If the axiom is correct that the one person you want most to beat is your teammate, Sebastien Bourdais did a masterful job in his series leading ...
If the axiom is correct that the one person you want most to beat is your teammate, Sebastien Bourdais did a masterful job in his series leading #2 McDonald's Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone racer of debilitating Bruno Junqueira's #6 PacifiCare Lola tonight in a personal battle for the Bridgestone 400 Presented by Corona on Las Vegas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval track.
As he threw down his gloves in disgust after side-by-side running with the Frenchman and point leader after 166 laps of battle, Junqueira seemed deflated by the results, which had him second to the checkered flags by a lag of 0.066 seconds in Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford's first visit to this desert track.
As the second part of the Double Down in the Desert two-race Saturday feature, the 18 Champ Cars gave a crowd that clearly wanted to be impressed something to get excited about. Bourdais earned his sixth victory of the 2004 season in the sixth closest finish in Champ Car modern era history.
"I was flat out all around this superspeedway tonight and all credit goes to my Newman/Haas Racing team," Bourdais said. On his first pit stop, though, his team failed to release the "dead man" and allow fuel to run when he first entered his pit stall, making the stop an unnecessarily long one. "I had to sit and wait and I knew how difficult it would be to pass," the Frenchman said.
"I was not very confident the last laps," Bourdais revealed of his battle with Junqueira. "I don't think the engine was the best," after the Cosworth XFE he had intended to use for the race lasted only 15 laps in the late afternoon warmup. With his victory, Bourdais increased his lead on Junqueira 307-280 with two races left at Surfers Paradise and Mexico City, two very diverse circuits.
At this oval, Junqueira admitted, "The car is 99% and the driver one percent." After earning his 24th podium in 59 starts and fourth straight podium the Brazilian still was "very frustrated. The car was so good; nobody could pass me," he declared.
"Racing side by side with Sebastien I knew I couldn't pass him. Sometimes I was in front at start/finish, sometimes he was in front. We had a clean race and a good race because I was racing against good drivers like Sebastien and Patrick," Bruno said.
Polesitter and Las Vegas resident Patrick Carpentier finished third with his #7 Indeck/Forsythe Championship Racing Lola after going up and down the field throughout the race, which was slowed only twice for yellow flags. Carpentier had a very unusual dilemma during the race: his gears were in backwards!
"I'm very happy," Carpentier said. "We struggled mid-race and knew we'd have problems on the restarts" with his gears in the following order: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 4th, 6th and 7th. Still, "it was a fun race and I enjoyed it. I had two tense moments when I rolled up the track and had to lift," sending him back in the pack and having to return to the front. With this result, Carpentier lies third in points (241) and is the final driver eligible for the championship with Bourdais and Junqueira.
Mexican Rodolfo Lavin took the #3 Corona Lola to fourth place after running in the top six all night and he, too, credited his team for the finish: "The team gave me a great car and great pit stops. Everything was great! We never lost a place in the pit stops and the car was handling really well," Lavin exulted.
Another Las Vegas resident, Jimmy Vasser brought his #12 Gulfstream Lola to fifth place in the contest. After running at the top all night, "The car was just really loose at the end and we weren't really able to get the late charge to the front we were looking for," Vasser noted. "It was another strong day in the point standings so we'll take it."
Rookie A.J. Allmendinger earned sixth place in the #10 Western Union Lola in his first superspeedway competition and said, "As a driver I felt I did a good job and my crew just gave me awesome pit stops. The car," he revealed, "just had too much downforce, so I couldn't do much with it."
Mario Dominguez finished seventh in the #55 Herdez Lola while Justin Wilson completed his first superspeedway run in eighth with the #34 Mi-Jack Lola. "All in all I am pleased with our performance since we started 15th and managed to finish eighth."
Nelson Philippe, using an IRL-regular spotter had a strong, clean run to ninth in the #14 Mi-Jack Lola, followed by Roberto Gonzalez' fine 10th place in the #21 NII Holdings Lola. Michel Jourdain Jr. battled a loose #9 Gigante Lola in his 150th Champ Car start to 11th, followed by Servia, Hunter-Reay, Tagliani, Haberfeld and Mazzacane.
With rules changes for this event - which seems to be the case with each of the 12 races held thus far on the Champ Car World Series calendar - pit stop windows were mandated at 37 laps and there was no push-to-pass feature for the oval rumble.
