Advantage Junqueira

In what is becoming a nail-biting climax to the 2004 Champ Car World Series between the two Newman/Haas team-mates, Bruno Junqueira landed the first punch at Mexico City on Friday

Advantage Junqueira

He waited until the dying seconds to steal provisional pole position from Sebastien Bourdais' grasp, thereby trimming the Frenchman's 22-point advantage by a single marker and - crucially - ensuring that he will start Sunday's race from the front row of the grid.

"I feel happy with today's result," said Junqueira. "We took a gamble and went with the [softer] alternate tyres. It's unbelievable how much faster they are. We took another gamble and waited until the end to make our second run. This puts some pressure on Sebastien for tomorrow."

Not so many races ago, Bourdais appeared to be cruising serenely towards the title, but Junqueira's remorseless consistency, together with a couple of untimely misadventures for Bourdais, have pulled the Brazilian right back into contention. It will still take an improbable set of circumstances for Bourdais not to be crowned champion, but the title has been tantalising him for weeks now and today he showed signs of cracking under the pressure.

The Frenchman didn't even bother to venture out in Friday qualifying until the halfway point of the session, such was his boundless confidence, and once he did he immediately obliterated the benchmark set by AJ Allmendinger.

But when Junqueira showed his hand at the very end of the session, Bourdais knew he had only one lap to respond - and he blew it. The split times showed that he was on course to wrest the pole back, but he overstepped the mark in the final corner and spun his McDonald's Lola into the tyre wall.

He said, "I knew it was going to be very hard to compete against Bruno, running the regular [harder] tyres while he was on the alternate tyres, but I went for it. I just laid the car very much on the edge, but didn't make it in the last turn at the end of the session..."

Allmendinger was the only man who looked likely to interfere in the private Newman/Haas battle at the top of the timing charts, and did a sterling job to end up third, just 0.3s adrift of Junqueira, on his first acquaintance with the bumpy and demanding Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Likewise fellow rookie Justin Wilson, who was an infinitesimal 0.012s slower than Allmendinger in fourth - easily the Brit's strongest showing since mid-season. Wilson's Conquest Racing team competes on a fraction of the budget of Allmendinger's RuSPORT outfit (even if Justin has a big advantage in top-level experience) and the 26-year-old from Sheffield will be looking forward to taking the fight to Allmendinger this weekend, having conceded Rookie of the Year honours to the American last time out at Surfers' Paradise.

"It feels good to be in the right ball park already on Friday," said Wilson. "We spend a lot of time in the corners here, so the option (alternate) tyres make a big difference and we can carry the momentum all the way through the corners. I am pretty satisfied so far."

Defending Mexico City winner and series champion Paul Tracy had a scrappy session, which featured an off-course excursion and a minor incident with Forsythe team-mate Patrick Carpentier, and had to content himself with fifth fastest time. Remarkably, Roberto Gonzalez was quickest of the Mexican contingent in sixth. The PKV Racing driver has shown nothing to indicate any great talent all year, claiming a best qualifying position of tenth at the full-throttle Las Vegas superspeedway, only to embarrass a number of Champ Car luminaries on one of the most challenging road courses in North America. Go figure...

Alex Tagliani (Rocketsports Racing), Ryan Hunter-Reay (Herdez Competition), Michel Jourdain Jr. (RuSPORT) and Oriol Servia (Dale Coyne Racing) rounded out the top ten. Carpentier brought out the red flag with an off midway through the session and wound up 11th, while Jimmy Vasser had a spin en route to a dismal 15th.

The Walker Racing Reynards have not yet shown the pace that the ageing chassis has demonstrated on previous occasions at high-altitude venues and finished 17th and 18th, although debutant Michael Valiante played himself in methodically and did well to get the better of the team's regular driver Mario Haberfeld. Guy Smith's generally unhappy Champ Car half-season continued and the Yorkshireman brought up the rear of the timesheets.

Title showdown in Mexico

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