CHAMPCAR/CART: Mexico City: Saturday final qualifying report

MEXICO CITY (October 11, 2003) -- Reynards appeared to be the chassis to have in Saturday's final CART Champ Car qualifying session at Mexico City's spacious Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but as has been the case most of the season, the man to...

MEXICO CITY (October 11, 2003) -- Reynards appeared to be the chassis to have in Saturday's final CART Champ Car qualifying session at Mexico City's spacious Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but as has been the case most of the season, the man to beat is still wearing the Player's/Forsythe colors.

Series points leader Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) made his Friday time stand up for his sixth Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford pole of the season, as his top lap of 1:28.842 (112.893 mph) would be quick enough to top the charts on a warm Mexico City Saturday. Tracy earns the 19th pole of his Champ Car career with the effort and will start in the front row for the 10th time in the year's 17 races.

The surprise of the day came from the man who will start alongside Tracy when the 70-lap Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa starts on Sunday. Rookie Tiago Monteiro (#7 Fittipaldi-Dingman Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) had the best day of his young Champ Car career as he led Saturday's final qualifying session with a fast time of 1:29.042 (112.639 mph). By leading the final round of qualifying, Monteiro earns a championship point and takes the second spot on the grid for tomorrow's event. The result is the best in Monteiro's career and is also the best of the year for the rookie Fittipaldi-Dingman squad, which is co-owned by former CART and Formula 1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Monteiro led a bevy of Reynards as the much-maligned chassis had one of its best day's of the 2003 season. The top three times of the day were put up by Reynard runners and four of the top seven spots on tomorrow's starting grid will be filled by Reynard drivers. Unfortunately for those drivers, the track was a bit slower than it was on Friday, meaning that the Newman/Haas duo of Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will start third and fourth respectively by virtue of faster first-round times despite the fact that Bourdais was fifth quickest on Saturday with Junqueira running sixth.

The session worked out well for Junqueira, who enters Sunday's race needing to make up 14 points on championship leader Tracy, as he will start directly behind the points leader as the field heads down the long front stretch after taking the green flag. Junqueira sat in the opposite position last year as the 2002 Mexico City polesitter fell victim to the draft and was passed in the first corner, leading to an off-course excursion that forced him to fight back to place third.

Bourdais starts fourth, marking a series record for rookies as the Frenchman will start in the top six for the 11th consecutive event. Bourdais clinches the Rookie-of-the-Year title on Sunday if he finishes seventh or better, or if Darren Manning (#15 RAC/Walker Racing Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) fails to gain 14 points on the 2002 FIA International F3000 champion.

Manning was one of the Reynard runners that had success today and has been fast all weekend, leading both of Friday's practice sessions. He will grid sixth on Sunday, marking his best qualifying position since starting fifth at Eurospeedway Lausitz in May. The result is the best on a road course all season for the Walker Racing team and will help Manning as he looks for his 10th consecutive points-paying finish. Manning needs to finish at least third in Sunday's race in order to have any hopes of wresting top rookie honors away from Bourdais.

Manning was topped for the inside spot of the third row by fellow rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 Gohner de Mexico Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) who put up the second-best time in final qualifying with a run of 1:29.191 (112.451 mph). The Champ Car Ladder System graduate will start fifth in tomorrow's race, his best qualifying result since gridding second at Mid-Ohio, a race where he would go on to finish third. Hunter-Reay's American Spirit Team Johansson stablemate Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) finished up the Reynard rampage on the day and will grid seventh.

For the second consecutive day, the teams failed to get the most out of their 15-lap allotment as the length of the track, combined with the wear on the tires induced by the lack of downforce brought on by the extreme altitude of Mexico, meant that teams could only run five laps on their tires before needing a change. None of the teams completed all of their 15 laps, which may have kept some from bettering their Friday times. In all, nine of the 20 drivers failed to improve on their first-round efforts, including four of the top seven drivers.

Another of the big surprises on the day came out of the newest of the Walker Racing drivers as hometown favorite Luis Diaz Jr. (#25 Sun/Telcel/Motorola Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) improved nearly a full second over the first day of qualifying and will grid 10th for Sunday's race. Diaz, who is running a third car for Walker Racing this weekend, ran just one lap here a year ago in his only other Champ Car start when he filled in for the injured Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Fernandez will grid 15th for the start of tomorrow's event. Mika Salo (#27 PK Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) also made a big improvement in final qualifying, vaulting four positions to start 12th.

Sunday's 70-lap race begins at 3 p.m. local time (4 p.m. Eastern) and can be seen live on SPEED Channel. Fans can also follow the action on the official website of the Champ Car World Series, www.champcarworldseries.com.

QUOTES FROM THE TOP THREE QUALIFIERS:

PAUL TRACY (#3 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone):

"The car wasn't too bad but I just didn't feel like I could have matched Friday's time. It got very slick out there from this morning's practice. The tires were best on the fourth lap which is why we came in before the end. It didn't look like Bruno (Junqueira) was going to be any faster either. The start of the race should be pretty interesting. Everyone at the front of the grid pretty much need good finishes but there could be some excitement in that first corner with that long straightaway and some drafting going on off the start. Am I going to go for the win or the championship? Both. The most important thing is to finish in front of Junqueira."

TIAGO MONTEIRO (#7 Fittipaldi-Dingman Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone):

"Well it was amazing of course. We've been working so hard to get here and the team deserves it. We basically working to get a strong, stable car and we got it today. My engineer has been working together and improving every race after the late start to the season. I'm still learning every race -- every time I get in the car I learn something new. My engineer and I are working together well and we are gaining ground."

BRUNO JUNQUEIRA (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone):

"It wasn't the best qualifying session for us today. We did get one good lap on the first set of tires, the same as Paul Tracy did. On the second set of tires we were three tenths faster than yesterday and I think we could have had the pole with that lap. But when Jimmy [Vasser] let me by on the lap we lost time. We lost another opportunity to get a point. This track has passing opportunities and will be exciting because the Reynard chassis qualified so well today. It will be difficult to get around them on the fast sections of the track for sure."

NOTEWORTHY

With Tiago Monteiro, Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Darren Manning all starting in the top six for tomorroow's event, it marks the first time since 1983 that four rookies have started in the top six of a Champ Car event. The last time it happened was at Mid-Ohio in the '83 season when eventual winner Teo Fabi (Porsche's only CART win), Al Unser Jr., current CART Race Director Chris Kneifel and John Paul Jr. each started in the top six.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Darren Manning , Chris Kneifel , Al Unser Jr. , Bruno Junqueira , Adrian Fernandez , Mika Salo , Paul Tracy , Luis Diaz , Tiago Monteiro , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Sébastien Bourdais , Emerson Fittipaldi , Teo Fabi