Patrick Carpentier won the CART Cleveland Grand Prix today, despite a furious pursuit by Team Green drivers Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy, who exchanged the race's fastest laps late in the race. Carpentier took the lead from Dario Franchitti on the second round of pit stops and used good fuel mileage to keep the lead over Andretti and Tracy on subsequent stops after Franchitti's engine expired.
CART Starter, Jim Swintal, waved off the first attempt to start today's race at the Burke Lakefront Airport. When the green flag flew one lap later, everyone waited to see what kind of excitement would occur in the typical crush in the tight turn one. Pole sitter Cristiano da Matta took his usual position at the front of the field, and the field followed through in start order with a few exceptions: Franchitti followed da Matta into turn one from his second-row start, pushing Carpentier back to third, Andretti and Tony Kanaan moved up at the expense of Christian Fittipaldi and Tracy took the far outside line to improve four positions to seventh place.
As usual, there was an incident, caused this time when Toranosuke Takagi punted Jimmy Vasser into a spin right at the apex of the turn. When the two cars came to a stop, the race's two rookies, Mario Dominguez and Townsend Bell, stacked up behind Takagi and were immediately out of the race.
The yellow flags flew and both Vasser and Takagi had their cars restarted by CART's safety workers, allowing them both to continue on the lead lap after pit stops for repairs. Carpentier had a scare when he lost the electronics in the dash, shutting down the data panel and, more importantly, the traction control system. He was able to recover the system during the caution period with help from his crew over the radio.
On the restart, da Matta took off into a solid lead with Franchitti holding a smaller margin to Carpentier. Tracy made a bold inside pass of Fittipaldi in the first turn to start lap 8 and started harassing Kanaan for fifth place.
Franchitti had begun cutting into da Matta's lead at lap 19, when da Matta darted into the pits with an engine problem. Da Matta pitted for good one lap later to end his consecutive win streak at four.
In an attempt to get ahead of Kanaan, Tracy was the first to come in for the first round of stops on lap 26 and the rest of the field came in one lap later. The strategy backfired for Tracy when there was a problem with the right rear tire on the stop. The rest of the field came in one lap later and Franchitti retained the lead over Carpentier by the slimmest of margins. Scott Dixon did not emerge from his stop, breaking an axle shaft when trying to leave.
On the second round of stops, Carpentier took the lead when Franchitti pitted a little early and he kept it when he made his own stop a few laps later. When Kanaan came out of this round of stops, he was in fifth place, but lost positions to Fittipaldi, Kenny Brack and Bruno Junqueira before his tires got up to temperature.
It looked like Franchitti was making his third stop early on lap 69, but he stepped out of the car as soon as it came to a stop, his car done for the day. This promoted Andretti and Tracy to their podium positions.
After the third round of stops were complete, the bumpy track, the fast pace, and the long spell of green flag laps continued to show on the cars. On lap 88, Junqueira pulled off course at turn 3, falling out of seventh position with engine failure. On lap 97, Fittipaldi fell out of third position, coasting to a stop outside of turn 6. His team suspected that he ran the fuel tanks dry, even though their readouts indicated that they had more on board. Even Andretti dropped off of his torrid pace when a small wing fell off the car in the same stretch of laps. Andretti had even more trouble with a few laps remaining, nursing a failing engine to the finish. "I didn't think I was going to finish," he remarked, "I had to coast it through the corners."
Brack finished fourth, followed closely by Carpentier's Team Forsythe teammate Alex Tagliani. Vasser and Takagi bounced back from their earlier incident to finish sixth and seventh. Kanaan was the final car on the lead lap in eighth. One lap down to the leaders were Michel Jourdain Jr. and Shinji Nakano in ninth and tenth positions. Adrian Fernandez was the last running car, but was four laps down in eleventh place.
With five of the top six in CART championship points (including runaway points leader da Matta) on the sidelines, the points battle has gotten a little tighter. Da Matta still has a large lead, 120-70, over Junqueira and Franchitti is still third with 64 points, but Carpentier and Jourdain are now tied for fourth with 62, Brack is just behind with 60 and Fittipaldi has 58. Three drivers are tied for eighth with 52 points: Andretti, Tagliani and Dixon; with Tracy only two more points behind.
The official attendance at the Burke Lakefront Airport was 51,317 for race day and 111,438 over the three-day weekend. The CART series now heads west to Vancouver B.C. for another temporary circuit race on July 28th.