Paul Tracy dominated the Gran Premio Telmex/Gigante race today at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City to take a commanding lead in the 2003 CART Champ Car Word Series points race with only two races remaining. Sebastien Bourdais finished second and clinched the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year award.
Mexican drivers Mario Dominguez and Michel Jourdain, Jr. finished third and fourth to the great delight of the large, highly partisan crowd, reported to be in excess of 220,000, an all-time CART record. Jourdain's finish kept alive his hopes, however faint, of catching Tracy for the Champ Car championship, while fellow contender Bruno Junqueira struggled to a seventh place finish to remain in second place with a slightly better view to the top.
The race got off to a wild start on lap two after CART Starter J.B. Wilbur waved off the first attempt. On the second try, the first two rows got through the first turn cleanly, but there was chaos behind them. Ryan Hunter-Reay touched rear wheels with Darren Manning and Manning went for a spin into the grass. Just behind them, Jimmy Vasser also spun and both Jourdain and Fernandez had to go off course to avoid the stopped cars.
After a short pace car period while Vasser got a push start, the race resumed with Tracy leading away from Junqueira. Bourdais stayed close to Junqueira's rear wing, but didn't want to spoil his Newman/Haas teammate's chance to get maximum points, so he was careful not to make a risky pass attempt.
Second starting Tiago Monteiro (Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing) initially held second place behind Tracy, but Junqueira and Bourdais got around him before the end of the first hot lap. After the green came out again to start lap 4, Monteiro held fourth position, heading a close pack of cars: Hunter-Reay, Patrick Carpentier, Dominguez and Mika Salo. Dominguez and Salo had each gotten a terrific start - up to seventh and eighth places from row six on the starting grid.
By the time of the first round of pit stops on lap 19, Dominguez had also passed Carpentier and after his stop, he was ahead of Hunter-Reay as well. Quick pit work by the PK racing team put Salo ahead of both Carpentier and Hunter-Reay too.
The order in the top ten of the field remained the same through the next segment of the race, with Tracy continuing to hold a comfortable lead over Junqueira and a tight parade containing Bourdais, Monteiro, Dominguez and Salo.
Vasser tried to outbrake Alex Tagliani for 11th place into turn one on that lap. Ordinarily, that is the best place to make that kind of move, since it is a long braking area at the end of the fastest run on the track, but Vasser's rear tires locked up and he slid into Tagliani's path. Both cars were done for the day.
After the pace car pulled in following that cleanup, it was recalled to the head of the field almost immediately. Fernandez had made a pass on Roberto Gonzales - who was teamed up with Herdez Competition's Dominguez for the team's home race - for 13th place, but carried too much speed and hit the rear of Manning's car, sending him into a spin. Since Manning only needed a pull start from the CART safety crew, it was a short interruption.
In the short time between those two caution periods, two passes occurred, both under braking for the first turn. Monteiro took third place from Junqueira and Hunter-Reay got back in front of Salo for sixth. Junqueira would lose another position - this time to Dominguez - before the third and final round of pit stops. Junqueira struggled all day with what was suspected to be food poisoning, in addition to his needing to keep his car in the race to stay in the points battle, so he wasn't able to put up much of a fight to defend the passes.
Jourdain, who had set himself on a cycle of pitting earlier than most of the front-runners, went in even earlier to start the final round of stops, a strategy that would soon pay off for him. He was in ninth place when he pitted on lap 51 and came back out in 13th after a typically fast stop from Team Rahal. He had raced his way back up to ninth by the time the front pack dove for the pits on lap 57, and was all the way up to fifth when all the stops were completed.
Fernandez returned from that last stop in tenth place, took ninth by punting Oriol Servia out of his way and got to eighth place when Carpentier ran out of fuel two laps from the end. Manning finished ninth after his day full of adventures, none of his making. Gonzales made good use of his one-shot opportunity at his home race to finish tenth. Hunter-Reay was 11th at the finish, his day spoiled by a lengthy final pit stop when his car stalled.
The final point for 12th place went to Mario Haberfeld after an uneventful and uninspiring drive, and the last running car was Servia's Patrick Racing Lola, one lap down after his late incident with Fernandez.
Tracy's win, his sixth of the season, puts him in good position to win his first CART Champ Car season crown. He now leads Junqueira by 29 points with two races remaining and Jourdain by 43. With only 46 points left to fight over, the Vanderbilt Cup could be Tracy's in two weeks at Surfers Paradise in Queensland, Australia.
Although Bourdais was mathematically eliminated from contention for the top prize today, the speedy Frenchman's second place finish clinched for him the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year.