Paul Tracy is becoming the new King of the Beach, now that the Canadian ace has won his fourth Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and his second in a row, driving the #1 Indeck Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone racer.
At the start of the race, Tracy used his push-to-pass button to get inside polesitter Bruno Junqueira and grab the line for Turn 1. Pinching the perennial bridesmaid back to second place Tracy "waited for Bruno to brake so that I could make my move to get around him. He ended up braking earlier than I anticipated and my car started to slide. I managed to take over the lead," he said, "and I just pushed as hard as I could to pull away from the field."
The current Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford titleholder had this 81-lap contest all to himself, leading all but pit stop exchanges en route to a 5.681-second margin of victory over Junqueira in the #6 PacifiCare Lola and second starter Sebastien Bourdais' McDonalds Lola.
Junqueira knew he had a very good car "this whole weekend. I just kept pushing as hard as I could to catch him, but we were on a different pit strategy, which caused us to pit earlier than everyone else running up front. That kind of hurt us," Junqueira explained.
Bourdais' luck was much better than it had been in his freshman year here, as last season he suffered the sole engine failure of the year at Long Beach. The Frenchman had nowhere to go at the start: "There was no room inside and I got squeezed," he said. Bourdais did set the fastest lap of the race on the 74th tour of this circuit. "I couldn't get around Bruno. Such is life," he shrugged.
This trio had more than 16 seconds in hand over fourth place Patrick Carpentier's #7 Indeck Lola, who was shadowed to the checkered flags by the #55 Herdez Lola of Mario Dominguez. Carpentier led two laps in the second round of pit stops and pronounced himself, "pretty happy. I think it is the first time I finished a race here," Carpentier laughed. "I pushed really hard the whole race and that is when I realized my winter training really paid off."
The race was run under sunny, Chamber of Commerce skies with temperatures in the low 70s. A huge crowd converged on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street circuit abutting the Pacific Ocean and clearly enjoyed the action.
The race had only one true caution - it began under caution when the field wasn't properly aligned - and the only contact occurred in the first turn, immediately eliminating Jimmy Vasser's #12 Gulfstream Lola, Alex Sperafico's #14 Mi-Jack Reynard and Tarso Marques, driving the American Medical Response Lola.
Vasser seems to have problems of this nature in the first race of each season, or has the last few years. "I don't know what to say. I got hit in the left rear tire," Vasser said. "There was chaos out there with guys weaving all over the place."
Rookies A.J. Allmendinger (#10 BG Products/Red Bull Lola) and Nelson Philippe (#17 LeasePlan Lola) were also involved but continued to complete all but two (Allmendinger) and three laps of the race. Allmendinger, the 2003 Toyota Atlantic champ was "happy and disappointed at the same time. We stayed in the game and brought the car home and I'm happy, because I proved to myself that I deserve to be here."
Philippe, the 17-year-old Frenchman said, "I feel amazing. It was a long race and it does feel good to finish, but I was right there and had a great race. I did everything right," he noted. "I focused on the track and my drive."
There was only one other mid-race retirement when Oriol Servia pitted the #11 YokeTV.com Lola with mechanical problems after trailing smoke around the circuit. The Spaniard completed only 14 laps.
Justin Wilson had a good first start in the Champ Car series, parlaying an 11th place start in his #34 Mi-Jack Lola into sixth place at the close. He, like all but Tracy, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mario Haberfeld used up their push-to-pass 60 seconds of 50 horsepower over the 81-lap contest. Most drivers used this option to make their way past lapped traffic.
Ryan Hunter-Reay's first race in the #4 Herdez Lola yielded a seventh place finish, while Alex Tagliani, who started in fourth place had a long final pit stop in his #8 Johnson Controls Lola and fell back to eighth place, the last car on the leader's lap.
Hunter-Reay would "like to take the positives out of today. I had a great start and a great first stint, but unfortunately our second stint turned for the worse. The handling went away and the car was a handful." Tagliani believed his team "had a good race strategy and speed, which is most important. Our second pit stop put us back a few positions from where the car should have been running, but stuff happens."
Mario Haberfeld joined Walker Racing just last week and fit in like a glove, coming from 14th on the grid to take ninth place at the end, a lap down in the #5 Cummins Reynard. "Considering we only had one afternoon's testing before we came here," Haberfeld said, "I think we had a good first race. The team really did some great pit stops. I think on each of them we passed someone."
Rodolfo Lavin's first race with the Forsythe Championship Team yielded a tenth place finish for the Mexican driver of the #3 Corona Lola. "That was a good race," Lavin grinned. "For being the first race it was a good result. I would have liked to run more in front, but for being the first race it is fine."
Michel Jourdain Jr. was the final driver to finish one lap back of winner Tracy in his #9 Gigante Lola, while teammate Allmendinger was two laps back in his Champ Car debut, coming back from that first lap melee. Jourdain thought this Sunday was "a hard day. We are in a very hard position with all of the factors we had to deal with to get the car on the grid. But now we've done that. We have to be smart and move forward and I know we can do it," Jourdain pronounced.
The final driver classified as a finisher was rookie Nelson Philippe, driving the LeasePlan Lola; he was three laps down from the leaders in 13th place. Roberto Gonzalez finished 14th in the #21 NII Holdings Lola, five laps back and the Champ Car officials declared him a non-finisher due to mechanical difficulties. "The idea was to finish the race today. We never found the right balance, so it was never quite right. Going into Turn 8 just short of the finish, the rear tires locked up and we lost the gearbox."
So now Paul Tracy has a head start on the competition for the Champ Car World Series' 2004 championship, but he thinks there will be plenty of competitors for him as the season rolls along. "You know, when we had 'superstars' we had non-stop yellows here in Long Beach. We were all crashing into one another and I think, in either 2001 or 2002 we had something like ten cautions.
"We have a lot of great drivers here now, many with Formula One and Formula 3000 experience. Nobody knew them when they came here," but by the end of this season, they sure will.
The Champ Car World Series takes another month off to prepare for the second race of the year on the Monterrey, Mexico road course at Fundidora Park. Tracy is the reigning champion of that race, too. Can he do it again?