Al Unser Jr.'s fractured right ankle has left Marlboro Team Penske with an open driver's seat for the next few FedEx Championship Series events, and the team has tested a number of drivers with an eye toward filling that opening. Unser...
Al Unser Jr.'s fractured right ankle has left Marlboro Team Penske with an open driver's seat for the next few FedEx Championship Series events, and the team has tested a number of drivers with an eye toward filling that opening.
Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) sustained the injury in an accident with rookie Naoki Hattori (Alpine Honda Reynard) during the opening lap of the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota, March 21 in Homestead, Fla.
Unser Jr., who ranks second in FedEx Championship Series career starts with 257, is expected to be sidelined for the next four to six weeks, necessitating that Marlboro Team Penske find a replacement for the April 10 Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, and the April 18 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The day following Unser Jr.'s injury, the team tested Gonzalo Rodriguez, a Formula 3000 driver from Uruguay, during a two-day session on the road course at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway. Brazilian Tarso Marques tested on the oval at Nazareth Speedway on Monday and Tuesday while Jason Leffler, the 1998 USAC Silver Crown and National Midget champion, is scheduled to test at Nazareth today.
"These drivers are helping us continue our testing and development program while Al continues the rehabilitation of his broken ankle," said team owner Roger S. Penske. "We will make a decision this week on driver assignments for the upcoming races."
Naoki Hattori (Alpine Honda Reynard), who sustained a double compound fracture of the left leg in the opening-lap accident with Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Mercedes Penske) at Homestead, has begun rehabilitation in Indianapolis. While there, he will be under the care of Dr. Terry Trammell, Orthopedic Surgeon and Chief Orthopedic Consultant for the FedEx Championship Series. "Naoki is doing very well at this time," Dr. Trammell said. "The swelling in his leg is resolving and he is regaining the movement in his toes and ankle. He will begin his recovery at [his Indianapolis] home. It is our intention to start a formal program of rehabilitation and therapies on Monday. He is not yet able to bear weight on his left leg, but will begin some light weight-bearing when he starts therapy. He may not be able to return to the Champ Car circuit for up to six months."
Eight FedEx Championship Series drivers tested their short-oval equipment packages at Nazareth Speedway on Tuesday in preparation for the May 2 Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, Round 4 of the FedEx Championship Series. Much of the test was focused on the single-element, low-downforce aerodynamic package newly mandated by CART for use on the one-mile ovals at Nazareth and The Milwaukee Mile (June 6).
Participants included Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard), Juan Montoya (Target Honda Reynard), Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard), Scott Pruett (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard), Tony Kanaan (McDonald's Championship Racing Team Honda Reynard), rookie Cristiano da Matta (MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard), Alex Barron (All American Racers Toyota Denso Eagle) and rookie Tarso Marques (Marlboro Mercedes Penske). Unofficially, Barron led the group with a top speed of 178.483 miles per hour (20.17 seconds). He was followed by a group of four drivers at 178.218 mph (20.20 seconds), including Fernandez, de Ferran, Montoya and Marques. De Ferran and Marques were involved in minor one-car accidents late in the day. Neither was injured.
Team KOOL Green drivers Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) and Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) tested at Nazareth Speedway last Thursday and Friday, recording their first laps with the new, short oval aerodynamic package. Ambient temperatures in the low 40s (Fahrenheit) kept speeds down, but Franchitti was able to complete nearly 300 laps during the two days, averaging just over 173 miles per hour on his quickest lap. "It's really tricky," he said afterward. "This [was] the first time the track has been used since the winter, so it's 'green.' There are new asphalt patches in the turns, the weather is cold, and with low downforce, there's no grip." Tracy's session was abbreviated by a minor accident on Thursday, followed by an engine failure Friday. His crew replaced the engine in time for Tracy to put in 168 laps Friday afternoon, with a top speed of nearly 172 miles per hour. "Under these conditions, it takes 15 laps just to get your tires up to temperature," Tracy said. "But we all have to deal with it. Friday afternoon we got some good laps in and we'll come back with a good starting point for the race."
De Ferran also tested at Sebring International Raceway last week, completing 244 miles during a session for Goodyear. De Ferran, who established a career-best improvement from start to finish by driving from 25th to sixth place at Homestead, completed his workload despite lingering discomfort from a qualifying accident in the season opener. "My ribs are still a little sore, although it's getting better daily," he said. "We were able to do a lot of work for Goodyear with some very positive results. It seems that their hard work is starting to bear fruit." Echoed team owner Derrick Walker, "We were very pleased with the tires that we tested, several sets showing some real promise. All of the hard work that Goodyear has put into the program over the wintertime seems to be taking shape."
SERIES LEADERS FedEx Championship Series points and earnings leaders heading into the April 10 Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan:
FedEx Championship Series Points for the PPG Cup 1. Greg Moore, Player's Forsythe Racing 22 2. Michael Andretti, Newman/Haas Racing 16 3. Dario Franchitti, Team KOOL Green 14 4. Jimmy Vasser, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing 12 5. Max Papis, Team Rahal 10
FedEx Championship Series Earnings 1. Greg Moore, Player's Forsythe Racing $100,000 2. Michael Andretti, Newman/Haas Racing $60,000 3. Dario Franchitti, Team KOOL Green $50,000 4. Jimmy Vasser, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing $35,000 5. Max Papis, Team Rahal $30,000
Source: CART Online