By Tom Haapanen - motorsport.com Like all CART oval races, qualifying is done with individual qualifying runs, with the slowest drivers running first. The speeds, overall, were clearly slower than those from the three practice sessions so...
By Tom Haapanen - motorsport.com
Like all CART oval races, qualifying is done with individual qualifying runs, with the slowest drivers running first. The speeds, overall, were clearly slower than those from the three practice sessions so far this weekend, as could be expected.
During the practice sessions, multiple drivers are on the track at the same time, making drafting possible - and frequent - and thus easily improving lap times. In qualifying times, it is just the driver, the car, the speedway and the clock: everything has to come together at the right time, to set a fast time in one of just two laps on the track.
Despite the different setup, it was again Paul Tracy who did put all the pieces in place, setting a new lap record of 30.645, or 234.949 mph, and eclipsing Jimmy Vasser's old lap record of 234.665 mph from 1996, set before CART mandated the use of the high-drag Handford rear wings on superspeedways.
"The car felt good on the first lap," said Tracy of the qualifying lap in his KOOL Reynard-Honda. "Going into [turn] three it was a little bit loose, but I made a roll-bar adjustment, and it felt really good on the second lap."
Tracy was significantly faster than his teammate, Dario Franchitti, and credited part of that difference to using the single-bank turbo setup on his car - a configuration originally developed by Toyota. This change provides a small increase in horsepower in exchange for a large increase in turbo lag and drop in drivability, making this definitely a qualifying-only configuration.
Michael Andretti, had set the provisional pole time just moments earlier, setting a time of 30.687 in his Lola-Ford. "I had a little understeer in all of the corners, but I thought I had the pole. But then Paul went and did a blistering lap. Really impressive …"
During last year's qualifying sessions, the drivers had unkind words for the damage done to the track by the NASCAR Craftsman trucks, which run as a support race, but not so this year. "The conditions are not really affecting everyone as much, because we have a lot more downforce," said Andretti. "It really covers up a lot of the track changes."
Of the first four drivers to take the green flag - Luiz Garcia Jr., Tarso Marques, Shinji Nakano and Takuya Kurosawa - only two had successfully qualifying runs, though. The Ford engine in Marques' Swift gave up the ghost just before the start-finish line, dropping the young Brazilian to a speed of just 215.957 mph and the final qualifying spot for tomorrow's race.
Kurosawa's first flying lap turned out worse, though, as he spun his Lola-Ford entering Turn 3, and slid backwards into the concrete wall, writing off the car. As the CART medical crew arrived on the scene minutes later, they found Kurosawa unconscious, although he regained consciousness quickly. Kurosawa complained of neck pains, and was airlifted to the Flint Hospital for precautionary x-rays and observation. As per CART rules, he will not be able to take part in Sunday's race.
As the sun reached its zenith and the qualifying session reached its midway point, Christian Fittipaldi did put all the right pieces together, and set a speed of 234.230 mph (30.739 seconds) in his Lola-Ford, over 1 mph faster than in practice, and only about 0.4 mph slower than Jimmy Vasser's 1996 lap record.
"I thought that pole would have been slower," said Fittipaldi. "I'm happy to be in the top four. Pole is not really a big issue here … it's the last ten laps that matter."
Helio Castroneves, though, ended up parking his Penske Reynard-Honda on the banking, and walking back to the pits, with smoke streaming from under the engine cover. Unlike Marques, he was unable to finish the lap and set a qualifying time. He was permitted to run one additional lap in his spare car at the end of the session, but was not able to get close to his practice times, and ended up in 13th place on the grid.
At the front, despite using the single-bank turbo setup qualifying, the Toyota-powered cars were unable to make an impression on the leading trio of Tracy, Andretti and Fittipaldi. 1996 champion - and Michigan winner in the same year - Jimmy Vasser was down in sixth at 30.933, while his teammate and 1999 champion Juan Pablo Montoya was behind him at 30.963, with the other Toyotas way back in the back half of the grid.
For the race, Tracy really just wants to settle in and stay in contention. "It's the last 30 or 40 laps that really matter."
"It's a mental game," said Andretti. "We're running wheel-to-wheel for 500 miles, and you really cannot let your mind wonder at all. It really wears you out mentally at the end of the 500 miles."
Tomorrow afternoon will show the results of this 500-mile test of endurance: will it be Tracy, Andretti, Fittipaldi, or one of the other 21 starters?