INDIANAPOLIS (October 7, 2003) -- The monstrous crowds that set CART Champ Car attendance records a year ago are expected to return as the series heads to the revamped Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, and when they do, there will be a...
INDIANAPOLIS (October 7, 2003) -- The monstrous crowds that set CART Champ Car attendance records a year ago are expected to return as the series heads to the revamped Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, and when they do, there will be a number of story lines to keep them intrigued on race day -- including the chances of a series-record six Mexican drivers that will take the green flag for Sunday's Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa.
Over 350,000 fans streamed through the gates of the glittering 2.786-mile Mexico City road course for the 2002 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season finale, and the fans that return will get an extra treat as this year's event has four drivers locked in a furious battle for the series title with three races to go. Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is still the lead dog in the hunt, as he maintains a 13-point lead in the championship despite the fact that he went scoreless at Miami, while Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) leads the baying pack that is in hot pursuit.
Sitting in third place is Mexican-born Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante/Office Depot Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who thrilled fans last year when he led nine laps late in the race, bringing forth a roar from the grandstands that muffled the screams of the 750hp turbocharged engines. Jourdain is just 33 points behind the leader while top rookie Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) still has an outside shot at the crown, trailing by 62 points with 68 markers available in the year's final events.
Bourdais is expected to have an easier path to wrapping up the Rookie-of-the-Year title than he will in chasing down Tracy as Darren Manning (#15 RAC/Walker Racing Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) needs to outscore Bourdais by 15 points to avoid seeing the trophy go to the 2002 FIA F3000 champ. Bourdais has used an unprecedented spate of qualifying success in building the rookie points lead, setting a new series mark by starting in the top six in each of the last 10 events. Two-time series champ Alex Zanardi held the former mark with nine consecutive top-six starts by a rookie.
Tracy dodged a Miami bullet two weeks ago in keeping his series advantage, as his Lap 67 contact with Bourdais sent him to his motorhome early and sent the furious Frenchman prowling the pits in search of an explanation from the points leader. The incident put Junqueira in prime position to erase the bulk of Tracy's lead, but he would have to settle for ninth place after triggering a Lap 92 crash of his own. Jourdain suffered problems of a different kind in Miami as he saw a strong chance for a win end in Pit Lane as his contact with Tiago Monteiro (#7 Fittipaldi-Dingman Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) resulted in a penalty that dropped him to seventh.
This year, Junqueira heads to Mexico City after setting a track record and winning the pole there a season ago, but his pole would go for naught as he went off-course during the opening lap and spent the rest of the day battling his way back to a podium finish. Tracy has no such fond memories of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez as he ended a trying 2002 season by qualifying eighth and finishing 16th in the year's final race.
Jourdain could make history in Mexico City if he were to build on last year's performance on the twisty track. With two wins already under his belt, Jourdain could become the first Mexican driver to win three races in a Champ Car season, and could also become the first Mexican driver to win a race on his home soil. Jourdain will not be alone in chasing the last of those brass rings however, as a series record six Mexican drivers will be vying for the top step on the podium.
At least two of the native sons come to Mexico City on a wave of momentum generated on the shores of South Florida. Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) returns home after taking his second career Champ Car victory, leading the final 28 laps to take the win in Miami. The victory is the first of the season for last year's Rookie of the Year and moved him into seventh in the point standings. Veteran Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is also coming off of one of his best runs of the year. The series' only owner/driver took his first pole of the year at Miami and led a season-high 88 laps before having his shot at a win ended in the Junqueira crash. This year's event will be his first Champ Car start on the refurbished Mexico City track, as he had to skip the 2002 event due to injuries suffered in Surfers Paradise.
Three rookies will also chase their dreams of winning in front of the home crowd when the engines fire Sunday. Rodolfo Lavin (# 5 Corona Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) looks to break a three-race scoreless streak and will have a new teammate in the Walker Racing stable to help the cause. Luis Diaz (#25 Sun/Telcel/Motorola Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) will make his first start of the year in a third Walker Racing machine. Diaz has a leg up in preparations for the event as he was the driver that replaced Fernandez for last year's race, although he ran only one lap in the race due to mechanical trouble.
Roberto Gonzalez (#4 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) rounds out the sextet of Mexican drivers as he replaces Roberto Moreno for the Mexico City race. Gonzalez will make his second career start in the Champ Car World Series, and first with Herdez Competition, after finishing 17th in the season opener in St. Petersburg while driving for Dale Coyne Racing. The influx of new drivers boosts the entry list to 20 cars, which is the most to start a series race since last year's event at Twin Ring Motegi.
One of the biggest stories to come out of Miami is one that bears watching in Mexico as former Formula 1 veteran Mika Salo (#27 PK Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) comes off of his first-ever podium finish. Salo was quick for most of the weekend in Miami but started 15th after a bobble in final qualifying, forcing him to make his way through the field. He lost a lap early on, but made it up and plowed his way forward to earn a third-place finish. His Mexico City start will be his first Champ Car appearance on a permanent road course, having run the street circuits of Denver and Miami since taking over the seat of the #27 car from Max Papis.
Patrick Carpentier (#32 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) was mathematically eliminated from title contention at Miami but is still in position to have a career-best season. Carpentier sits in fifth place in the championship and heads to a Mexico City track where he performed well last year, qualifying seventh and running fourth in the season finale. Oriol Servia (#20 Visteon/Patrick Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) also returns to a Mexico City track where he had a decent performance a year ago, as he climbed seven positions from his grid standing to place ninth. Servia is on the best qualifying run of his four-year Champ Car career, having gridded third or better in each of the last three races. The three-race streak of top-three starting spots is the first for Patrick Racing since 1989 when Emerson Fittipaldi strung four poles together en route to the series title.
Fittipaldi is currently the co-owner of the Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing squad that campaigns the #7 car of Portuguese rookie Monteiro, but it was the other horse in the FDR/Conquest Racing stable that kicked up its heels a bit in Miami. Mario Haberfeld (#34 Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing Ford-Cosworth/Reynard Bridgestone) had one of his best races of the year two weeks ago as he powered from the 13th spot on the grid to earn his third top-five finish of the season and his first since June's Grand Prix of Monterey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The American Spirit Team Johansson duo of Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) will head to Mexico in the hopes that the Reynard chassis performs as well on the road course as it did a year ago. At its best on the permanent road courses, Reynards finished fourth and sixth last year. Vasser himself was in a Lola at the time and qualified fifth before ending his day in the 11th spot.
The Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa gets underway with practice and first-round qualifying on October 10, with final-round qualifying taking place Saturday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time. The 70-lap event gets underway at 4 p.m. Eastern on October 12, and can be seen live on SPEED Channel.