CHAMPCAR/CART: Detroit report

An interesting and exciting temporary Indy circuit? Surely it must be Cleveland, Toronto, or Long Beach. If I told you it was Detroit, I'd probably be laughed out of most polite Indycar circles. But Mother Nature and the God of tires managed...

An interesting and exciting temporary Indy circuit? Surely it must be Cleveland, Toronto, or Long Beach. If I told you it was Detroit, I'd probably be laughed out of most polite Indycar circles. But Mother Nature and the God of tires managed to turn a race which usually sees few passes into an exciting battleground. Here is how I saw the events of the weekend.

First of all, Saturday during qualifying was hot and sunny. Perfectly suited to the Firestone shod cars. And they took every advantage of their tires by filling the top six of the order, with Scott Pruett taking his first Indycar pole. Honda powered cars managed to fill 2nd through 5th spots, which is unusual, because Detroit is really a race dominated by setup, and not by engines. It is possible that the Honda was giving a more rapid low speed acceleration, which is critical on the twisty street circuit on Belle Isle.

On any other weekend at Detroit, you'd be guaranteed a Firestone victory. Coming from the pack to win is almost impossible, meaning a good qualifying effort and great pit stops are all it usually takes to maintain your spot at the front. Thankfully, Mother Nature took a dim view of the fact that the Firestone team has done almost no testing in wet conditions. She decided that it would be fun to show them a bit of her power, and dumped a deluge of rain on the track during the morning of the race. Firestone had essentially grooved a "V" tread street tire into their racing slicks, and learned quickly during morning practice that this wasn't going to work. Goodyear shod cars snapped up the top 13 spots in morning practice, and Firestone hastily tried to re-channel their tires with a tool borrowed from the Michelin team (who must have been in Detroit for the SCCA race).

Indycar, meanwhile, wanted to get a good start. And having watched the F1 race in Spain, they decided that starting single file behind the pace car was probably a prudent move. Perhaps they spoke to many of the F1 teams and drivers, who were spending their off weekend in Detroit before the Canadian GP.

Pruett blistered away from his pole position, using the lack of spray to let him pull out a significant lead. Things look good for Firestone. Christian Fittipaldi, however, decided to put an end to their happiness, ripping through the field on his Goodyears to move from 7th up to 2nd on the first lap. Goodyear cars were passing the hapless Firestone drivers on every corner, and moving around them on the shortest straights. The Firestones had almost no low speed traction, which allowed their drivers to drop rapidly rearward. Tracy made a great outside move on both Johnstone and Fernandez on a short straight, and Gordon made the only pass of a Goodyear driver by whipping past Andretti as he tried to massage his way past a luckless Firestone car.

Fittipaldi showed that his early speed was no fluke, ripping past a discouraged Pruett on lap 2. Goodyear cars quickly made up the top four in the order, with Fittipaldi pulling away from Tracy, Andretti and Gordon. Gil de Ferran was also carving his way toward the front. The hard charging Gordon, however, found himself hitting the tire barriers HARD on lap five, bringing another early end to his day, his fifth DNF in eight races.

After the tire barriers were reassembled, the race restarted, with Christian Fittipaldi showing a mastery of the course, pulling away from his pursuers. Hiro, having another banner day at the rear, managed to get in front of a hot battle between de Ferran, Tracy and Andretti. Never one to bother with mirrors, Hiro made it almost impossible for de Ferran to get safely past, by sticking to the narrow dry line. Tracy meanwhile, saw his opportunity, and frantically tried to get the drop on de Ferran. Finally, Hiro moved wide (by accident?) and let the battle get past. A dry line was appearing on most of the track, but their were significant areas of wet around the course.

Zanardi, who was joining his teammate Vasser in having a dreadful day at the back of the pack, decided to chance slicks. On his exit from pit lane, he gingerly danced around the track, just barely managing to fend off Hiro, who saw an opportunity to pass a driver who wasn't in a tire barrier. After he got his tires up to temperature, he quickly showed that slicks were the right call, turning in lap times a cool 4 or 5 seconds quicker than the leaders.

Blundell, a veteran of F1 and wet races, sped into the pits for slicks as well. Unfortunately for him, Moore picked this moment to try a pass on Ribiero, but lost his back end on a damp section, and took both he and Andre into the tire barriers. de Ferran, sensing a full course yellow was about to fly, let off slightly, and both Tracy and Andretti flew past him before the yellow dropped.

