By Kristian Steenstrup - Motorsport.com Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia - In a dramatic race of changing fortunes and a lot of car to car contact Adrian Fernandez stayed out of trouble and the Patrick Racing team managed his pitstops...
By Kristian Steenstrup - Motorsport.com
Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia - In a dramatic race of changing fortunes and a lot of car to car contact Adrian Fernandez stayed out of trouble and the Patrick Racing team managed his pitstops to perfection. It left him at the front of the field after many accidents and yellows and he held on to win by less than a third of a second. There were so many accidents that Team Kool Green principal Barry Green quipped that " it was likely a war out there".
Bright sunshine and a perfect day shone down on the crowd of over 107,000 fans for this, the 10th running of the Gold Coast Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise. The high profile of this event was underlined by not only the obligatory politician (the local state premier - read governor) being present, but also the sponsorship by the local state government of Australia's Jason Bright in the Della Penna Motorsports Reynard Toyota. How many countries in the world would support a government sponsorship for a driver in a one off race? Australians like their sport obviously, and it was considered a safe political bet by the local rulers in the afterglow of the Olympics. Here in the land of Oz things are a little bit strange sometimes, minus the munchkins of course.
The cars were led around on the final parade laps by Juan Montoya as he has done many times in his brief but illustrious CART career. But many eyes were on Gil de Ferran who could snare the championship with a good result here, so there was considerable tension as the cars circulated around on two warm up laps before taking the green flag for the start.
The tension was broken in dramatic form when they ran down to the first chicane. Gil de Ferran edged ahead of Montoya for a while and they headed side by side into the chicane. With Montoya on de Ferran's left they touched wheels and Montoya was rotated around the front of de Ferran's Penske and struck the wall on the right of the track. Jimmy Vasser struck the rear of Dario Franchitti's car and spun him off and into the wall broadside while the rest of the field was able to take avoiding action around the cars, wheels and bodywork that littered the road.
The field was brought under yellow as de Ferran managed to bring the Penske back to the pits slowly with a very deranged front right suspension. Although he got back with only three wheels the car was not retired. Instead the team set about trying to repair the damage and get a point from the race. Franchitti and Montoya were definitely out and had to endure the long walk back to the pits from the first chicane. Dario was obviously disappointed and was of the opinion that "it should be up to the second place guy to give way. What I saw was Juan and Gil getting together. From that point, I can't say. I saw Juan go into a spin, so I backed off and got on the brakes. I guess Jimmy had no where to go and he hit me. Everyone was pretty much checking up for the incident in front ". This accident also formally eliminated Juan Montoya from any mathematical chance at the championship.
Out of this mess Paul Tracy barely avoided damage and found he was gifted the lead and an increased possibility of the championship. Michael Andretti was also a major beneficiary rising from sixth to second. Jimmy Vasser, Tony Kanaan and Christian Fittipaldi completed the top five in the new order. During the clean up of the track Jason Bright and Roberto Moreno visited the pits for inspections of damage and a top up of fuel to give the a slightly longer pit window if it became necessary.
When the race resumed Paul Tracy immediately started to increase his lead and in 8 laps he was over 7 seconds in front of Andretti's, Ford powered Lola. Jimmy Vasser was a further 3 seconds back but had had Andretti's team mate Christian Fittipaldi all over the back of his car. Tracy was pulling away at more than a second a lap. He was being given 'go for it' instructions from his team and got his head down for a perfect Tracy style attack of a race with no concerns over fuel or tactics. But the attack was interrupted when on the 12th lap he came to a stop in turn three because of the throttle getting stuck open. He was restarted but was now in 21st place.
This of course left Michael Andretti in the lead over Vasser. The biggest mover at this stage was Oriol Servia who had come up to 7th from 14th on the grid and he would play a significant part in the race as it progressed. Paul Tracy was looking to out do everyone in the come back drive department with a super aggressive display. On lap 16 he took Roberto Moreno and Mauricio Gugelmin in audacious moves that would be undertaken only by someone with nothing to lose. It took him only another 2 laps to catch up to Mark Blundell and then pass him in a decisive outbraking manoeuvre and set about getting after Shinji Nakano.
Meanwhile at the front the top three cars were covered by only 2 seconds with the Ganassi car of Vasser in a Newman-Haas sandwich. But none of the three looked like they were about to contest positions, with Andretti having a safe margin over second place. It was at this point that the Penske team gave up work on de Ferran's damaged car. Maybe feeling a little less desperate when they realised that Tracy was almost certain not to win today. But that thought did not enter Tracy's helmet as he attacked with vigour and overtook Nakano for 15th place on lap 23 on his way to a great come back attempt.
Cristiano da Matta had moved up to 4th and Servia to 6th as the field edged closer to the first round of pitstops coming in on the same lap as the leaders. Of the leaders Newman-Haas elected to go first with Andretti pitting in unison with Fittipaldi. Both had clean stops with Michael coming out behind Moreno (8th) leaving Vasser to lead a single lap before he too pitted. Team Ganassi gave Vasser slightly better service than Newman- Haas so that Jimmy slotted between Moreno and Andretti when he returned to the circuit.
Helio Castroneves' terrible weekend looked to get worse on lap 26 when Servia touched his rear tire as he exited the pits causing a puncture, meaning that Helio had to do a slow lap around the track to get back for another tire. As the more economical of the front runners gradually carried out their first stops and put everyone back on the same footing Tracy continued the attack and by lap 31 was up to the tail of 4th place Adrian Fernandez. Among the erstwhile leaders Vasser was in 9th, closely followed by Andretti and Fittipaldi all awaiting the pitstops of the out of sequence runners to allow them to hopefully return to the lead of the race.
