CHAMPCAR/CART: Michael Andretti carries the day at Motegi

MOTEGI, Japan -- Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline driver Michael Andretti scored his 39th victory in the originally postponed Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi here on Sunday, May 14, and tied with Al Unser Sr. for 3rd in CART All-Time ...

MOTEGI, Japan -- Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline driver Michael Andretti scored his 39th victory in the originally postponed Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi here on Sunday, May 14, and tied with Al Unser Sr. for 3rd in CART All-Time victories.

Andretti and his Newman/Haas Racing team avoided the uncertainty of running their backup car in the originally scheduled race on Saturday after rain forced postponement of the event. The primary racecar suffered a throttle position sensor failure in the shortened 15-minute race warm-up (normally 30 minutes, 2-1/2 hours before the race) and the team could not shakedown his backup car before the session ended. The team rushed to prepare the backup car for the race and installed the most recent development pieces during the 30-minute break between the warm-up and the race. Once on the grid, the team waited for the command to start the engine.

Soon thereafter, rain began falling and the race was ultimately postponed for the following day, enabling the team to fix the throttle position sensor and run the racecar. On the first of 201 laps, Andretti charged from his 8th-place start into 3rd by driving on the outside line and thus passing Jimmy Vasser, Roberto Moreno, teammate Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran and Mauricio Gugelmin.

Andretti held 3rd place for the following 34 laps until he made his first pit stop on lap 35 under a caution period for debris on the course. He returned to the race in 3rd place behind race leader Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, who had gained two positions on his stop. He held 3rd until his next pit stop on lap 82, when he lost one position to Roberto Moreno and returned to the track in 4th place.

On the restart on lap 84, Andretti passed Moreno on the outside to retake 3rd place. He moved into 2nd place on lap 127 when Vasser pitted and subsequently retired with mechanical failure. He made his third pit stop on lap 129. After others pitted, Andretti returned to 2nd place by lap 135 and held his position until his fourth and final stop on lap 174 during a caution period.

Andretti returned to the race in 2nd place behind Montoya but moved into the lead on lap 175 when Montoya made a fifth pit stop to reattach an electrical lead that had fallen off of the turbo-boost during a troubled pit stop. He kept the lead through the restart and held off Dario Franchitti. Tony Kanaan's engine blew on lap 191 and a yellow came out to retrieve his car and check for oil on the track. Andretti again had to hold off Franchitti through the restart on lap 196 and won by a five-tenths of a second. Following are his post race comments:

"The rain may have been a blessing in disguise," Andretti said. "There was a 90 percent chance that we would be OK [racing the backup car], but you don't want to mess with the 10 percent chance of a problem. I think the Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline team could have been up here [winning] a couple of times before this year. We are only 36 points out now and there is a long way to go in the Championship. It feels good to finally break the ice. I want to thank the Japanese fans for coming out again today. It was difficult conditions for everyone and I want to say thank you for their support. This is the third win in a row for Ford in Japan and that is a streak we plan to continue here. This is the first win for Lola since we won the Vancouver race for them in 1996. I'm glad we could bring them back into winner's circle."

Big Kmart/Route 66 driver Christian Fittipaldi suffered from the unlucky timing of his fourth and final pit stop when he made a stop under green conditions immediately before a yellow period came out, ultimately dropping him to an 11th-place finish, two laps down to the leader.

After starting in 6th place, Fittipaldi passed Gil de Ferran on the first lap but was passed by teammate Andretti, thus holding 6th place. On lap 22, he was held up in traffic and Tony Kanaan passed him for position. He made his first stop on lap 35 and maintained 7th place until his second stop on lap 81. With great pit action, he was able to gain two positions by passing Kenny Brack and Tony Kanaan and returned to the race in 5th place.

By lap 129, he had moved up to 3rd place as the leaders began pitting, and made his third stop on lap 130. During the stop, there was miscommunication between the crew and Fittipaldi left the pits without a full load of fuel, which could possibly cause a problem later depending on how the race unfolded. He was in 5th place by lap 135 and only lost one position due to the troubled pit stop.

On lap 153, Fittipaldi was held up by slower traffic and Cristiano da Matta was able to get a run on him and temporarily passed him for position until he regained the spot on lap 158. On lap 164, the team told him to "richen" his fuel-to-air mixture in order to gain track position since he would have to pit earlier than the field due to the short fill of fuel on the previous stop. The team estimated that the racecar was probably two to three gallons short of fuel but planned to make a conservative estimate of six gallons in order to prevent the car from running out of fuel on track.

Fittipaldi pitted on lap 168 for 25 gallons as well as new tires and rejoined the field two laps down to the leader. The worst possible scenario became reality when, less than a full lap later, a yellow flag came out for Mark Blundell, who made contact with the wall. This stop would enable the rest of the field to pit under a slower caution period and Fittipaldi to remain lapped, thus ending his chances for a top finish. By lap 173, he was in 13th place but moved into 12th when Memo Gidley retired with electrical failure. He moved into 11th place when Tony Kanaan apparently suffered engine failure and stopped on course.

Fittipaldi held 11th place throughout the restart on lap 194. Following are his post-race comments:

"We had a top-three car today so I am really disappointed about our problems. It was a snowball that began with a miscommunication with the crew on our third stop. We only lost one place on the stop, but we didn't get in full fuel so we had to stop early the next time. What hurt us was pitting early under green and then the yellow came out right after that. We were especially hurt with the pack-up. That's where we lost it. If we would have stayed out a few laps more and then the yellow came out, we would have had to pit or run out of fuel. If we were penalized, we would have had to go to the back of the pack and been in a better position than we were if we didn't get stuck on track out of fuel. This one hurt the Big Kmart/Route 66 team because we could have been 3rd."

Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline driver Michael Andretti will be the featured guest on CNNSI.com on Tuesday, May 16, at 2 p.m. ET. He will be the featured guest on FoxSports.com on Wednesday, May 17, at 5 p.m. ET. Fittipaldi was the featured driver on a chat with CNNSI.com in April and will appear on FoxSports.com on May 31, at 5 p.m. ET. Fittipaldi's Web site, fittipaldiONLINE.com, was featured in the "e Sports" column of USA Today on Tuesday, May 9.

Back to Nazareth

Regularly scheduled round 2 of 20 of the FedEx Championship Series will take place in two weeks on May 27. The race was postponed due to inclement weather that included snow and high winds. Fittipaldi qualified 2nd while Andretti qualified 15th.

Testing Days Before Nazareth Race

Michael Andretti will test at the Milwaukee Mile on Sunday, May 21, in preparation for the Miller Lite 225 on Sunday, June 4, while Big Kmart/Route 66 driver Christian Fittipaldi will test at Michigan International Speedway on May 24-25 in preparation for the Marlboro 500.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Memo Gidley , Roberto Moreno , Christian Fittipaldi , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Kenny Brack , Mark Blundell , Al Unser Sr.