CHAMPCAR/CART: NHR mates ready for title fight

The chase for Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford has come down to two races, two drivers, one team. Both Sebastien Bourdais, the current leader (307 points) and squadmate Bruno Junqueira, lying 27 points back with 280...

The chase for Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford has come down to two races, two drivers, one team. Both Sebastien Bourdais, the current leader (307 points) and squadmate Bruno Junqueira, lying 27 points back with 280 are vying for the Vanderbilt Cup.

All Bourdais needs to do is take the green flag in the Lexmark Indy 300 on October 24th and the season-closing Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa in Mexico City November 7th to eliminate third title contender, Patrick Carpentier of Indeck/Forsythe Championship Racing. To vanquish Junqueira, he'll have to finish ahead of the Brazilian both times around.

The prospect of Bourdais and his #2 McDonald's Lola/Ford- Cosworth/Bridgestone squad as champions is compelling, but Junqueira is hoping to land the Cup after being a bridesmaid the last two seasons. It might be a tough call for Junqueira to beat his teammate, but both drivers are up for the competition.

"I'm pretty happy with the season and I've been working really hard all year" to be in this position, Bourdais indicated. "I've always been a good qualifier," as his three pole positions in 2003 and seven thus far in 2004 can attest. "We've been working hard on the races so I can clinch in Australia," he said.

Bourdais has qualified in the top three in every single 2004 race. "We had the speed last year but got lost in some events just because I didn't know everything about the racetracks. There were a lot of things for me to learn and even though the car was pretty close, sometimes I was not able to lead my engineer the way it should have been done," Bourdais admitted.

"This year it's different because we have a strong baseline every time. Obviously it's working really well. All I can say is I hope it's going to end like that until the end" of the season. "I know I need to score more than Bruno to win and it would be very tough to wait until the last lap of the last race. I don't want to put everything in and then lose," the Frenchman said. "If Bruno wins (in Surfers Paradise) and I finish second, that's fine with me."

Junqueira, one of the top drivers in Champ Car over his three seasons after winning the FIA Formula 3000 title in 2000 is the first driver since Emerson Fittipaldi in the early 1990sto be the runner-up in points two consecutive years.

"I think it's been a pretty good season for the [#6 PacifiCare] team. We've been consistent and we're getting great results," Junqueira noted. "We're doing a big fight with Sebastien for the championship. We were a little bit down with two races to go, and we know we need to do a very good two races, finish strong, and hope that Sebastien has a bad result for us to win the championship. So I'll try to do my best, try to do two good races and see what happens," Junqueira said.

Heading into next weekend's Lexmark Indy 300 on the 2.795-mile Surfers Paradise street circuit on the Australian Gold Coast, Junqueira has memories of what could have been in the past two contests at this track. He led both races but failed to finish in the lead.

"I like a lot the racetrack in Surfers Paradise," the Brazilian admitted. "I had been doing very well in the past two years, leading both races. I hope this year I can lead again until the end of the race. That's a track I like a lot, but I never got a good result in the end. I hope this year is going to be a breakaway and I can finish with a strong result in Australia," so he can head to Mexico City with the possibility of vanquishing his teammate.

Both Newman/Haas Racing drivers think it's good competition between their squads in the search for Champ Car's Vanderbilt Cup. With either of them winning, this would make the fifth title for NHR. Junqueira credits the team's ownership and management for its success.

"It's very good team owners like Carl Haas and Paul Newman who hire the best mechanics, best drivers and put the people together well. They both love racing," and the results show that. "We want to see both Newman/Haas guys 1-2 in the championship. If I do well in the last two races I think we can achieve that," leaving Carpentier in third place.

Junqueira isn't one to begrudge his teammate the success Bourdais has achieved this season - and last year when he finished third in the title chase to Paul Tracy and Junqueira, earning Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year and the Greg Moore Spirit Award.

He is disappointed, though, that he failed to take a third straight victory at his favorite Champ Car circuit, the 4.048-mile Elkhart Lake's Road America. Junqueira, the adopted Wisconsin "cheesehead" thought, "I could win maybe Road America and Portland, but I didn't. I thought I could win more races to be in a better position in the championship, but that didn't happen. I still have a chance and I'll try to do the best races I can."

