Sebastien Bourdais captured the pole today for the inaugural running of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, setting lap record for the new track at 1:00.928 seconds (106.710 mph.) The French rookie has amazed all observers with his speed since he...
Sebastien Bourdais captured the pole today for the inaugural running of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, setting lap record for the new track at 1:00.928 seconds (106.710 mph.) The French rookie has amazed all observers with his speed since he first started testing for Newman-Haas racing in the off-season, and he has monopolized the top of the time chart at nearly every session run by the teams of the Champ Car World Series since. He now is the points leader with two points to none for the rest of the field.
The pole position by Bourdais is the first pole by a driver in his first Champ Car race since Nigel Mansell managed the same feat (also with Newman-Haas Racing) in 1993. Bourdais' speed is not a huge surprise, as he won pole for four of the first five races in F3000 last season on his way to winning the international championship, but his pace in the Champ Cars has still been quite impressive.
The usually low-keyed driver was excited about his opportunity to jump into the Champ Car World Series in a competitive car, a ride he earned with a good showing in a multi-driver test with the team over the winter. He commented: "It's so good to start the season that way, after a long wait. I was not so sure about getting a good ride. Now I'm there, in the US, and on the pole for the first race of Champ Car. So it's great."
Paul Tracy, who hadn't previously shown the speed expected of him since his move to Players Forsythe Racing, cranked out the second-fastest time of today's session. Tracy will get to start on the outside of row 1, as Bourdais captured fastest time in both qualifying sessions. "I'm pleasantly surprised. It's been quite a turnaround in the last 24 hours. This morning, the car was good, but for qualifying it was great."
Similarly, Adrian Fernandez waited until late in the day to move up to third grid position, after getting the seventh-fastest time in the first qualifying session on Friday. Fernandez has been having a difficult time returning from the injuries he suffered in two nasty crashes last season, because he has not been able to do any strength training over the off-season. He said: "I'm happy for the performance. It's been a while since I was in a race car. I'm just happy to be here.
Patrick Carpentier will start just behind Tracy, his Forsythe teammate. The two drivers may have accidentally found a way to improve their performance after the engineer for Tracy's car, Kelley Loewen, resigned last week. Carpentier's engineer, Michael Cannon, has worked with both drivers this weekend. Carpentier explained the benefit of that arrangement, saying: "There was good exchange of information between myself and Paul over the last two days and it paid off for both of us."
Michel Jourdain Jr., with his best-ever street course grid position, will start fifth. He mentioned a complaint echoed by many of the drivers: "With everyone worrying about the rain, people were pushing to get in their runs and they were making mistakes which caused all the red flags. There were so many red flags it made it difficult to get into a rhythm."
The biggest surprise of the weekend has been the performance of rookie Mario Haberfeld, driving for Eric Bachelart's Conquest Racing. While fellow rookie Bourdais had been fast through all the spring practice, Haberfeld had struggled. His times have gotten more competitive all weekend, and his best flying lap this afternoon brought him the sixth starting spot for tomorrow's race.
Bruno Junqueira, who for most of the weekend had been at the top of the chart with his Newman-Haas teammate, fell to seventh in the grid order with a very unsatisfying session. Like Jourdain, he had trouble getting a clear lap. His only fast lap of the session was voided by a spin in an earlier session that required a red flag to get him righted. Per Champ Car rules, his fastest time was taken away as a penalty for that offence. His Friday time, second fastest in that session, was good enough to keep him in the top seven.
Jimmy Vasser will start outside of Junqueira, the American Spirit Team Johansson driver blaming difficulties with the Reynard chassis for his eighth starting spot.
Oriol Servia and Mario Dominguez will start from the fifth row. Servia was in a similar bind as Junqueira, losing his best Saturday time to a red flag causing spin and failing to record a second good one due to the other red flags that made it hard for anyone to get a good rhythm in today's segment. Dominguez also wanted to be farther up the grid and thought that it would have been possible without all the interruptions.
Other than Alex Tagliani in 13th place and Roberto Moreno in 15th, the last five rows are filled with the remainder of the Champ Car rookie class. Like many others, both Tagliani and Moreno both complained of having their best laps spoiled by red flags during the session.
While that rookie class has been impressive, the Champ Cars are difficult to drive, and the drivers with more experience in the "big cars" came through today's difficult qualifying to put the following drivers into the back half of the grid. Darren Manning and Ryan Hunter-Reay will start in row six, Patrick Lemarie will be outside of Tagliani on row seven, Tiago Monteiro is next to Moreno on row eight, the Dale Coyne Racing teammates, Joel Camathias and Roberto Gonzalez share row nine, and Rodolfo Lavin will start from the back.
The feature race of the inaugural St. Petersburg Grand Prix will start tomorrow at 1 pm. The Champ Car World Series is poised for an interesting season, with a mix of veteran and rookie drivers and new and experienced teams. The new St. Pete race has a great temporary course in a beautiful city and should be a perfect season-opening event for the Champ Cars for many years to come.