2001 Barber Dodge Pro Series Year In Review, part 1 Take a look at Nicolas Rondet& ...
2001 Barber Dodge Pro Series Year In Review, part 1
Take a look at Nicolas Rondet’s statistics from the 2001 Barber Dodge Pro Series and it’s easy to see why the Frenchman was crowned the series’ champion. In 12 rounds, Rondet scored three wins, six podiums, three fastest race-laps, 10 top-5 finishes and 12 Top-10 finishes. Impressive numbers indeed, and considering that Barber Dodge drivers race in identically prepared machines with no mechanical advantage, the numbers are in fact staggering.
Yet the statistics belie just how competitive a year the 2001 Barber Dodge Pro Series was. Twelve races produced six different winners with five drivers in contention for the title until the penultimate round and the title battle going all the way to the checkered flag of the final race. Runner-up Dutchman Sepp Koster battled heroically all the way to the end while Americans Matt Plumb, Roger Yasukawa and Ryan Hunter-Reay equally threw down the gauntlet in pursuit of the $255,000 Career Enhancement Award bestowed on the series’ champion.
From the beginning of the season, Rondet's arms were wide open to the crown.
The first of 12 rounds began on St. Patick’s Day weekend in conjunction with the 12 Hours of Sebring. Indeed it was a day of firsts. Polesitter Alex Sperafico of Brazil finished off a perfect weekend by winning his first Barber Dodge race. The victory also makes Sperafico the first to win a Barber Dodge Pro Series race under the CART banner since the Pro Series became the Official Entry Level Professional Race Series of CART. Sperafico led Barber-CART Rookie of the Year Ryan Hunter-Reay and Frenchman Nicolas Rondet to the checkered flag.
“ I feel great. The car was very fast in the race,” said Sperafico who took his No. 9 Iveco Fiat Dodge Reynard to victory.“ Nicolas (Rondet) gave me some trouble at the start, but we had a very good clean fight during the race.”
Sperafico in fact lost the lead to Rondet midway round the fourth lap as the field returned to racing following a 3-lap caution. He was left to trail Rondet for the next five laps until they began to work lap-10 when Sperafico and Rondet were involved in a pass-repass-pass maneuver that was a sight to see. It all began on the previous lap when Sperafico tucked in behind Rondet for the long draft up the start/finish straight. Sperafico grabbed the lead on the inside of turn-1 only for Rondet to parry into turn-4. Sperafico took a‘ never say die’ approach into turn-10 and made it count. From there he was never to look back. Ryan Hunter-Reay had crept into the mix as the leading pair battled. Once Sperafico took the lead, Rondet found himself having to defend a new attack by Hunter-Reay.
Sperafico meanwhile would extend his lead to three seconds at the flag. Behind Hunter-Reay kept the pressure on Rondet whose car was beginning to ill handle. On the 15th of 17 laps, Hunter-Reay executed a beautifully calculated pass on Rondet. Once again it all began at the exit of the final corner. Hunter-Reay drafted into turn-1 and took the inside line. Rondet did all he could to hold the position, but it was not to be as Hunter-Reay defended the inside line all the way through turn-3.
Round two moved on to the Valley of the Sun at Phoenix International Raceway. Leading the race from the pole all the way to the checkered flag, Rondet captured his second career Barber Dodge Pro Series victory and the first of three on the year. Never seriously challenged during the race Rondet led Koster across the finish line by 8.306 sec., and setting the fastest lap of the race in the process. Rookie Rafael Sperafico of Brazil finished third.
“ I knew that if I made it through turn-2 in the lead that it would be very difficult to get passed. As things turned out I was able to pull a little further away each lap. The car was right on the money. If I had to go back out onto the track right now I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Rondet.“ It’s going to be a long season but obviously its good to start it at the front.”
The 40-minute race started under the threat of rain but all 21 Dodge Reynards went off on slick Michelin tires. Midway through the race, rain fell out on the back half of the course making things very treacherous. It was the only time Rondet slowed down the entire race. Consistently he was able to stretch his lead each lap by three to four tenths of a second on a lap that lasts only 59 seconds.
Hunter-Reay was the only other driver to head the point standings after Rondet took control.
Historic Lime Rock Park was the scene for rounds three and four on Memorial Day Weekend. The Saturday race was practically held hostage by soaking rains while the Monday race took place on an unseasonably cool but sunny morning.
Hunter-Reay didn't seem to care about the rain, particularly after emerging from his car with his first ever Pro Series victory. The 2000 Barber-CART Rookie of the Year was sporting a sunny disposition, no matter what the weatherman was saying.
Plumb took second place honors ahead of third place finisher Yasakawa marking his best result in Barber Dodge competition. Both racers had to contend with horrible visibility due to mist and spray.
Hunter-Reay's win was his first since he won the Formula Dodge National Championship race at Lime Rock in 1999.
"It's great to be on the podium, back in first place. Conditions were tough but I wanted to just keep the car on the track, finish the race and get points. It was difficult because it was tough to see,” said Hunter-Reay.
Plumb needed a strong result, after two DNFs in the first two rounds. The Pennsylvanian racer overcame a tough track to finish on the podium.
