out the only red flag of the session soon after, coasting to a stop coming out of Turn Eight. The red flag sent everybody down pit lane, but the duel continued just minutes later as Rahal dropped 1.5 seconds off his time, building a seemingly-insurmountable lead on the field.

But the rapidly-drying track allowed times to drop just as quickly as Pagenaud moved to within six-hundredths of a second of Rahal on his 15th lap. Meanwhile, the surprise of the session came from reigning F2000 champion J.R. Hildebrand (#36 Newman Wachs Racing), who was running in the top three for the first 30 minutes of the qualifying run. Hildebrand, who would end up 11th in his first-ever Atlantic qualifying session, was third until Long Beach winner Andreas Wirth (#37 Indeck/Layer 7/Wirth Solar) made his presence known, vaulting into the top three on his 15th pass.

In the end, the drying track told the tale as the speed sheets saw drastic changes on the last lap of the session.

Rahal dropped the top time to 2:19.659 on his penultimate lap, dropping Pagenaud nearly a full second behind as the checkered flag waved. But both Rahal and Pagenaud had flashed past the starter's stand before the checkered flag flew, allowing them one more lap on the clock.

Pagenaud made the most of his final opportunity, carding his best lap on his last pass, while Rahal's last-ditch effort registered as a 2:19.304 (104.611 mph), leaving him second in the day's final standing. Wirth snapped off his best lap on his final trip, logging a time of 2:21.556 (102.947 mph) to take the third spot.

Hildebrand's Newman Wachs Racing teammate Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman Wachs Racing) saved his best for last, ripping off a time of 2:22.561 (102.222 mph) to move into fourth place while Team Australia rookie Michael Patrizi (#5 Aussie Vineyards) greeted his new team with a fifth-place finish, stopping the watches with a time of 2:22.846 (102.018 mph).

Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) settled for sixth after coming in just .01 seconds behind Patrizi while San Jose runner-up Ryan Lewis (#39 Insport Sports Management) came home in seventh.

San Jose winner Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) ended up eighth in today's first session while Colin Fleming (# 14 eSoles/King Taco) and James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/Indeck) rounded out the top 10.

There will be another championship point up for grabs with Saturday's final qualifying session, which will set the grid for Sunday's season finale. The 45-minute session begins at 1 p.m. Central time.

Quotes from the top three qualifying drivers follow:

Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) of Team Australia: "Today was difficult, because I don't know this track at all. It's a long track to learn with lots of different lines. This morning, I was struggling to find the right line and couldn't get my car where I wanted. Team Australia did a fantastic job. In two hours, they made the car perfect. It was my driving style that I needed to change and adapt to the track. At the end, I understood the right line and how I could go quicker and applied that. It's important to get this point today and to be up front again. (Comparing driving the track to watching it on TV) It is like it looks on television, but it's the feeling that's different. It was difficult to find grip on the track, and I struggled a lot with that. My driving coach helped me at the end. In qualifying, it's just a matter of pushing a lot and finding the right way to go."

Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing: "When it was full wet, we were definitely the quickest. I'm very confident in the car. On my last lap, I got held up in Turn 3 when Raphael Matos decided he wanted to race me into the corner. He said that he was on a fast lap, but then he took himself off. I guess that didn't quite work properly. Coming out of that corner, I was nine tenths down, but I made that all back. It's tough to make back that kind of gap. We lost one point today, but there are 34 more to go in the weekend and that's what we need to focus on. I don't think we improved as much as some people, but I'm definitely confident in the wet. If it goes to a wet race, I think we can be up front, so we'll see what happens."

Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Layer 7/Wirth Solar) of Forsythe Championship Racing: "We struggled at the beginning, but the car got better as it dried out. We are still too far off from these guys (Pagenaud and Rahal), so we have some work to do. I'm happy to be here (in the top three) again. The last two races were not exactly how I wanted them to be. We'll do what we can with the car and give it another shot tomorrow. (On his experience driving at Road America) I've driven one session here in the rain now, but it wasn't raining when I was here before. I thought my experience here would help, but the rain is new."

-credit: ccws/atl

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About this article
Series Atlantic
Drivers Graham Rahal , Colin Fleming , Jonathan Bomarito , Andreas Wirth , Richard Philippe , Simon Pagenaud , James Hinchcliffe , Joe D'Agostino , Michael Patrizi , J.R. Hildebrand
Teams Conquest Racing , HART