CHAMPCAR/CART: St. Pete: Season opener race report

Paul Tracy claims 20th career Champ Car World Series win with 12-second victory at season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (February 23, 2003) - The leading active racewinner in the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car ...

Paul Tracy claims 20th career Champ Car World Series win with 12-second victory at season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (February 23, 2003) - The leading active racewinner in the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford came into Sunday's season opener with no intention of resting on his well-earned laurels as Paul Tracy (#3 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) paced 71 of 105 laps to earn his 20th career victory.

Tracy moved into a tie for 16th place on the all-time Champ Car win list with his 12-second victory in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as the Canadian paid huge dividends to the Player's team that signed him in the offseason. Tracy started second and spent the first 30 laps chasing polesitter Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Newman/Haas Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) around the 1.806-mile circuit, although he and most of the field did it from further back as everyone but Bourdais, Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and rookie Tiago Monteiro (#7 Fittipaldi-Dingman Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) pitted after Rodolfo Lavin's (#5 Corona Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) Lap 13 spin.

Monteiro would assume the lead for four laps when Bourdais took his first mandatory pit stop on Lap 30, but Tracy would take the point with a Lap 34 pass, assuming a lead he would not relinquish the rest of the way. Bourdais, who became the first driver in CART history to lead on his first-ever Champ Car laps, would take himself out of contention soon after when he brushed the wall and broke a wheel, costing himself eight laps in the pits.

"After the first three or four corners, I knew that I wasn't going to get him," Tracy said of Bourdais. "I just basically stayed behind him. I was about two or three seconds behind him, not trying to use too much fuel. Later they radioed me and told me that he had brushed the wall and did some damage or something. From there, I knew that we were kind of in control of the race. I just had to pace myself, not make any mistakes."

Behind Tracy, a battle was shaping up as Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) of Team Rahal had put himself in position to claim his best-ever Champ Car finish, as he moved up from his fifth-place starting spot to move into second with Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and rookie Mario Haberfeld (#34 Mi-Jack Conquest Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) following behind.

Junqueira survived a tough first few laps that included a pair of tire-smoking battles with Haberfeld as Junqueira tried to climb from the seventh spot. One tight battle saw both drivers end up taking wide lines to avoid causing an incident, but both pilots kept their machines on line and in the fight.

"I think on the second lap, I came inside Mario on turn one, on the straight," Junqueira said. "He started to squeeze me to the wall. I lifted a little bit. After the wall was finished, he still was squeezing me. I broke inside of him and said that that was my position. I didn't believe that he could block me that much. I was set to do the corner, then suddenly I see Jourdain doing the corner. I said that I had to go straight. I almost hit Jourdain. Oh, my God. I had to go straight, make Jourdain pass, then I turn right, then I went wide, but I passed him."

While the wars were waged behind him, Tracy rolled out to a sizeable lead in the middle part of the race, but would need to show his strength one final time after a Lap 62 caution flag flew after Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) nosed into the Turn 10 tires. Jourdain and Junqueira took the restart on Tracy's rear wing, but could do nothing with the new Player's/Forsythe driver as Tracy roared away.

He stepped out to a five-second lead but saw Jourdain move to within 3.9 seconds with 17 laps to go before Tracy gathered his #3 car and stretched out to what would ultimately become a 12.136-second advantage.

"I slowed down a little bit because I felt I was going pretty hard in the beginning," Tracy said. "I felt the tires starting to go away. I started to slide around a little bit, slide around. The car was getting very over-steery. I just slowed down for three or four laps. I lost quite a bit of time. I got my tires under control, kind of got the grip back, then I was able to pull away at the end."

Jourdain was able to hold off Junqueira for the second spot, establishing a new career high for himself as he comes off of what was his best-ever Champ Car campaign in 2002. The Mexican veteran topped his previous career-best finish of third at Michigan in 2001 with the run, which also propelled him to second in the championship.

"I'm very happy. We had a good car all weekend," Jourdain said. "I think we could have done a couple places better in qualifying. The result is great. It's great to have a start like this, especially going into Monterrey, Mexico."

Haberfeld would take the fourth spot on what was a great debut for the two-car Mi-Jack Conquest and Fittipaldi-Dingman stable. The Brazilian rookie was the top finisher amongst the rookies and among the Reynard drivers, locking down fourth place ahead of veteran Roberto Moreno (#4 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). The Fittipaldi-Dingman team earned the seventh position in the box score with Monteiro, who also led four laps in his debut.

American Spirit Team Johansson earned the sixth spot with Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) while Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) rebounded from a Lap 48 crash to finish eighth ahead of Joel Camathias (#19 Lugano/Dale Coyne Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Patrick Lemarie (#27 Scientific Atlanta Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) who rounded out the top 10.

QUOTES FROM TOP-THREE FINISHERS

PAUL TRACY: "Well, I guess for me, I never down-talked CART. I never down-played where I wanted to be. So from my standpoint, I mean, winning this race is significant to me. It's an inaugural event. It's nice to be a first-time winner at a track like this, at a facility like this. It's an enjoyable moment."

MICHEL JOURDAIN: "It was a very long race.  The track changed a lot at
the end.  It was very, very slippery, like Bruno said.  It was hard to
stay on the track.  It was very easy to make a mistake.  The tires were
so, so slippery, I made a couple mistakes.  Paul really pulled away in
those first couple of laps.  Bruno was really on my tail."

BRUNO JUNQUEIRA: It was a long race. I felt I could do a good race. But the car was handling very well, but on the first pit stop, we had a problem with the right tires that cost us a lot of time. We went almost to last. Then I started passing people. That was really, really difficult on this track. I think I was one guy was able to pass people fighting for position.

NOTEWORTHY

* Today's race saw four rookies finish in the top 10, marking the first time that has happened since the 1985 season finale when Danny Sullivan, Arie Luyendyk, Roberto Moreno and Rupert Keegan finished in the top 10.

* Paul Tracy's 20th career win makes him just the 17th driver to win 20 Champ Car races, tying him with Earl Cooper for 16th on the all-time list. Cooper raced in the series from 1912-26 and won three series championships.

* Sebastien Bourdais was the first driver in the 25-year history of CART to lead the first laps of his very-first Champ Car race. Nigel Mansell won the pole in his first race in 1993, but lost the lead to Emerson Fittipaldi on the first lap of that race in Surfers Paradise.

-cart-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mario Haberfeld , Joel Camathias , Arie Luyendyk , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Patrick Lemarié , Adrian Fernandez , Roberto Moreno , Paul Tracy , Nigel Mansell , Danny Sullivan , Tiago Monteiro , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Sébastien Bourdais , Rodolfo Lavin , Rupert Keegan , Dale Coyne , Michel Jourdain