Brack, Tagliani, Barron, and Fernandez were making the fuel last longest, running in the top four positions before Brack finally pitted on lap 36 to give the lead Alex Tagliani. But Tagliani had tried to go too far on the fuel and on the same lap he embarrassingly ran out of fuel on the course. Barron, Fernandez and Tracy all pitted at this time and came out together. With much muscling and elbowing it was Tracy that came out on top out of these four in 9th place.
Jimmy Vasser was now leading from the Newman-Haas team mates but Andretti was soon to depart in spectacular fashion when an engine failure caused an oil fire at the rear of the car. The track went full course yellow (with pits closed) at this time when we had the simultaneous failure of Shinji Nakano. The order was now Vasser, Fittipaldi, da Matta, Servia, Kenny Brack and Tony Kanaan under yellow, but when the pits were opened again a train of cars headed by Vasser went in for service. This was in fact Jimmy's undoing in the race. "Closing the pits completely ruined my race. I haven't seen them do that on a street course before. I was going to come in for 10 gallons but by the time they opened the pits we changed the strategy and I had to take on 30 gallons. I fell back to 10th and from then on it was absolute chaos".
When it all got sorted out and the pace car picked up the leader it was Adrian Fernandez who had emerged from the confusion in front. He was followed by Alex Barron, Roberto Moreno, Max Papis and Jason Bright, all of whom were essentially out of sequence on the stops.
On the restart Roberto Moreno made one of his very rare mistakes. He got sideways coming off a turn (putting power down on cold tires) then slid down the track and tagged the wall. In the confusion Jason Bright ran into the back of Max Papis who had jumped on the brakes. Although Bright made it back to the pits, he was out for the day and a very credible debut race was over. Debris littered the track but all cars made through without damage and continued to circulate under yellow with only 18 laps to go. It would be a sprint to the end for those cars with the full fuel load to reach the chequered flag.
Into the first chicane there was contact again. Max Papis was knocked into a spin in front to the field delaying a few cars including Paul Tracy who caused it all by tapping Max in his impatience to get past. The opening lap after the yellow was spectacular to say the least. No quarter was given as the cars battled in many spots around the circuit. It seemed that cars were swapping position everywhere. Among this confusion Tracy had found himself in 9th position and in a wheel to wheel battle with Oriol Servia. Jimmy Vasser was a witness to the next incident and while he was reticent to apportion blame, he said, "Oriol should not have even been there in the first place because he straight lined the chicane and then did not give up the positions gained". This ended in tears when Tracy and Servia found that two cars into one chicane don't go. Neither driver was going to give way and Oriol bounced over the kerbs and into Tracy, spinning him into the outside wall and retirement. Tracy's opinion was typically one sided "I really think we could have gotten a top four finish and made up some ground in the points, but then I got hit by Servia. I didn't see what happened, but I guess he jumped over one of the curbs going into the chicane and ran into the back of me, knocking me sideways into the wall".
On the restart Fernandez led from Barron, Brack, Fittipaldi and Servia and there was much locking of brakes as everyone got desperate in the closing minutes. It had by then been declared a timed race with all the delays and every driver was aiming to get the most out of the last 10 minutes. Jimmy Vasser went for a gap inside Fittipaldi that was about a foot narrower than the Lola he was in and so left his right front wing behind. Fittipaldi came out the worst from this with a puncture that ended his day prematurely. From Christian's perspective he was a victim, "Vasser hit me and punctured my rear tire and that was it for us. What a shame because we would have been on the podium". With barely a couple of minutes to go Alex Barron slowed and then spun from second position with an engine seizure bringing Brack to second and Servia in third closely pursued by Vasser and da Matta. Jimmy Vasser did not give up on passing Servia and finally got by into third place on lap 56. Vasser was absolutely committed to the course and even without full downforce tried to catch up the 4 seconds to Kenny Brack and Adrian Fernandez. At the same time Oriol Servia started dropping back with a damaged wing from the Tracy incident and was passed by his teammate da Matta and the Players Forsythe car of Patrick Carpentier.
The tension continued over the last couple of laps as Kenny Brack stayed glued to the tail of Adrian Fernandez and looked like he could pass at any time. But it was not going to happen. Kenny said later "It is very hard to get by a competitive car around this place. If you are behind a car which is about half second off your pace you get stuck". Adrian Fernandez knew he had it hand "The car was understeering all weekend. It was pushing too much in the first and second chicanes. I knew I was weak in those parts so I had to make up ground elsewhere." The Mexican crossed the line first just .324 of a second ahead of the rookie Swede. In winning Fernandez gave much of the credit to his team "We have a fantastic strategy and better fuel management that we have learnt over the year'. This win also means that Fernandez had made a clean sweep of all continents that CART competes in. Jimmy Vasser came in third and Chip Ganassi should be wondering why he decided to let him go for next year. Adrian Fernandez now has a reasonable chance for the championship going into the last round at Fontana with 148 points (and the track title from last year) compared to the 153 of Gil de Ferran with 22 points up for grabs. Also in contention are Kenny Brack and Paul Tracy on 134 points and with the slimmest of chances is Roberto Moreno.
It was probably a good thing that Oriol Servia didn't finish on the podium, as he was not very popular among the other drivers with his demolition derby style. Jimmy Vasser was particularly scathing. " There are some guys out there with their heads up their butts. I don't know what Oriol Servia was thinking. There are some guys out there driving like they don't care if they finish and that is what happens". Barry Green expressed similar views although clearly Tracy gave as good as he got while he was running.