In the motorsports arena, the driver one first wishes to beat is a teammate and it's no different here. But Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais do get along and they have dinner with their team owners after each race. It was a bit closer when both lived in the Miami area, but Bourdais has moved to Tampa and now only sees Junqueira during race meetings.

"We were really close when I was living in Miami, but we have a great relationship," Bourdais insisted. "It's very productive and good for the team. We have a lot of respect for each other and I think we are both pretty smart and good drivers. So I could not really dream of a better package for the team. Bruno helped me move in when I first came [to the US]. I'll always be thankful for that."

Junqueira, the early riser used to get Bourdais on bike rides with him when the two shared the same area code; these days, Bourdais enjoys his exercise a bit later than Junqueira's early wake-up calls. "Sebastien is not here in Miami. I woke up at 6:30 this morning and it was raining. I was going to ride in the afternoon," he quipped.

Bourdais countered: "Bruno, you should be living in Tampa. It was a beautiful day today. I woke up at 9am and had a great ride!"

There is the possibility this duo could have a third teammate in the mix next season, as 2002 Champ Car titleholder Cristiano da Matta has been mentioned by owner Carl Haas for a possible return after a difficult 1.5- season Toyota Panasonic Formula One career.

"I think it would be great," Sebastien declared. "A third car with a great driver in it would be an even stronger package if we can plan early enough." Junqueira and da Matta have raced against one another since their childhoods in Belo Horizonte. "He's a very good driver and if he adds to the team, it would be great. I just don't know what is on his mind," the fellow Brazilian noted. "He's enjoying a lot his time in Brazil."

Newman/Haas did run parallel programs this spring with Junqueira's one-off in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, where he finished fifth. "I think the team is very strong right now and with another very fast and technical driver like Cristiano, we would be even stronger. I think it would be the Dream Team," like four-car Andretti Green Racing in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.

With NHR using Lola chassis developed by da Matta (and Christian Fittipaldi) during the 2002 season when they were new, the added feedback from a champion can only make the team better, Junqueira believes. "Because he's really good, maybe he can see something that me and Sebastien didn't see on the car."

Of the competition changes made by Open Wheel Racing Series to aid competition in 2004, Bourdais and Junqueira concur that the best is Push-to- Pass for the Ford-Cosworth XFE engines and Bridgestone's softer, alternate tires. Both should enhance competition in the Surfers Paradise Lexmark Indy 300 race.

"I think Surfers is one of these places where push to pass is going to be really powerful because the chicanes, when you lose downforce you don't slow down the car that much and you can stay pretty close to the guy in front of us," Bourdais informed. "So you might have a shot every time you press the button. It's going to be a real challenge over there."

Bourdais' recovery in Denver "would have been impossible for our McDonald's car if it were not for push to pass. So I'm pretty happy with that."

Junqueira thinks "push to pass makes a very exciting race for Australia, but it's been exciting for all the past years with the long straightaways. I think push to pass will generate a lot of passing. It's been the best thing Champ Car made since I've been in the series."

The Champ Car World Series has generated more than a few changes to increase excitement for both combatants and fans alike but the push to pass and alternate Bridgestone tires are the two that excite competitors the most. "they tried experimental changes and they've been smart enough to come back on the ones that were not very good and to keep the ones that were pretty good," Bourdais contended. "I think the package we have right now is exciting and competitive, so why change it?"

And so Bourdais and Junqueira head for Surfers Paradise next week for the penultimate race of the 2004 Champ Car World Series. Even though Carpentier has a mathematical chance to leapfrog the two Newman/Haas drivers at the top of the scoring pylon, this battle is, realistically a NHR debate for ownership of the Vanderbilt Cup.

Taking their battle to the Australian streets the Frenchman and the Brazilian are prepared for a good, clean fight. Will they feel that way after the Lexmark Indy 300 is done?

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Bruno Junqueira , Patrick Carpentier , Paul Tracy , Paul Newman , Sébastien Bourdais , Emerson Fittipaldi , Carl Haas , Greg Moore , Cristiano da Matta