By Tom Haapanen - Motorsport.com
Michael Andretti was a familiar sight again on the top step of the podium at the CART Molson Indy in Toronto, the Team Motorola driver winning the race for what was an unprecedented seventh time since 1989.
It had looked a lost cause for the veteran driver, as he struggled through the qualifying session on Saturday, and ended up starting from halfway down the grid, from 13th position. Worse yet, he banged wheels with rookie driver Scott Dixon on the first lap and stalled his car, bringing out the first yellow flags of the day, and dropping him all the way to 26th and last in the race.
In spite of four pit stops, the race gradually came to Andretti, though, as the incident-filled race caused a heavy attrition. Only 11 of the 26 starters were still running at the end of the 95-lap race, the survivors of 11 full-course cautions.
"A lot of teams were saving fuel, but we didn't have to," said Andretti. "I was actually having a lot fun doing driving today. But it's still a tough race to finish."
The definitive, race-winning moment was to be Andretti's final pit stop. Alexandre Tagliani was on a different pit strategy, and as Andretti was pulling out of the pits, the Canadian sophomore driver was just crossing the start-finish line. But the Team Players strategy failed here, as Tagliani was running with a fully lean fuel mixture.
"They told me 'full lean full lean'," Tagliani recounted. "And when Michael was pulling out of the pits, I was on the marbles, and just didn't have the traction to fight him."
Tagliani had driven a solid race, staying out of trouble when the early leaders tangled in front of him, and staying on course to claim a second place, his best career finish yet.
"I had a great battle with Adrian and Tony Kanaan early in the race," he recalled. "Then I was just running behind Kenny Brack and waiting for an opportunity …"
Third was Adrian Fernandez, the 1996 Molson Indy winner, making another visit to the winners' podium, but his first podium for his own team, Fernandez Racing. The veteran driver was happy to make it to the podium, having experienced everything from turbo boost problems to gearbox malfunctions.
But second place had slipped away from him after the last caution, as Tagliani repassed him on the restart.
"My engineer was yelling 'Green! Green!', but we had radio problems," said Fernandez. "But I was in the wrong gear, trying to save fuel, and Alex flew past me on the restart."
Behind the leading trio, the shock of the results was the appearance of Alex Zanardi in fourth place. The 1997 and 1998 CART champion had had a weekend to forget until Sunday afternoon, and he started the race from second last row of the grid.
Zanardi took advantage of other drivers' incidents and mishaps, though, and slowly but surely made his way up the field as others fell by the wayside. The ten points for the fourth place more than double his season points total, and move him well up in the championship standings.
The early leaders-and top qualifiers-Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and Kenny Brack were nowhere to be found, though, at the finish. de Ferran built up a convincing lead several times, only to lose it to full-course cautions. His pit strategy dropped him back, and eventually, on lap 77, he made contact with Cristiano da Matta in turn three, puncturing the Penske car's right rear wheel. de Ferran limped around the track back to the pits, but had to abandon the race.
"Unfortunately the timing of the caution flags didn't play in our favour," de Ferran recounted. "Then I got hit, ending our day early."
Brack had made a daring pass on the #2 starter Helio Castroneves early in the race, diving inside Castroneves, with the two lightly banging wheels, until the Brazilian conceded the position-and Franchitti then followed Brack through.
Franchitti was, in fact, to prove a more dangerous rival for Brack, and the Scot took the second place away from Brack 22 laps into the race, with a clean pass at Turn 1. Franchitti's Team KOOL Green Reynard-Honda was just fractionally faster than Brack's Lola-Ford, and he was able to inch away, increasing his lead over Brack by two or three tenths of second on each lap.
Franchitti's day ended with a mechanical failure, though, and Castroneves and Brack had to pull off the track with their cars with their Honda and Ford engines, respectively, devoid of life as well.
The race had looked to be over early for local favorite and past winner Paul Tracy, too. The Canadian veteran had driven hard from an eighth grid position, but his aggressive driving style hurt him early.
Tracy narrowly escaped a four-car crash on the sixth lap, but on the ninth, he tried just a little too hard to get past Oriol Servia into ninth place. The two touched wheels, spun and stalled the cars in the middle of the track, precipitating already the third full-course yellow of the day, and putting the pair a lap down in the race.
Tracy persevered through the incidents, though, and finally claimed a hard-fought 6th place behind Dixon.
In the end, Andretti confirmed that Toronto is his track, and no one else's. He has now won an incredible 44% of all Molson Indy races ever held-and the seven Toronto wins account for over 17% of his career victories.