Bourdais grabs Mexico pole

After dropping the ball in the dying moments of provisional qualifying and handing the psychological edge to Newman/Haas team-mate Bruno Junqueira, Sebastien Bourdais fought back like the champion-elect he is with a dominant pole position at Mexico City on Saturday afternoon

Bourdais grabs Mexico pole

Bourdais once again waited until the halfway point in the session before turning a flying lap, and immediately served notice of his intent with a blistering 1m26.281s, eclipsing Junqueira's benchmark by more than 1.2 seconds.

That opening shot would have been good enough for pole, but Bourdais - determined to leave nothing to chance after yesterday's mishap - later upped the ante to 1m25.919s, paring a few hundredths off Junqueira's track record from 2002 in the process. The Brazilian, who had the security of a guaranteed front-row starting position after setting the Friday pace, was left trailing 0.626s in arrears.

By turning the tables on Saturday afternoon, Bourdais re-established a 22-point cushion over his team-mate in the drivers' standings - with 33 left on the table. In the event that Junqueira sweeps the board tomorrow, Bourdais need only finish 10th (out of 19) to make sure of the championship. What he cannot afford is any sort of incident on the opening lap that might put him outside that window.

"I feel good, but I know there's still a long way to go," the Frenchman said of his title prospects. "The hardest part of the season is in front of us, and that's definitely going to be braking going into Turn One tomorrow on the first lap. It's not about how fast we can go, it's about how tough we are, how we can stay on the racetrack and have no mechanical issues. So we'll just see tomorrow, but I'm starting from the best place."

Junqueira admitted he left a few crumbs on the table in final qualifying: "I think the PacifiCare car was okay, but it was not the best. We ran very well on the hard tyres. We waited to put the soft tyres on later in the session. But I think there was so much traffic on the track; the team couldn't find me a gap. When they actually found it, there was only four minutes to go, so I didn't have time to do two [flying] laps."

"It's a long race tomorrow. The championship is on the line. A lot of things can happen, and I'm confident that I'm going to have a really good car."

Behind the title contenders, Justin Wilson posted a superb performance to line up third for Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing, his best starting spot since Cleveland at the beginning of July. The Briton has been at the sharp end of the timesheets all weekend and now has a great opportunity to round off his rookie season with a first podium finish.

"I'm very happy," said Justin. "We've been making progress all weekend, but then in the warm-up session before qualifying we were a long way off, and getting a bit concerned that we had lost our way on the set-up. Fortunately we changed it back, the car worked again and we were able to go out and set a good time. We just kept playing it nice and cool, took small steps at a time and it worked out well."

While the Newman/Haas duo were in a league of their own, Wilson headed a closely-matched group of 14 cars separated by less than a second. Jimmy Vasser vaulted from 15th on the overnight grid to fourth thanks to his decision to save two sets of softer 'option' tyres for final qualifying and some judicious set-up tweaks to his PKV Racing Lola between runs. Oriol Servia, who lies ninth in the championship, just two points ahead of Vasser, was a fine fifth fastest for Dale Coyne Racing, netting the best starting position for the team since Gualter Salles qualified fourth at Long Beach in 1998.

Next up was outgoing title-holder Paul Tracy, the Canadian admitting that he has simply been unable to find the grip that carried him to victory from the pole at Mexico City last year. Tracy's protégé AJ Allmendinger was disappointed to wind up seventh after harrying the Newman/Haas cars for much of the weekend. The American, who wrapped up Rookie of the Year honours a fortnight ago in Australia, set the pace in the short pre-qualifying warm-up only for some minor set-up adjustments to upset the balance of his RuSPORT Lola in the final 35-minute session.

While most eyes will be focused on the tense duel for the Vanderbilt Cup between Bourdais and Junqueira, the scrap for third in the standings between Forsythe team-mates Tracy and Patrick Carpentier promises to be an entertaining sub-plot to the main drama. Carpentier holds a narrow four-point advantage but will start tomorrow's race two places behind Tracy in eighth, in what may turn out to be his Champ Car swansong.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was ninth quickest in the leading Herdez Competition entry, while RuSPORT's Michel Jourdain Jr. topped the Mexican contingent in tenth after struggling with oversteer all weekend. Fellow countryman Roberto Gonzalez has shown previously untapped reserves of talent on home soil, and was actually disappointed to end up 11th (his second-best qualifying effort of the season) in the second PKV Racing Lola.

Michael Valiante qualified a strong 12th on his Champ Car debut with Walker Racing, over half a second and five places ahead of the team's regular driver Mario Haberfeld. The Toyota Atlantic graduate has been playing himself in gently but impressively sliced nearly two seconds off his previous best time around the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in final qualifying.

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