Luckily, de Ferran's Jim Hall racing team can blaze through a pit stop, and they managed to get him fueled and on slicks well before either Andretti (who had a quick stop as well) or Tracy (who didn't) could get back out. Excited by his luck, de Ferran decided to give the gas a shot on the exit from the pits, and promptly caused his back end to switch places with his front. Andretti narrowly avoided disaster as he tried to go between de Ferran and the wall, and by the time Gil had gathered his car back up (he made an excellent save to keep it off the wall) he was back in fourth, behind Andretti and Tracy. Christian was still having a banner day in the lead.

Confusion about the new restart rules caused massive chaos as the teams tried to sort out who was on which lap, and who needed to be where on the restart. Vasser, just barely in front of the leaders and almost a lap down, elected to go past the pace car, which meant that he couldn't pit until after the green. This meant that he was still on wets at the restart, and he quickly dove back into the pits to switch to slicks.

Emerson Fittipaldi quickly found out the danger of using slicks on a course which still had a damp spot or two, as he slid into the outside wall rounding a particularly damp concrete patch. Having destroyed his right rear suspension, he wandered slowly back to the pits to park his car for the day. Always the gentleman, Ribiero decided to show Emmo that he shouldn't blame himself, by smacking hard into the same wall a lap later.

Meanwhile, the battles at the front were heating up, as was the track, with the sun making a dim appearance and drying the track completely. Tracy, having a difficult time handling his Penske mount, let both de Ferran and Rahal (who was having a banner day) get past. Al Unser Jr., his teammate at Penske, showed him slightly more courtesy, deciding instead to pressure Tracy into a mistake. Tracy quickly accepted the challenge, and slid wide onto the entrance of a short straight. Al jumped at his chance and tried to pass Tracy and get the line into the next corner. He got to the corner first, but was way too hot, and slid hard into an everpresent tire barrier. Tracy managed to sneak by behind him as Al ended his day.

After the restart, Pruett and Tracy battled hard, with Pruett clearly having the better car, but Tracy able to fend him off on the difficult circuit. Tracy managed to tap the wall on the exit of a corner twice, but still had enough presence to gather it up and hold off Scott. Meanwhile, Rahal was battling de Ferran for 3rd. Rahal got too hot into a corner, drove over a still slippery painted white line, and hit HARD into a tire barrier. Things would have been much worse if he had managed to keep on the track for a few feet, as a less accomodating concrete wall was waiting to greet him.

Late in the race, the pits have all packed up for the weekend, and are ready to go celebrate with a beer. Andretti, loose as possible in second place, decides to warm things up by announcing on the radio that he was coming into the pits. His team scrambled over the walls, only to have a laughing Andretti stay out, and an unhappy team boss threatening death or worse for his driver.

Christian Fittipaldi, who had driven a masterful race, made his only mistake on the restart, sliding wide into a corner, and opening the door for his teammate, who has never been known to turn down an offer. Andretti quickly dashed past into the lead. Meanwhile, Pruett had tired of the chase with Tracy, and decided to manhandle him off the course, leaving Tracy in the grasp of an ever grateful tire barrier.

On the restart, Pruett charges hard behind de Ferran, perhaps elated at the success of his new driving tactics. He seems to have screwed up his brake bias royally, though, as he locks up the back end chasing de Ferran, and greets a tire barrier himself. Luckily, Tracy wasn't nearby.

They quickly get the field reformed behind the pace car (they did a masterful job of getting the race going quickly after both Tracy and Pruett went off) and had a two lap dash for the finish (which was going to be a timed two hours because of the rain and the yellows). Andretti quickly raced off, claiming his third victory in four races. Christian made it a 1-2 for Newman-Haas, and de Ferran brought his Pennzoil car home third. Blundell had made a solid charge throughout the day, working his way up to fifth, while Lawson finished an admirable sixth, just ahead of P.J. Jones.

Congrats to Adretti and his team, and I might respectfully suggest that the Firestone crew need to spend a bit of time at a test track with a firehose.

John jclarke@nortel.ca

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Christian Fittipaldi , Scott Pruett , P.J. Jones , Emerson Fittipaldi