Analysis: Bourdais Tames San Jose
Just in case there were any doubts, Sebastien Bourdais reaffirmed his credentials as the man to beat in Champ Cars with a masterful victory on the streets of San Jose.
The reigning champion displayed a potent blend of speed and restraint in an attrition-plagued race that required unwavering concentration and took a fearful toll on man and machine.
Most drivers approached the race with a degree of apprehension, worried about mechanical reliability due to the extremely bumpy surface and mindful that the slightest mistake was likely to result in a race-ending encounter with a concrete wall.
Pole-sitter Bourdais led the field away in a relatively orderly single-file start, pursued by Oriol Servia, Paul Tracy, AJ Allmendinger and Mario Dominguez.
To everyone's relief there was no major pile-up at either the 'new' chicane (installed on Saturday) or the ultra-tight Turn Three hairpin - although there was a minor skirmish at the back, with Alex Tagliani bumping Cristiano da Matta and both Dale Coyne Racing cars getting caught up in the resulting melee.
Ronnie Bremer got underway again and rejoined at the tail of the field, but Ricardo Sperafico's car was damaged and had to be retrieved by the safety team, necessitating a full-course yellow.
Soon after the restart, fourth-placed Allmendinger clouted the wall on the exit of Turn Four and broke the right-front wheel and suspension of his RuSPORT Lola. It marked the third time in as many races that the American has retired due to an unforced error and further dented his increasingly fragile self-esteem.
Asked how he planned to put the disappointment behind him and get his season back on track, the 23-year-old replied bluntly: "I don't know, I haven't learned yet. I keep doing this every weekend, so if you've got any ideas tell me, because I don't."
Allmendinger wasn't the only driver to come to grief at Turn Four; on the very next lap Andrew Ranger crashed out of tenth place in almost identical fashion, and as the race wore on, Rodolfo Lavin and former champion da Matta joined the list of casualties.
Ranger's Mi-Jack Conquest Racing teammate Nelson Philippe has had a breakthrough weekend in California, featuring at the sharp end of the time sheets for the first time in his Champ Car career.
But the 19-year-old Frenchman's day would end in disappointment when he succumbed to an engine failure on lap 20 while lying fifth.
The next significant order change came during the first round of pitstops, triggered by another full-course yellow for debris, when the Forsythe crew released Tracy ahead of Servia and into second place.
Dale Coyne Racing elected to roll the dice and move Bremer out of sequence with the front-runners by leaving him out on the circuit. It was well worth a gamble, because the caution came at a point when the cars still had half a tank of fuel on board, giving Bremer the chance of an extended stint in the lead.
Moreover, fuel calculations had been turned into an exercise in improvisation by Champ Car's decision to specify a 1h45m time limit but no target number of laps for the race distance. If there was enough green-flag running the leaders might be compelled to make two more stops to Bremer's one.
The Dane grabbed his opportunity with both hands, matching the lap times of Bourdais, Tracy and company with his lighter fuel load and leading comfortably all the way to his stop on lap 48.
Bourdais had been assiduously heeding fuel mileage targets from his Newman/Haas crew but turned up the wick upon retaking the lead, as evidenced by a lurid slide under braking for the hairpin which almost gave Tracy an opportunity to pounce and a new fastest lap not long afterwards.
Tracy had a close call of his own when he brushed the wall on the exit of the treacherous Turn Four on lap 54, but it was enough of a glancing blow that the #3 Forsythe Lola escaped damage.
Just as the race was beginning to develop a rhythm, the pace car was deployed again following a spin-and-stall from Ryan Hunter-Reay. It was the end of a miserable race for the American, who had already visited the escape road on two previous occasions.
The leaders took advantage of the caution to make their second pitstops, which saw the top three (Bourdais, Tracy and Servia) hold position but Justin Wilson snatch fourth from Dominguez thanks to slick work by the RuSPORT crew.
Somewhat surprisingly, Dale Coyne backed out of his earlier gamble and moved Bremer back into pit sequence, evidently feeling there were too many easy points on offer (given the growing list of retirements) to chance them on a wing and a prayer.
In hindsight it would probably have been better to stick with the original gameplan - it is conceivable Bremer might have managed to eke the necessary 46 laps out of his second tank of fuel, whereas the switch to a conservative strategy relegated him to the back of the pack, with little prospect of making much headway on the track.
This time HVM played the out-of-sequence strategy card for its rookie Bjorn Wirdheim, but given that he had last pitted on lap 29 the Swede's tenure of the lead was bound to be brief. He soon found Bourdais snapping at his heels, aware that the slightest delay or mis-step would invite a challenge from the lurking Tracy.
The normally feisty Canadian was in relatively subdued form, however, apparently content to hold a watching brief. In any case, Wirdheim removed himself from the equation when he peeled into the pits on lap 72, handing Bourdais a clear track once more.
He immediately started to put some distance between himself and Tracy, but a 1.9s lead was negated on lap 78 when the yellows came out following da Matta's crash at Turn Four.
Tracy is renowned as a demon on restarts, and it seemed he had been given a final chance to steal the win. But Bourdais swiftly dispelled that theory with a perfectly executed restart of his own.
Over the remaining ten laps he stamped his authority on the race, pulling away from his pursuers by 0.5s per lap and romping home to his third win of the season.
As a measure of his superiority, his fastest lap of 55.083 seconds (set on lap 90) was nearly 0.6s quicker than the competition. Evidently he had plenty in hand earlier on in the race and had simply been conserving fuel, brakes and tyres.
Tracy resigned himself to second place in the closing stages, while Servia fought a rearguard action to hold on to third in a car that was giving him a few anxious moments.
"In the last five laps I was really, really scared because something went loose in the rear of my car," related the Spaniard. "I thought for sure it was going to break. Each time I was going over the rails, I was praying it was just going to stay together because every lap it was getting worse. Under braking I was having to turn the wheel towards one side.
"I really thought Wilson was going to get me or just the car was going to break down. I don't really know what happened, but I'm just glad it stayed together enough to finish."
Wilson finished fourth for the fifth time in the eight races held so far this year and retains a strong third place in the points standings. Putting a rocky mid-season patch behind him, Dominguez scored his second straight fifth-place finish, while Timo Glock extended his lead in the Rookie of the Year standings with sixth for Rocketsports Racing.
Bremer once again garnered both positive exposure (he spent 19 laps in the lead) and results (he moved up to second place ahead of Ranger in the rookie points table) for Coyne, even if his eventual seventh place fell short of his mid-race expectations.
Wirdheim and Alex Tagliani, four laps in arrears, were the only other classified finishers.
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