The former presented a problem or two for drivers who didn't make the call to get to the pits at the proper time while the lack of push-to-pass didn't seem to hinder anyone as drivers went two, three and sometimes even four- abreast on this wide, banked oval.
The green flags came at 10:18PM following the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series opening salvo. Carpentier kept the lead for six laps, only to be passed by Junqueira. As the leaders swept off in their battle, with Bourdais staying back and watching Carpentier and Junqueira duke it out, 2003 Champ Car titleholder Paul Tracy was already shedding his fireproof clothing.
Tracy had pitted his #1 Indeck/Forsythe Championship Racing Lola on the final parade lap and the crew began to examine the right rear of the car. As the leaders made the green flags and began the contest, the Canadian - who also makes his home in this city - had already climbed from his car and called it a night with a broken halfshaft.
Despite this being only the second oval contest of the year for the Champ cars, they managed to pack up and get with the program pretty quickly, as the lead pack of three distanced themselves from the balance of 17 remaining cars.
When Junqueira got by Carpentier the French-Canadian began to work the outside line, figuring where he could get an advantage. There was none. By lap 19 the leaders were already in traffic, putting Gaston Mazzacane's #19 American Response Medical Lola a lap in arrears. The Argentinean would end up in 16th as the final driver still running, six laps down.
Around they'd go with what seemed like nothing separating the top three. That all changed with the first exchange of pit stops. Everyone pitted except for one driver. Alex Tagliani stayed out in his #8 Johnson Controls Lola while Ryan Hunter-Reay spun his #4 Herdez Competition Lola as he picked up a bit of dirt on the pit entry road.
Tagliani took the lead on this lap 37 yellow, but didn't keep it when the field went green again on lap 51. The lead went back to Junqueira when Tagliani got swallowed, followed by Carpentier, while Bourdais found himself back in sixth place following the pit road problem.
Although he did pit on lap 39, Tagliani was judged to run afoul of the race rules and was given a stop-and-go penalty. The French-Canadian, yet another who has migrated to this desert city, finally obeyed the black flag (on lap 65) to pit after being shown the flag on laps 61, 62, 63 and 64.
In the aftermath of the race, Rocketsports Racing filed a protest regarding the black flag given to Tagliani. In their words, "Tagliani could not enter the closed pit lane following a yellow flag thrown on lap 37".
With the field running tightly again, Bourdais assumed the lead over Lavin, Vasser, Mario Dominguez in the #55 Herdez Competition Lola, Junqueira, rookie A.J. Allmendinger's #10 Western Union Lola, Mario Haberfeld in the #5 Cummins Reynard, Guy Smith's #17 Rocketsports Lola, Carpentier and Roberto Gonzalez in the #21 NII Holdings Lola, comprising the top ten at the time.
Pit stops began once again on the 74th lap, but Oriol Servia assumed the lead at the time after pitting out of sequence earlier in the evening with his #11 yokeTV.com Lola, which had experienced fuel pickup problems in practice and qualifying Friday, failing to complete either exercise. Servia would end up 12th in a back-to-front-to-mid-pack drive that was exciting to watch from the stands.
Guy Smith caused the second true caution (two of four "official" cautions were for a jumped re-start by Junqueira) when his XFE failed on the back straight - for the second time in five races, the team revealed. The Briton and Tracy were the sole retirements tonight, a very good statistic for the Champ cars.
With Bourdais leading 100 laps, it would appear the contest was minimally fought, but the final laps of battle between the two Newman/Haas pilots was a classic one with passes at start/finish most every lap - accounting for the large number of lead changes. First Bourdais would hit the stripe first, then Junqueira, then Bourdais again. The final lap went to the Frenchman who seemed a bit stunned to have accomplished what he's done in the 12 races he's run in this 2004 season.
But there still are two more contests to decide the 2004 winner of the Vanderbilt Cup and Sebastien Bourdais is taking nothing for granted. "We still have two difficult races to go and I must keep my head down. I need to be good enough to earn this title," he said.
Can Bourdais do it? The next race - the Lexmark Indy 300 - is set to take place in Surfers Paradise, Australia on October 24th. And the finale is in Mexico City on November 7th. That gives both Junqueira and Carpentier the opportunity to close in, but the momentum, for sure, is in "Seabass's" court.