Newman/Haas Racing hopes to win their third consecutive Champ Car World Series season-opener in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as well as their 10th in history. LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (February 18, 2003) --- Not only have season-opening races...
Newman/Haas Racing hopes to win their third consecutive Champ Car World Series season-opener in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as well as their 10th in history.
LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (February 18, 2003) --- Not only have season-opening races been kind to Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) in recent years but the team has also fared well in inaugural CART Champ Car World Series events. After winning the two previous season openers held in Monterrey, Mexico, as well as nine of the previous 20 they have competed in, NHR will travel to St. Petersburg, Fla. this week with the hope of duplicating their 2002 opening round victory by former driver Cristiano da Matta and continue the domination that propelled them to the 2002 CART Champ Car World Championship.
Although the race will mark CART's return to Florida since the team finished one-two at the Grand Prix Americas with Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi late in the 2002 season it will be their first in the city of St. Petersburg. In the four inaugural events in 2002, da Matta and the team won the pole and finished second in Montreal, finished third in Denver, clinched the 2002 Championship after winning in Miami as well as finishing second with Fittipaldi and finished second in Mexico City. Of the team's seven 2002 wins - all by da Matta - six of those took place on road/street courses. In total, NHR has won 45 of their 68 victories on this type of course and hopes to add more in the 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg layout will not be the only thing NHR will familiarize itself with this weekend. For the first time in the history of the team, both NHR drivers will be making their maiden start with the organization as Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, 26, and Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, 23, complete the team's driver lineup. Both anticipate the season-opener at the new venue to be a challenge.
"I think the race in St. Petersburg will be difficult because it is not only the first race of the season but it's also a new track for everybody," said Junqueira. "I think it will be a matter of who adapts the fastest to the new challenge and gets an advantage on the others. I hope the PacifiCare team will adapt quicker and prepare better for race. I am quite confident that we will be close. Of the four new races last season, Cristiano finished on the podium in all of them and won the pole in Montreal and I won in Denver and won the pole in Mexico City."
While new to NHR, Brazilian Bruno Junqueira enters the season with plenty of Champ car experience. As the runner-up to da Matta in the 2002 championship he enters the season amid high expectations from fans and competitors alike. The pilot of the PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone race car will carry the coveted No. 1 on his race car and will attempt to add to his existing total of three wins and five poles in 39 Champ car starts with Target Ganassi Racing from 2001-2002.
"This is the first time in my life that I'm going to be driving the race car of the previous champion," added Junqueira. "It's also the first time I will be driving car No. 1. There is a lot of pressure but I had more pressure in 2000 in Formula 3000. I had won a lot of races in 1999 so everyone was saying I was the favorite to win the 2000 F3000 Championship. Everybody starts with zero points and the same chance. I plan to make the most of my chance."
In addition to attempting to win another championship title in 2003, NHR will be also be a candidate for another honor for only the second time in their history. Not since reigning Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell came to NHR in 1993 has the team been a contender for the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year award. Like Mansell, Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais also comes to NHR as a reigning champion after earning the 2002 FIA International Formula 3000 title on the strength of three race wins, six pole positions and a total of seven top-three podium finishes. Although he is about to embark on a season filled with new challenges, he is confident that he has the tools within his reach to propel him to success.
"I think it will be a tough weekend," said Bourdais. "To start the season and a new experience on a street course is always difficult because the type of track is asking for more concentration to not make any mistakes and stay off of the walls. It will also be more difficult because it will be my first race in a single seat race car that will last for two hours. It will be a busy weekend but the car is good and the team is good so that will make the weekend run smoother."
The rookie has already become one to watch after he set the second fastest lap time, to Junqueira, in a CART-sanctioned open test in Laguna Seca, Calif., in January and ran the fastest lap time in CART's annual Spring Training in Sebring, Fla. earlier this month. New challenges he will face in the coming days include a different flow to race weekend than in other series, an extended race length and more physically-challenging situation, as well as an increase from zero pit stops to a minimum of three. Bourdais has met each new challenge with success and hopes for more this week after some pre-season preparation.
"I have been running between one hour to one hour and 20 minutes to train myself physically," said Bourdais who will celebrate his 24th birthday a few days after the race. "My goal was to run for more than one hour since the race will be two hours in length. I have also been able to acclimatize myself with the Florida weather, which is important, because I think it will be warm in St. Petersburg. I tried to run during the warmest part of the day. We tried to simulate a qualifying session in Sebring to prepare for qualifying during races. The thing that will of course be different is that now there will be added pressure since it is a race weekend. I hope it will be less frustrating than an F3000 weekend. In 3000, when you didn't have good car, you didn't have time to improve because straight away you started qualifying for the race. In CART if you arrive with bad car you might not win the race but you will have a chance to improve your car before you qualify or race. The team is very experienced and I am going to count on that experience."
Drivers by nature would gladly utilize as many test days as they were offered but given the choice between testing and racing they would always choose the latter. "The off-season was short but I am glad because I am ready to start racing," added Junqueira. "After spending eight days with Cristiano (da Matta) and Tony (Kanaan) in Brazil over New Year's, I said, "Hey, where's my car? I want to drive! Now I'm looking forward to racing!"
Despite one fewer event that the previous record-setting season, a total of 2,686,640 fans attended the 19 Champ car races in 2002. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is sure to continue the trend and add new fans. In addition to on-track activities, rock sensation Better Than Ezra will perform a free concert to grand prix ticket holders. Fullback Mike Alstott, Lineman Jeff Christy, and Quarterback Shaun King will represent the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers as collective Grand Marshals of the race day events, including announcing the most famous words in racing, "Gentlemen, start your engines." As in previous seasons, an all-driver Champ car autograph session will be held but has been expanded from 30 minutes to one hour. The session will take place on Friday from 5:15 - 6:15 p.m. in the paddock.
Television coverage for the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will kick-off with live coverage of Saturday's Qualifying session beginning at 1:30 p.m. while race coverage will begin at 12:30 p.m. Both programs are on SPEED Channel and all times are Eastern.