CHAMPCAR/CART: Cleveland: Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing preview



Medi | Zone driver Graham Rahal, of New Albany, Ohio, is looking forward to returning to Cleveland for his first Champ Car race at "home" while McDonald's driver Sebastien Bourdais is back in the United States after a second place finish in his home event -- the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. Although Bourdais is not from Ohio, this weekend's Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by LaSalle Bank will also be a "home event" of sorts for him as well as the entire team due to the fact that new team partner

Michael Lanigan's Mi-Jack Promotions is the promoter of the event. Bourdais, who said a second place finish in Le Mans for the six-month-old Peugeot program is like a win, has already spent a day in his Champ Car since returning from France. He set the fastest lap time during the test on Tuesday in Elkhart Lake, Wis. before adding more variety to his driving duties by piloting his motorhome to Cleveland. Once on track at the 2.106-mile course at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport he hopes to return to the form that saw him win his first two races here in 2003 and 2004 but finished fifth and 18th, respectively, the past two years.

"The McDonald's team won the first two years in Cleveland but haven't the past two so I guess we're due there," said Bourdais who won the past three races this season and could match his four consecutive wins, a series record, from 2006 with a victory here. "I would really like to go back and have a competitive car. We had a great car the first year and then the second year it was kind of a steal because the first row took itself out and we collected the points which was really good. In 2005 we were in the mix and 2006 in the mix again but never quite got to the racing. It would be good to be on top in Cleveland for (Michael) Lanigan and Mi-Jack Promotions. It's another home race for us and it would be great to finish one-two like we did in Houston." Bourdais became the first driver since 1948 to earn three consecutive titles last season but the Cleveland event produced the scariest moment of his year when Paul Tracy attempted to drive between Bourdais and then-teammate Bruno Junqueira's car on the first lap.

"The race in Cleveland was very short for me last year," recalled Bourdais. "I had a big black out and don't remember much of what happened. I just had a car on top of me then it went dark and that's all I can remember. My car stopped in the grass and that was it for our day. I felt a little pain in the neck and I was still kind of unconscious so the Safety Team decided to take me right to the hospital for a checkup. It was a weird accident; Bruno and I had no idea PT (Paul Tracy) had his front wing between our rear wheels. We never saw him so we just got a little closer together and were heading toward Turn 3 and never got there."

Despite the 2006 Cleveland event providing a temporary setback to his championship aspirations with his only non top-eight finish of 18th place, Bourdais and the McDonald's team went on to rack up top-three finishes in six of the eight remaining races. On a mission to be the first to earn four straight titles, he leads the point standings with 11 points over Will Power (105-94) and is expecting a good race this weekend.

"It's a very challenging track because it's really fast and really bumpy; it makes for really good racing," said Bourdais of the wide-open course utilizing the airport runways. "I think all the drivers really like it because you really can push it without taking big chances and hitting anything. In the meantime if you want to put a lap together you need to finish it and not make any mistakes so it's always a give and take."

The Cleveland Grand Prix is the longest continuously-running temporary circuit in Champ Car, which is in its 26th running this year. Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) competed in the past 24 of those and will compete in their 25th as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. NHR earned four wins, five poles and 15 podium finishes in their 24 races in Cleveland. Although Bourdais was taken out of the event on the first lap last year Junqueira finished second. While in the Atlantic series last year Graham Rahal earned two of his series-high five wins last year at this rack and would like nothing better than to earn another strong finish in his first Champ Car race in front of fellow Ohioans.

"It was nice to win (the Atlantic races) last year because the crowd was pretty much going crazy," said Rahal, 18, whose father Bobby won the first race in Cleveland in 1982. "It was nice for them to have a familiar face and a local name win again. For me, there is no greater feeling of pride than winning there. To win both races there last year was a great feeling and to have my friends and family there made it even better. There is going to be quite a group of people coming to the race again this year and I'm looking forward to having a lot of fans there. I think the Medi | Zone team has a good shot at doing well in Cleveland. My family has had a lot of success at the track. Since it' s my home track its nice to go there and do well. Portland was difficult for us but we hope to turn that around and run well in Cleveland."

Rahal is ranked eighth in the Champ Car standings with 59 points and is second in the Rookie of the Year standings to former Formula One test and race driver Robert Doornbos who has 87. In four races this season he has earned three top-nine finishes including a second place in Houston­­ ­­-- the other Champ Car race Michael Lanigan's company promotes. Rahal expects the experience in Cleveland to be slightly different now that he has moved up to the more powerful Champ Cars but he is hoping for the same outcome.

"I think the speed will be the biggest thing to adapt to after moving up from the Atlantic cars," said Rahal, who held a command performance autograph session at the Defense Supply Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday in advance of his home event. "The track is very fast and I think you just have to get used to the difference from the Atlantic cars, which are very fun to drive there. It wasn't easy to drive the Atlantic cars but you are comfortable in them and Champ Car's are a whole different step up."

Turn one at the Burke Lakefront Airport is one of the most infamous on the Champ Car schedule. Six out of the last seven years a lap one, turn one incident has sent at least one racing machine to the garage. This year, Cleveland will be the site of the second standing start in series history after the previous race in Portland was the first not to begin with a rolling start. Rahal began the Cleveland Atlantic races last year from a stranding start and knows that the only way to finish first is to first finish.

"I'm not too worried about Turn 1 in Cleveland," said Rahal, who not only ran, and won, two Atlantic races in Cleveland last year but also ran in two Formula BMW events in 2004 at the track. "Every time I have been there I have gotten through Turn 1 cleanly, not to say I'm going to this year but I think all the drivers know you've got to make it through the first corner to win the race. The biggest thing is its very tough to see since there are no reference points. I was driving in the rain (last year) and I couldn't see a thing. I'm not too worried about it now that I've been there a few times though."

The Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by LaSalle Bank action gets underway Friday with a first practice session at 12:15 PM which will be followed by the first round of qualifying at 4:00 PM. The grid for Sunday's race will be set on Saturday at 2:00 PM during the final round of qualifying while the yellow lights will go out for Round Five of the 2007 Champ Car World Series season at 1:00 PM on Sunday, June 24th. The race will be broadcast live on CBS Sports starting at 1:00 PM (all times eastern).

-credit: nhlr

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Paul Tracy , Graham Rahal , Sébastien Bourdais , Robert Doornbos , Will Power