"Conditions were miserable," said Plumb, driver of the #4 Premier Nutrition Dodge Reynard. "It was about staying out of the spray. It's been awhile since I had a good race. I needed a good result and to finish on the podium is overwhelming."
Koster held off a determined Hunter-Reay to win round 4, the second of the Lime Rock doubleheader. Koster assumed the point from polesitter Davy Cook in the first turn and defend his line for the duration of the 40 minute contest. Hunter-Reay, winner of rainy round 3, never got a good run at Koster, who managed to maintain an unchallengeable margin. Following Hunter-Reay home was Alex Sperafico, the winner of round 1 in Sebring, who comfortably cruised to a third place result.
Koster and Hunter-Reay battled all the way to the flag. Coming out of the downhill and onto the front straight, Koster exited perfectly to reduce any chance of a Hunter-Reay strike. Koster’s margin of victory over the Floridian was a thin 0.357 sec. Hunter-Reay ended his double at Lime Rock having scored the most points of any racer. His win in round 3 and second place today allow him to assume sole possession of the Pro Series championship with 60 points, eclipsing Nicolas Rondet by six points. Koster’s points purse moved him from 11th to sixth overall.
“ This has been a weekend of ups and downs for me,” said the Dutchman.“ Saturday was an unlucky day for me but I’m hoping I have my championship bid on track now. It wasn’t easy. I saw smoke out of the back of my car and I knew Ryan was right there. But I was quicker coming out to the front straight, something we set the car up for and that really worked out.”
Hunter-Reay, the Barber-CART Rookie of the Year, left Connecticut having gathered a large chunk of championship points.
“ It’s been a really good weekend. I wanted to come in here and get my points back up. I had a good race on Saturday in the rain and a great race today. I just tried to keep the pressure on him. I was behind him the whole race but he did a good job staying in front. I’m just really pleased to come home with a lot of points, prize money and the championship lead. What more could I ask for?” he added.
Plumb battled back from early season misfortune to jump on the title train.
Round 5 moved to the streets of Motown where Plumb warded off a forceful charge behind him to claim his second Barber Dodge Pro Series career victory at the Raceway on Belle Isle in support of the CART FedEx Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit. Plumb led the race wire-to-wire from the pole in his No. 4 Premier Nutrition Dodge Reynard, setting the fastest lap of the race in the process and thereby collecting a maximum of 22 points. As a result Plumb vaulted from 11th overall to fifth in the points chase.
Yasukawa and Alex Sperafico continued their podium streak finishing second and third respectively.
The race was a nail-biter the entire way as Plumb never led by more than 1 second until the white flag lap where he led by a meager 1.166 sec. A train of five drivers circulated lap after lap within four seconds. Pursuing Plumb until halfway around the last lap were Hunter-Reay and Koster. Hunter-Reay was caught in a sandwich for almost the entire race as he clung to Plumb’s gearbox while Koster was on his tail. The spectacular battle finally ended as Koster made a text book run on Hunter-Reay out of turn-6 getting alongside through the kink before the braking zone to turn-7. Both came through at near break-neck speed with Hunter-Reay braking as late as possible to defend his position. The maneuver sent him onto a dirty part of the track, and without grip he slid wide into the tire barrier. As close as they were, Koster had no where to go and no time to react when Hunter-Reay’s car rebounded off of the tires, nosing himself into the tires as well. A brilliant battle ended there.
“ This win means a lot. We’ve had a great car all weekend, which is so important on this track where you can fall behind in a hurry,” relayed Plumb.“ At the start I didn’t get quite the jump I wanted to, so Ryan was close. But as the race moved on I knew where I was faster and where I was slower. I knew I had them covered out of turn-2 speed wise heading into turn-3, which offers the best passing opportunity. It was interesting because the pressure was on, but I felt very comfortable.”
Two weeks later and the Barber Dodge circus rolled onto the shores of Lake Erie for round 5. Koster secured an utterly dominant second victory of the season in the sixth round supporting the CART FedEx Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland. The Dutchman stormed around the Cleveland-Burke Lakefront Airport circuit stretching his lead from the pole seemingly at will and setting the fastest lap of the race in the process. He netted 22 points resurrecting his championship bid. Plumb jumped from third on the grid to second at the start and would remain there for the duration. In spite of a flawless drive Plumb was no match on the day for the swift racecar of Koster. The second place points however placed Plumb firmly in the title hunt as he leapt to third overall, ten points behind championship leader Rondet who had recovered the points lead after the last round in Detroit. Gladwynne, Penn. native Marc Breuers drove his Sunoco Special Dodge Reynard to a career best third place finish.
“ I must say that even I am a little surprised. We had a bit handling problem in qualifying when we put it on pole. We not only managed to solve the problem, but improve on it dramatically as the car was unbelievably hooked up. I’ve never driven a car that’s handling this well,” said Koster who is a former Benelux Formula Ford Champion.“ I didn’t even realize in the beginning (how fast the car was) because I was just trying to pace myself and was really amazed at how much I was pulling away.
“ For me I’ve always thought that the championship really begins in Detroit, so I’m looking forward to the balance of the year where we race with CART just about every two weeks,” added Koster.
See Part II