Besting a field of nineteen drivers, newly crowned 2004 Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais put on a dominating performance in winning the Mexico City Grand Prix.
"I was so scared about, you know, not being able to give it a clear shot with an incident at the start or mechanical failure. Really a well-deserved championship for the whole McDonald's team and a fantastic achievement from the Newman/Haas Racing team," continued the new champion. "Really just a perfect day for us."
In a season that culminated in seven wins and eight poles, Bourdais took on all comers, including teammate Bruno Junqueira who challenged the Frenchman through all fourteen events.
"You know, it was also a fight - probably going to say this is pretty ridiculous - but it was the fight for the Corona Cup. It was not only to win the championship, but for the Mexican Cup. I guess I really wanted to win it bad, and I think I showed it."
After starting first and second from the pole, the Newman/Haas drivers made it cleanly through the first turn, but the race's early laps were not without mishap. Canadian Paul Tracy made contact with Mexican hero Roberto Gonzales, spinning the local favorite out of the running.
"Tracy came up behind me and I gave him plenty of racing room," said Gonzalez. "The next thing I knew I was turned around. I guess it's a miracle because when he hit me from behind, it broke my drive shaft and somehow we were able to continue. I feel bad for my guys and the Mexican fans who gave me so much support all weekend long. It's a shame we couldn't have got a better result today."
"My car had too much under-steer on the alternate tires." Junqueira said. "I knew there would be some under-steer-- when we went to the regular tires the car drover much better."
Aside of Tracy's incident early on, the front-runners remained in their original starting positions with Bourdais and Junqueira leading from rookie Justin Wilson, Jimmy Vasser and Oriol Servia.
Rookie of the Year champion A.J. Allmendinger fought his way past Servia for fifth before his first splash of fuel and tire change. The young rookie found the same speed Bourdais found with less fuel in the tank, lapping in the low 1:29 range. As the first stint drew nearer to an end, Bourdais was ticking off laps almost two seconds quicker than Junqueira; clearly Junqueira's car was not set-up to run with a lighter load.
Bourdais jumped into the pits on lap 26, over sixteen seconds ahead of his teammate. Allmendinger elected to stay out moving into second place, as did Patrick Carpentier who had worked up to fourth during the shuffle. The best result was for Allmendinger as he managed to work back into the field in third after finally coming in for his service two laps later.
Junqueira found the extra fuel and weight to his liking after his stop, now equaling Bourdais' times with efforts in the mid-1:29s. Allmendinger's car really came together during the second stint with laps quicker than both Newman/Haas drivers on many laps.
Bourdais looked un-reachable now, leading Junqueira by over seventeen seconds at race's mid-point. With just 30 laps remaining in the 2004 season, Bourdais led from Junqueira (-17sec.), Allmendinger (-21 sec.), Wilson (-31 sec.) and Vasser (-40 sec.).
On lap 41, Bourdais showed that he is human when he spun coming into the stadium section. The blunder cost him two-thirds of his lead, now just a fraction over five seconds ahead of Junqueira and eight seconds adrift of Allmendinger.
"I was so afraid to kill the engine at that time that I kept my foot down, spun the wheel as hard as I could." Bourdais said of the spin. "When it came back under control, I was facing the tires, used the reverse and went back out again. It was just a scary moment for a minute or two, then it came back to normal. I'm so glad it's over."
Bourdais rolled down the pit lane for his final stop of 2004 on lap 51. Without falter, his team slapped on new rubber and fed just enough fuel to complete the race. Junqueira had equally clean service and was back out to try and haul in his teammate who had all but turned into a small speck on the horizon.
"This was very important for us," Allmendinger said of his third place finish. "We didn't belong starting seventh, the car was so much better all weekend. We got through the Turn One wreck and after that is was a matter of just saving fuel behind Oriol (Servia). After that I got around him and I was able to go two laps longer (before pit stops) than everybody. That put us in great position. My crew did an outstanding job on the pit stops. This is a great way to end the season and a great way to start next year."
As the closing laps counted down, Bourdais found several cars between himself and the checkered flag. This would not be a walk-away victory by any stretch but Bourdais maintained his concentration and kept a two-second lead until the end. Wilson held on to claim fourth, one place down from his starting position, and Vasser garnered eighth in the championship with his top-five finish.
For Junqueira, it was a hard-fought season, one that just didn't yield any breaks or luck. With three second place championship finishes in as many years, Junqueira reflected on his accomplishment. "I think that was my best season with the Pacific Care team, I drove great and made no mistakes. I had to struggle too much against myself and it gave Sebastien the chance to win. He drove well, well done, and well done for Newman/Haas one and two."
Canadian Patrick Carpentier, perhaps in his last Champ Car event as rumors loom of his departure from the series, brought home his Forsythe Racing machine in sixth, capturing a third place finish in the championship, matching the effort he earned in 2002.
"I'm very happy to have made up places in this last race of the year and to have finished 3rd in the Championship, that was my goal today," said Carpentier. "I was not feeling too well yesterday and this morning and I wasn't sure how I would physically last during the race here in the Mexican heat . but when Paul went backwards after his early contact that took some of the pressure off me in terms of the championship. My car was excellent today, with the Ford Cosworth engine giving me good power and my Bridgestone tires held on really well all day."
Bourdais gives much of his success to his equipment this year, particularly the rubber which held his season together.
"We saved fuel the first 11 laps on the first stint today and the Bridgestone tires were still holding up very well as we got low on fuel. The balance was good and I was able to go quite fast. Bridgestone brought an excellent alternate tire that not only was very much faster but also very, very consistent. You cannot win without being right on with the tires, and the Bridgestone tires have been fantastic all season. They never gave up on us and I think we had only one puncture all season, which is remarkable considering what they go through. We always use them at the best and they give the best back to us."
Newman/Haas finishes the season one, two in the championship, the first team to accomplish the feat since 1998.
The top ten championship places in this year's spectacular championship series go to Sebastien Bourdais, Bruno Junqueira, Patrick Carpentier, Paul Tracy, Mario Dominguez, A. J. Allmendinger, Alex Tagliani, Jimmy Vasser, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Oriol Servia.
Allmendinger solidified the Rookie Points Championship that he had led all season, with Wilson the runner-up. Canada claimed the Nations Cup with top country honors for drivers, and Lola dominated the constructors championship over Raynard.
With the 2004 Champ Car World Series now a fond memory, the silly season begins in earnest as teams vie for the best drivers to suit their 2005 championship runs. Next year looks bright for Champ Car, now coming into its own after the court battles that nearly saw the series dissolve before our eyes. New venues like San Jose's Silicone Valley and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada will help clear a path to the future.