Who Will Replace Al Unser, Jr.? by Robin Miller It looked like a no-brainer for Roger Penske. Al Unser Jr. is laid up in the hospital and J.J. Lehto is walking around without a ride. But, instead of hiring the seasoned Lehto to replace...
Who Will Replace Al Unser, Jr.? by Robin Miller It looked like a no-brainer for Roger Penske. Al Unser Jr. is laid up in the hospital and J.J. Lehto is walking around without a ride.
But, instead of hiring the seasoned Lehto to replace the injured Unser for the next two FedEx Championship shows at Montegi, Japan and Long Beach, Calif., The Captain is going to bolt rookie Tarso Marques in the Marlboro Penske.
No official announcement is expected until Friday, but longtime Penske spokesman Dan Luginbuhl left little doubt who would be driving No. 2 next week at Montegi.
"We ran Tarso 265 miles on Monday at Nazareth and he did an excellent job," said Luginbuhl. "He was very consistent on long runs and offered great feedback to our crew. Rick Mears was plenty impressed with this kid. Unfortunately, after running another 101 laps Tuesday, he lost control and hit the wall but that didn't detract from his ability.
"Roger doesn't get back from Germany until Friday and we'll make the announcement within the next 24-48 hours."
Marques, who made his Formula One debut in 1996 at age 20, turned in the second-best speed of the eight drivers testing on the one-mile oval. He clocked a lap of 20.20 seconds, just a tick behind Alex Barron, and tied with Adrian Fernandez, Juan Montoya and Gil de Ferran.
Following Unser's accident on the first lap of the season opener at Homestead on March 21, Team Penske asked Gonzalo Rodriquez to test the next day at Sebring, Fla. The Formula 3000 driver ran 220 miles.
"We had tested Gonzalo in 1998 on a road course because we had a commercial connection with him and he was good in Formula 3000," continued Luginbuhl. "He came to the Miami opener as a spectator and after Al was hurt we asked if he would be interested in testing the next day at Sebring.
"He did a nice job, but he has no oval experience whatsoever." Nor does Marques when compared to Lehto or Gualter Salles or former Penske test driver Roberto Moreno.
"I keep hearing I am the choice but nobody from Team Penske has contacted me," said Lehto, dumped by Carl Hogan's CART team prior to the season opener. "I would love to drive that car because I think it's got a lot of potential."
Moreno, recently signed to run the Indy Racing League for three races, said from Phoenix, "I would have loved to race for Roger but I cannot wait around for somebody to be injured. I must take the opportunities when they come along."
USAC champion Jason Leffler was scheduled to test Wednesday for Team Penske at Nazareth but Marques' accident forced a postponement until after Long Beach later this month.
Luginbuhl said Penske's plan is longterm and that's why a veteran like Lehto or Salles wasn't chosen.
"Roger is looking towards the future and he wants to take a look at some young guys who he can hire to be a test driver and build one of them up so we can ultimately be a two-car team again."
Unser, currently undergoing rehabilitation in Indianapolis for his broken right ankle, said he was getting stronger every day. "The swelling isn't too bad and I asked Terry Trammell about running Japan," said the two-time CART champion Wednesday night. "I ran Pocono 10 days after I broke my ankle at Elkhart Lake in 1985 but he (Trammell) said my bone was broken in a different way this time and that just coming down off the air jacks could do it again. I knew Long Beach was out of the question, but I tried."
Junior said he had no input as to who his replacement is, nor does he have any trepidation about it being Marques.
"Roger hired that guy named Mears one time and nobody had ever heard of him either."
Source: CART Online