Bourdais by a hair

The race for the 2004 Champ Car World Series title was reduced to a three-man battle in the wake of 166 hectic laps around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval. Fittingly, the three remaining contenders not only finished 1-2-3 but did so in the precise order of their standings in the points race

Bourdais by a hair

In other words, Sebastien Bourdais led Bruno Junqueira and Patrick Carpentier across the finish line. And if Carpentier stands a rather distant third in the points to Bourdais and Junqueira, that was also reflected in a race that saw the two Newman/Haas drivers show a clean pair of heels to the rest of the field. Unlike a couple of races this year, however, Bourdais and Junqueira managed to run to the finish without tripping over each other - this despite running much of the final 50 miles side-by-side around the Vegas oval.

Although Junqueira managed to lead a few laps by the slimmest of margins - as little as 0.005s - he had the misfortune to be on the outside line. Bourdais was on the inside and he wasn't giving it up for anything. And with the Lola-Fords running in high-downforce configuration, and thus flat-out the whole way around, the inside line was the winning line as it represented the shortest route.

"I think Bruno's engine was a little better than mine," said Bourdais. "He took advantage of that but he couldn't quite complete the move."

"Unfortunately the high line was a little but longer," said Junqueira, "so it was slower. Sebastien's car was good, and he was running as tight a line as possible, and there was no way to pass."

Ultimately, traffic dictated the outcome of the race. With 15 laps remaining, the Newman/Haas machines came up on the lapped cars of Alex Tagliani and Gaston Mazzacane. Bourdais slipped between them and Junqueira had to lift, falling from 0.023s to 0.481s behind in the space of a lap.

"I took the draft of Mazzacane and Bruno took the draft of Tagliani," explained Bourdais. "But Tagliani backed off when he saw me and I snuck through [the two cars] while Bruno had to back off. Sometimes you need to be lucky."

Although Junqueira chipped away at the gap and brought it back down to 0.005s with three laps remaining, Bourdais held his ground and went on to cross the line with a "comfortable" margin of 0.066s in hand.

In relative terms, Vegas resident Carpentier was a distant third, some four seconds adrift of the Newman/Haas machines. Hard on the heels of his win at Laguna Seca and Friday's pole position, Carpentier led the first six laps but slipped down the order at the first round of pitstops, the result of a curious mis-assembly in his gearbox that saw the gears mounted in the order first, second, third, fifth, fourth, sixth, seventh. In a sequential shift pattern, of course, one has to go straight through the gears going up - and down - the box, so it made for some interesting entries and exits from the pits (to say nothing of restarts) for Carpentier.

"I didn't even know you could put the gearbox together like that," joked the French-Canadian. "On my first pitstop, I shifted down from sixth to fifth and got third. I think the engine revved to 17,000 -- man, that Ford was pretty good!"

Carpentier fell as far down as ninth in his adventuresome quest for gears, but once the pitstops and restarts had sorted themselves out, found his Indeck Lola to be one of the fastest cars on the track. He battled his way past Justin Wilson and Forsythe Racing team-mate Rodolfo Lavin after the final restart, but by then Bourdais and Junqueira were long gone.

Although Lavin eventually lost touch with Carpentier, he nevertheless managed to hold off a resurgent Jimmy Vasser on the run to the chequered flag, with A.J. Allmendinger coming home sixth from Mario Dominguez, Wilson and Nelson Philippe.

One name conspicuously absent from the roll call was that of Paul Tracy. Tracy's defence of the 2004 Champ Car title officially ended at Las Vegas before the race even began, when he pulled into the pits on the pace lap with a distinct lack of drive to his right-rear wheel.

Carpentier thus becomes not only Forsythe Racing's only hope to retain the title it won in its Player's incarnation last year, but the only driver who can derail what looks increasingly like a one-two sweep by Newman/Haas Racing. But as Saturday night showed, one-two finishes by Newman/Haas Racing don't have to be dull.

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