By John Francis - Motorsport.com From early on in the first morning practice session it was apparent that Marlboro Team Penske intended to continue their domination of the Champ Car road course events. Within ten minutes of the opening green...
By John Francis - Motorsport.com
From early on in the first morning practice session it was apparent that Marlboro Team Penske intended to continue their domination of the Champ Car road course events. Within ten minutes of the opening green flag Helio Castroneves had set a fast lap time of 1:09.222. Nobody was able to best this during the remaining eighty minutes of the session. Papis and Franchitti had also set their fastest laps in the early minutes, and for a while they remained in 2nd and 3rd place on the time sheets. Shortly before the half hour mark, though, Gil de Ferran joined his team-mate at the head of the listings with a lap time of 1:09.588, 0.2 seconds ahead of Papis and Franchitti. And that is how things remained an hour later when the checkered flag came out. Nobody seemed to be able to match the times from those earliest laps. Everybody was trying hard, though - even the Marlboro team-mates each caused the session to be red-flagged at different times when they slid off course into gravel traps - Gil de Ferran in the #2 car at turn 2, and Helio Castroneves in the #3 at turn 3.
The much-vaunted return of Bryan Herta didn't amount to much on this first day. Although he did take to the track during the morning session (in a car bearing sponsorship from www.rockingham.co.uk) he was two seconds off the pace, and ended up with 19 other drivers ahead of him. That was all the track time he got for the day; he didn't even make it out of pit lane during the afternoon session, thus becoming the only driver without a qualifying time.
The first qualifying session of the afternoon, for the slower cars, was drawing to a close when Patrick Carpentier had his own encounter with a gravel trap. He spun in turn four and slid backwards into the gravel. Instead of digging in, though, the car bounced off the gravel and was catapulted into the air, cartwheeling over the top of the catch fencing and coming to rest, upside down, right in front of the grandstands. Although Carpentier was basically unharmed (he was attempting to crawl out from underneath the car before the safety workers got to him, and he has been cleared to drive on Saturday), this ended all on-track activity for over an hour and a half.
During that time the CART officials (and the drivers) were kept busy. All the gravel traps were being regraded under the close supervision of Wally Dallenbach, while Bobby Rahal was also touring the track to see what was being changed. Meanwhile the drivers were meeting to discuss track safety. Apparently the smoothed gravel traps (and a slight change to the tyre barriers in the corkscrew) satisfied the immediate concerns, and the second qualifying group of cars finally took the track shortly before five PM. Running a little later, in a cooler part of the day, the lap times were significantly quicker than those from the earlier run. Once again the fastest times were being set by the Marlboro Penskes. Gil de Ferran eventually set a time only a little outside the track record (held by Bryan Herta). He then went into the pits for a few last-minute adjustments, and rejoined ready to have another go at that record. He tried hard, but was unable to lower his lap times. Not so for Helio Castroneves, who eventually posted a time of 1:07.722 that was just inside the existing track record.