INDIANAPOLIS (October 22, 2003) -- The sand in the hourglass of the 2003 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season is nearly gone and the title contenders have dwindled to a hardy trio, with each of those looking to ...
INDIANAPOLIS (October 22, 2003) -- The sand in the hourglass of the 2003 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season is nearly gone and the title contenders have dwindled to a hardy trio, with each of those looking to steal away with the Vanderbilt Cup as the series heads to Surfers Paradise for the Lexmark Indy 300.
The Surfers Paradise street race has been one of the jewels on the Champ Car calendar since its debut in 1991, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 300,000 for the weekend as Australians come from across the country to see the 750hp turbocharged Champ Cars. The track provides a challenge for the drivers that few can claim to have mastered as there has never been a repeat winner in the 12 years of competition on the Gold Coast and only three drivers have ever taken the pole more than once.
Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is the man that everyone is chasing with just two races remaining in the Champ Car World Series campaign, taking the lead with a dominating victory in Mexico City as a series-record race-day crowd of 221,011 saw him widen his advantage to 29 points with a maximum of 45 markers left to be claimed. Tracy earned his seventh victory of the year and the 26th of his career, leading 64 laps to win from the pole, leaving Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) needing to perform well in the last two races to have a shot at the title.
Tracy's Mexico City victory means that the Canadian needs only to finish first or second in Australia to clinch the first championship of his long and distinguished career, but will have to deal with the tricky Surfers Paradise street course in order to hoist the Cup. Tracy has had great success on the 2.795-mile track including a 1995 win that saw him come from ninth in the field to taste the champagne. Tracy has qualified in the top five in each of the last seven races in Surfers Paradise but has yet to carry that success to Race Day, as he has only finished in the points in two of those seven races including a third-place in last year's rain-plagued event.
The rains came early and often last season in Surfers, soaking the circuit, causing a massive nine-car accident at the start, and eventually dooming the field to run 34 of 40 laps behind the pace car before Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) emerged with his first Champ Car win. Dominguez has made great strides since getting the Australia win and is now a legitimate podium threat every weekend. The Mexican thrilled the hometown fans two weeks ago with a stirring run from 11th to place third in the Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by Banamex/Visa and has earned four podium finishes this season, putting him sixth in the season standings.
But while the fans celebrated the feat accomplished by Dominguez in Mexico City, Junqueira and Jourdain began plotting their strategies for staying in the title hunt. Junqueira finished seventh on the day but showed his fortitude in achieving that result as he had been struck by a nasty stomach virus early on Race Day, causing an illness that would keep him down for several days afterward. The two-time 2003 race winner must outscore Tracy by eight points in Australia in order to keep the title hunt going to California, and showed last year that he knows the quick way around the circuit, qualifying second for last year's event.
Jourdain has a bank of Australia experience to draw on as he tries to stay in the chase, having made six previous starts on the street course with best efforts of seventh coming in 2000 and 2001. He needs a win to stay in the championship chase, but is still well on his way to a career-best season as he sits in third spot in the season standings with a pair of wins under his belt.
Of the three drivers with more experience in Australia than Jourdain, each has a Surfers win on his resume, including the aforementioned '95 victory by Tracy. Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) made the first of his 202 Champ Car starts on the Surfers street course in 1992 and led 60 laps en route to a win from the pole in 1996, a win that helped him capture the series title.
Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is the other driver to have carried the victory hardware back across the Pacific Ocean after a Surfers win, taking the checkered flag in 2000 on his way to his career-best season. Fernandez will look to have a better time this year in Australia than he did a year ago when he was injured in the big nine-car melee and was forced to miss the last three races of the season. He has a pair of podium finishes in his eight Surfers starts, placing third in 1999 prior to his 2000 win.
But experience may not be all that it is cracked up to be as the Champ Car World Series season winds to a close. Many of the rookies that have spent the season learning the ropes are now starting to deliver on the promise that earned them their rides, threatening to deliver series fans their eighth different winner of the season.
Mika Salo (#27 PK Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) has been a pleasant surprise since taking over for Max Papis in Denver, giving the rookie PK Racing squad its first podium with a third-place run in Miami and then followed that up with a strong fifth-place effort in Mexico City. Salo, a veteran of 110 Formula 1 starts before coming to Champ Cars, has already past eight drivers in the point standings despite having run just three races.
Tiago Monteiro (#7 Fittipaldi-Dingman Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) had his breakout weekend in Mexico City for the rookie team that is co-owned by racing legend Emerson Fittipaldi. Monteiro led Saturday qualifying in Mexico and started on the front row for the first time in his career and made some daring passes to stay in the top five for most of the day. He would end his day with a career-best sixth-place finish and has moved into the top-five in the series rookie standings.
The chase for the CART Rookie-of-the-Year award ended in Mexico City as Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) locked up the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Trophy with a second-place run. Bourdais is currently in the midst of a rookie record run that has seen him start in the top six in each of the last 11 events, and the Frenchman is second only to Tracy this year in wins (three) and poles (four).
Roberto Moreno (#4 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) gets back in the car after his best race of the season in Miami, strapping back into the Herdez Competition machine after yielding to Roberto Gonzalez in Mexico City. Moreno has three Australia starts under his belt including a pole position in 2001, but is still searching for success on Race Day as his 12th-place run in 1996 is his only points-paying effort in his three visits.
Patrick Carpentier (#32 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) comes off a runner-up finish in last year's event and has scored a pair of top fives in his six previous trips to the continent. Carpentier is still holding on to the fifth spot in the season standings and is looking for his second consecutive top-five season finish. His fellow Canadian driver Alex Tagliani (#33 Johnson Controls Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) has not had as much track time in Australia as Carpentier, but has put his time to good use, finishing on the podium in 2001 and placing sixth a year ago.
Of the rest of the field, the only other driver with any experience on the Australia street circuit is Gualter Salles (#19 Alpina Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who finished 10th in 1999 and also made a start in 1997 where he placed 24th. Salles is in the top 20 in laps completed this season despite joining the Dale Coyne Racing squad later in the season and has maintained his standings despite having to miss a pair of races due to racing commitments he had made prior to joining the Coyne team.
The Lexmark Indy 300 gets underway with practice and first-round qualifying on October 24, with final-round qualifying taking place Saturday at 11:45 p.m. Eastern Time. The 65-lap event gets underway at 12:30 a.m. Eastern on October 26, and can be seen live on SPEED Channel. For those fans that do not wish to stay up that late to see the event, SPEED will rebroadcast the race Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.