The one wild card in the Champ Car season is usually at Surfer's Paradise and this year proved no different, as Nelson Philippe won his first career race to continue the trend of no repeating winners in the event's sixteen- year history. Philippe...
The one wild card in the Champ Car season is usually at Surfer's Paradise and this year proved no different, as Nelson Philippe won his first career race to continue the trend of no repeating winners in the event's sixteen- year history. Philippe started 5th and used a combination of his rivals' misfortunate and well-timed passing maneuvers to become the youngest ever winner of a Champ Car race, at 20 years, two months and 29 day. He eclipses the old mark, held by Scott Dixon, by a full six months and 14 days.
"I just can't believe this day has finally come," Philippe said. "I am so full of adrenaline, I actually feel like throwing up, but at the same time, it is the best feeling in the world! This is just incredible, my crew was perfect today and Will Phillips my engineer gave me a great car all weekend. The strategy was fantastic and I am just so thankful for the amazing job from my team."
Much-maligned earlier in his career for having a reputation as a genuine ride-buyer, Philippe has matured rapidly in his third season in Champ Cars and is truly having a breakout season in 2006. He scored his first podium at Milwaukee after a thrilling duel with Bourdais, and again made the top three at Montreal with an inspired drive. There have been a number of other occasions where he has come close to winning or gaining more podiums; quite rightly he stands 4th in the championship and is now just the 4th driver to win a race this season.
"I came to this series at very young age without a whole lot of experience racing cars, but I've worked so hard, developing myself on the track and off the track," he added. "I knew I could do it and I am really enjoying this success and the confidence it brings. At the same time though, it just gives me the desire to work harder and harder and now that I have my first win, I will continue to focus on my championship position, this season has been amazing."
Well behind Philippe on this day, in 8th, Sebastien Bourdais secured his third consecutive series championship in rather anticlimactic fashion. Bourdais is the first driver since Ted Horn from 1946-48 to accomplish the feat. A rather un-Bourdais like weekend presented itself Down Under, first crashing in Saturday qualifying and having an eventful race. He crashed into hometown hero Will Power mid-race and earned himself a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. On the last lap he ceded 7th position to 2005 Atlantic champion Charles Zwolsman in what was anything but a typical Bourdais performance.
The race began with a wave off of the initial start, and a green was shown the second lap with the field in single file order. The cars ran in grid order until lap 10, when Philippe passed Bruno Junqueira for 4th. The first caution flew on lap 14, when the sometimes impressive and sometimes destructive Dan Clarke crashed at turn 8. That accident would have all but sealed the Rookie of the Year title in Power's favor. Alas, it was not to be for the Australian on this day.
The entire field pitted except for Jan Heylen and Zwolsman, who had stopped a couple laps prior to the incident. A.J. Allmendinger, who had had a strong first stint, suffered his first misfortune of the day during the stop, leaving his pit stall while the fuel hose was still connected, tearing the hose and igniting the methanol.
The damage from the incident caused Allmendinger to lose control in turn three a few laps later. He had too much damage and was unable to continue. This all but sealed a couple of items - Bourdais' title and an increasingly likely switch to NASCAR next season. Heylen pitted after living it up in his 15 minutes of fame, pulling out a 4-second lead over Zwolsman.
Allmendinger's teammate Paul Tracy made contact with Power as the rookie exited the pits, cutting one of Tracy's tires and causing damage to Power's car. The additional stop to replace the tire moved Tracy out of the planned pit strategy and out of sequence with the other drivers.
The Dutchman led as the skies darkened and Tracy pitted for a third time to top off his tank. But his lead would also be short-lived, as Power's unfortunate collision with Bourdais occurred. Bourdais locked a tire and overshot his braking zone, clipping the helpless pole sitter and no doubt wiping out the exuberance of the Aussie faithful. Only a few laps earlier Ryan Briscoe had gotten entangled with Katherine Legge and dropped out of contention on his debut for RuSPORT. Both of the natives continued but would no longer factor into the equation.
Zwolsman, Heylen, Bourdais, and Antonio Pizzonia all took the opportunity to pit at this caution - Bourdais would revisit the pits a lap later to serve his drive-through. Oriol Servia, who had started 6th, assumed the race lead over Philippe, Alex Tagliani in the other Team Australia entry, Tracy and Junqueira. On lap 36 Philippe made the pass on Servia to take the lead, in a move that would ultimately prove to be the winning one as the pit stops occurred under green. Tagliani and Servia stopped on lap 39, followed by Philippe a lap later and Tracy on lap 42.
Tracy exited ahead of Philippe by a few tenths, but Philippe quickly retook the position shortly thereafter. Then things really got weird. Heylen crashed at turn 12 and Mario Dominguez pitted his Rocketsports entry. Shortly after he entered the pits the caution flew - and the Mexican had now become a contender in a race that gave everyone a chance. With the pit stop cycle complete Pizzonia, in only his third ever start, had emerged with the lead with Philippe, Tracy, Dominguez and Tagliani in tow. Race control ruled Tracy had passed his old sparring partner (one of many in PT's season) Dominguez under caution and he was forced to give it up.
So Pizzonia was on the verge of a massive upset - and with the way things went down it wouldn't have been unfathomable to think Champ Car would call the race to fit it within a 1 hour, 45 minute time limit as they have in the past for television. That didn't happen and on lap 53, Pizzonia made his final pit stop and fell to 10th. Even if strategy had gotten the "Jungle Boy" to the front, he deserved a better result.
Tracy was running second in the closing laps, when he cut through a chicane, and was assigned a second penalty by race control, dropping him behind Tagliani for 4th place. There would be no Surfer's smack down as there was in San Jose.
With Tracy dropped back, Dominguez was giving Philippe a heck of a fight at the front. The surprising winner of the 2002 water-logged event, Dominguez used one last power-to-pass shot but was unable to pass Philippe, and the Frenchman emerged victorious. Dominguez, though, gave Rocketsports its best run of the season with 2nd and Tagliani made a welcome return to the podium for the first time since Long Beach. Tracy and Andrew Ranger completed the top five.
Bourdais wrapped up the title with Allmendinger and Justin Wilson unable to make up any ground. Philippe and Tracy complete the top five in points. Power still leads the Rookie of the Year standings by 15 over Clarke, with all others eliminated from that battle.