John Francis - Motorsport News International
Citing "unjustifiable risk", chief steward Wally Dallenbach excluded 1998 series champion Alex Zanardi from todays afternoon qualifying session. The penalty was assessed for an incident in which Zanardi twice made contact with the car of Bryan Herta. This happened in the corkscrew (site of "The Pass" in 1996) after the checkered flag which marked the end of the morning practice session.
Bryan Herta had this to say about the situation: "It was a silly thing. I was following (Alex) Barron through the corkscrew and I see Zanardi slide up inside of me and run over my left front wheel. He was going much faster than the rest of us. I was really surprised he flew into that corner after the checkered flag."
Alex Zanardi, already on probation for an incident during the Mid-Ohio race, didn't quite see it that way. "I'm not happy about the decision, but I have to accept the opinion of the steward." he said. "It's unfortunate, because the situation could have been avoided by both of us. In terms of qualifying, we'll just have to wait and see what we can do tomorrow."
The rest of the morning practice session had been comparatively uneventful. Bryan Herta was the fastest driver in the early part of the session, but Zanardi soon answered with a fast lap of his own. Not to be outdone, Herta regained fast lap honors with a lap time of 1:08.878 (about a second slower than his pole qualifying time from last year). Zanardi managed to improve his time slightly, but not enough to regain the lead.
The most dramatic incident occurred halfway through the 90-minute session, when Tony Kanaan slid off-track at turn 4 and ran into the tire barrier. The driver was unhurt, but the car suffered significant damage to the left front. Kanaan returned to the track in his secondary car, and didn't seem to be upset by the accident. Quite the opposite, in fact - he posted the fourth fastest time of the session, behind Herta, Zanardi, and Jimmy Vasser.
After the practice session had concluded a lone car circled the track; the #5X Valvoline/Cummins Reynard/Honda of Walker racing normally driven by Gil de Ferran. This time the man behind the wheel was Danny Sullivan, taping a segment for the television race coverage. Danny started off with a very cautious lap, but he got faster with every lap completed. By the time he took the checkered flag at the end of his ten minutes he was beginning to sound more and more like a race car driver, and less and less like a TV commentator.
The first of the two qualifying sessions got under way promptly at 2:30pm, and Moore, Franchitti and Gugelmin soon set the initial pace. Paul Tracy had an early spin in turn two and stalled the car, bringing out the red flag. The safety workers got the car restarted, but Tracy had to return to the pits to serve his eight-minute penalty.
Shortly after the green flag flies again Bryan Herta pulled on to the track for the first time in this qualifying session. The car has had major work done to the left front suspension, the steering rack, and the sidepod radiator. Perhaps as a result of this the car was not quite to Bryans liking. He had an early off-track excursion at turn four, but managed to get back on track. His next lap catapulted him up to third place in the standings, although it was still a quarter of a second slower than his morning practice time.
Less than five minutes later Dario Franchitti posted the fastest time of the day to leap up into the provisional pole position. But two minutes later he ran off track in turn five, spun, and backed into the wall quite heavily. That brought out the red flag, and with less than a minute to go before the end of the session the checkered flag flew as well.
Fifteen minutes later the second qualifying session got under way. Carpentier, Vasser and Blundell set the early fast times, but Fernandez soon moved up into second place behind Vasser, who had improved to best time of the session. Max Papis had also moved up into the third spot in a Toyota-powered machine! The next fifteen minutes saw no changes at the front of the field. Then, just as a few fast laps were beginning to show up, Andre Ribeiro had a small fire in the back of his car and pulled off-track. The CART safety workers got the fire put out quickly, and pulled the car behind the wall for the remaining few minutes of the session.
In the last lap of the day Al Unser Jr. suddely jumped all the way from 18th overall to fastest in session, second only to Dario Franchitti from the earlier session. It didn't last, though - Adrian Fernandez came across the line 1/20th of a second faster, and took second place away from Al. Max Papis also moved up another few positions, ending up with the twelfth fastest time overall. Vincenzo Sospiri, meanwhile, had run a cautious session for his first time in a Champ car, and was solidly in 27th place, ending with his best lap.
When asked how he had managed to make such a dramatic improvement in qualifying, Al Unser Jr. explained that he had done it by changing his driving style, and "abusing the car". With qualifying position becoming such an important part of CART races, he felt that he had to change something. The car was already set up to his liking, so the only thing left to change was the driving.
Dario Franchitti was relieved that his early provisional pole had held up through the second qualifying session, although he wasa little embarassed at having backed the pole-setting car into the wall a minute or two later.
Bryan Herta, the fastest man on the track during the morning session, is looking to regain that position during the final qualifying session tomorrow. But that will also see Alex Zanardi back on the track, and he too is looking for that pole position. It should be another interesting day.