Paul Tracy opened the new era of the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford with a convincing victory in the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Tracy passed rookie Tiago Monteiro for the lead on lap 36 and kept it to the end for his 20th Champ Car win.
"The the whole objective is putting a good car under yourself," Tracy said after the race. "The team did a great job this weekend. We need to concentrate on race by race. We are not going to win every race."
Michel Jourdain Jr. was second for his best Champ Car finish, and Bruno Junqueira recovered from several early-race difficulties to finish third.
Polesitter Sebastien Bourdais took off to a big lead at the green flag, but a flawed pit strategy put him out of the lead after his first stop on lap 30. Bourdais, who has been the pacesetter so far this year despite being a Champ Car rookie, hit the wall with his left rear wheel on his out lap from that stop and another pit stop for suspension repairs left him several laps down. He did recover to finish 11th.
While Bourdais was stretching his early lead, things got exciting behind him. At the start of lap 2, Bruno Junqueira tried to pass Mario Haberfeld for sixth place approaching turn 1. Haberfeld drove all the way to the right, nearly running Junqueira into the pit wall. Junqueira continued to try to finish the pass, but locked up his brakes and ran wide into the turn. While the two drivers got their cars under control, Oriol Servia got by them both.
On lap 4, Alexandre Tagliani put his Rocketsports Racing car into the tire wall at the exit of difficult turn 10, bringing the field under control of the pace car for the first time of the day. Monteiro also slid into a tire wall, but he was able to get underway with no damage and continued at the back after a pit stop for new tires. Tagliani was done for the day.
Jimmy Vasser, who had trouble getting started from pit lane and had to start at the back of the field, was making great progress toward the front in the early laps. He was all the way up to 12th place when the double-yellow flags waved again on lap 12 for a spin by Rodolfo Lavin. Lavin returned to the pits, but he could not continue.
Before another full lap could be completed under a green flag, Patrick Lemarie spun at the back-side chicane to put the field behind the pace car again. This time, the pit window was open, and the majority of the field made their first stop. Significantly, several drivers did not, and three of them - Bourdais, Adrian Fernandez and Monteiro - held the first three positions when the green flag waved again on lap 18.
Bourdais zipped out to a huge lead on Fernandez, leading by over 13 seconds before the two leading cars had to make their first stop on lap 30. Meanwhile, Tracy had been trying to pass Monteiro for third place, and their battle then became the fight for the lead.
Things got real exciting for the leaders when Bourdais came out of the pits and cut directly in front of Tracy. Since Bourdais was on cold tires, both Tracy and teammate Patrick Carpentier got past him. Just afterward, Bourdais bumped the wall, damaging the suspension enough to require a lengthy stop for repairs. Later on that lap, Monteiro ran wide, allowing Tracy to make the pass for the lead and Carpentier followed him through into second place.
After the next round of pit stops on lap 45, Oriol Servia's car started running roughly which caused him to make several pit stops and spoiled what had been a good top-five run for the Patrick Racing driver. The team did repair the problem, but not before Servia lost a lap to the field and fell to 15th place. With his car running well again, he was able to get the single point for 12th place.
On lap 48, Carpentier slid nose-first into the tires at turn 8 to draw the race's fourth full-course caution. Carpentier was restarted by the workers, and returned to the race a lap down in 14th place after a stop to get a new nosepiece for his Lola.
Some of the best passes in the race occurred during the next segment of the race, with Darren Manning passing Roberto Moreno on lap 54 for 9th place, then Manning and Moreno both passing Fernandez on the next lap. One lap later, Vasser passed Mario Dominguez in turn 1 for fifth place, and Monteiro, Manning and Moreno all got past while Dominguez struggled to get his feet under him again. Vasser held fifth position until he had a scary moment with just 10 laps remaining in the race, allowing Moreno to slip past.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Vasser's rookie teammate at American Spirit Team Johansson, was having a fine race, and passed Dominguez for 9th on lap 59, but three laps later Hunter-Reay overcooked it into turn 10 and slid hard into the tires at the exit of the turn to end his race. A long caution period (the fifth and final one of the race) was needed to remove his damaged car and to reset the tires.
Following the restart from that caution, Dominguez hit Fernandez while attempting to pass, which caused suspension damage on both cars. Both continued from the incident, but dropped out of the race after returning to the pits.
The final round of pit stops for the leaders came on lap 75, and they resumed their race without incident. Manning's fine race came to an end one lap earlier when his clutch failed as he tried to leave the pits from his last stop.
Several members of Champ Car's large rookie class raced impressively today. Bourdais, of course, has impressed everyone with his speed, and is likely to be a factor in the 2003 Champ Car championship battle. Haberfeld finished fourth - the best finish by a rookie, the top finish for the Reynard chassis, and an impressive debut by the Conquest Mi-Jack team.
"We don't have as deep a field as we used to have," Tracy conceded after his win. "We had a lot of rookies in the field, and these guys will get faster as they run more races."
Monteiro, whose Fittipaldi-Dingman team also operates from the Conquest shops, also debuted with style, finishing 7th despite his early-race incident. Lemarie held on to finish 10th place, despite his early spin. Joel Camathias had some difficulty several times during the race, but plodded on to finish 9th in his first US race.
The St. Petersburg Grand Prix was an excellent race, and should become a popular fixture on the Champ Car schedule. Other than the ultra-smooth surface, the course got rave reviews from the drivers and the fans, and the weather was perfect - at a time when much of the country was suffering through a tough winter.
"It was a slippery track," Tracy recounted after his victory. "It was one of those things -- I thought the track would get faster. I was testing the limits and still tried to pull away from the guys behind me. It didn't seem to get any faster."
The new era of CART's top-level series, the Champ Car World Series, got a promising start under the sunny Florida skies. The new mechanical package of Ford power and Bridgestone rubber and the driver mix of CART veterans and talented rookies made for some great racing and holds promise for an exciting 2003 season.