Bourdais Takes Controversial Win

Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy's increasingly bad-tempered battle for Champ Car supremacy took another controversial twist at Las Vegas, as Bourdais won Saturday night's Hurricane Relief 400 after a collision that sent race leader Tracy into the wall

Bourdais Takes Controversial Win

The contact came as Tracy prepared for his final pitstop. As the Forsythe Lola slowed and moved to the inside, Bourdais struck the rear of the car and sent Tracy spinning over the infield grass at high speed. The Canadian then slid across the circuit and slammed heavily into the outside wall.

While the Forsythe team immediately lodged a protest, Bourdais argued that Tracy had not followed the correct procedure to indicate that he was about to pit. Drivers had been instructed to drop two wheels below the white line on the back straight on their in-lap to signal their intentions.

"How could I know he was going to back off and go into the pits if he doesn't signal like he's supposed to?" said Bourdais. "When he braked, I had no idea he was coming in."

"They listen to our radio transmissions, just like we listen to theirs, they knew we were coming in," replied Tracy. "What Bourdais was doing under the white line, I don't know. He just keeps doing the same thing and gets away with it."

Early indications from Champ Car race director Tony Cotman were that Tracy was at fault for not following the pit signal procedure and that Bourdais would therefore be allowed to keep his victory.

Until his violent exit from the race, Tracy had been the star of the show under the Las Vegas floodlights.

Having received a new engine prior to the race, he immediately put his practice struggles behind him and surged to the front, taking to the outside line on the opening lap and sweeping past his rivals, making up nine positions in the first three corners of the race.

Bourdais held off a challenge from his Newman/Haas Racing teammate Oriol Servia into the first corner and then edged into a slight lead, while Servia came under attack from Jimmy Vasser (PKV Racing).

As the American veteran took to the outside of Servia on lap six, Tracy went wider still and made it a three-abreast battle for second. Vasser was squeezed between the two cars and tagged first Servia, then Tracy. Both Vasser and Tracy slid alarmingly sideways at 200mph, but while Vasser lost three places, Tracy simply hit his power-to-pass button, caught his drifting Lola before it could hit the wall and stormed off in pursuit of Bourdais!

"I thought 'this is going to be a tough race, it's only lap six and we're already touching wheels at 200mph...'" Servia said afterwards.

Just one lap later, Tracy was nosing ahead of Bourdais to complete his remarkable charge from 14th to the race lead in just seven laps. The most impressive aspect of his performance was that Tracy had only needed to use his power-to-pass facility once along the way.

Unfazed by his great rival's speed, Bourdais decided to tuck in behind Tracy and conserve fuel. When Tracy pitted for the first time on lap 40, the Newman/Haas cars stayed out for a few more laps, with Servia managing to pass Bourdais and lead for the first time.

As he did so, the shock absorber cover on the front of Bourdais' Lola suddenly flew off. This made surprisingly little different to the car's performance, as Bourdais continued to run right on Tracy's tail after the pit stops.

The slight handling problems caused by the aerodynamic disruption meant that Bourdais would lose ground to Tracy in traffic, but he was always able to catch up in clear air, and actually edged ahead of the Canadian twice during the middle part of the race.

A thrilling final stint showdown was clearly in prospect, but the crowd was denied this spectacle when Bourdais hit the back of Tracy's car on lap 123. The impact was substantial, but when Tracy radioed his crew to say that the incident "f***ing hurt", he was referring to the injustice that he felt rather than any physical injury.

With Tracy out of the way, it was back to business as usual for Newman/Haas. Bourdais and Servia had dominated practice and qualifying, and duly dominated the final 27 laps of the race once Tracy's debris was finally cleared away.

There was a scare for the team after the restart, as Bourdais and Servia made slight contact as Oriol tried to pass around the outside. Servia had to concede the advantage, and dropped back to follow his team leader home.

"Unless we found traffic, there was no chance, because the guy who runs the inside line is always going to take it," said Servia - one of a number of drivers who felt that the mandatory high downforce package had an adverse effect on the quality of the racing.

Having recovered from his early brush with Servia and Tracy, Vasser gamely chased the Newman/Haas duo in the final laps, but couldn't mount a challenge.

"The car was really good, just not as good as Newman/Haas' and Paul's cars," said the 1996 Champion after finishing what could be his last Champ Car oval race on the podium.

Late wing adjustments helped Mario Dominguez, who had spent most of the race in the lower regions of the top ten struggling with a "really, really bad" car, to take fourth for Forsythe.

The Mexican resisted a strong challenge from the very competitive HVM cars. Bjorn Wirdheim ran fourth initially but lost a lot of ground when his air jack failed at his first stop. Without that problem, the cash-strapped Swede reckoned a podium would have been possible.

In the event he finished sixth, passed at the finish line by his charging teammate Rodolfo Lavin. The Mexican started last after switching to his back-up car following a warm-up crash. Having also suffered time-consuming gearbox and engine problems on Lavin's car in practice, HVM went into the race with a guesswork set-up, but their estimates were clearly correct.

Alex Tagliani - whose first lap charge was almost as impressive as Tracy's - took seventh for Team Australia, with the lapped Timo Glock, Marcus Marshall and Ryan Hunter-Reay completing the top ten.

Justin Wilson and Cristiano da Matta's cars were never on the pace, and they fell to 11th and 12th at the flag, ahead of the unlucky A.J. Allmendinger. He was running fifth when his car ran out of fuel under yellow.

Although Tracy was the only driver to crash on track, Ronnie Bremer and Nelson Philippe both managed to have accidents in the pit lane. One of the Dale Coyne Racing mechanics suffered wrist injuries when Bremer locked up and slid into the wall while trying to make his first pit stop. Until that point, the Danish rookie had looked very competitive, moving quickly into the top six in the opening stint.

There were handshakes and hugs in the Newman/Haas pit at the end of the race, and Bourdais performed the obligatory doughnuts. But the celebrations were slightly muted, partly because the team knew that Forsythe would be protesting the race winner's driving, and partly because Bourdais felt more relief than joy as he took the chequered flag.

"It was rough out there and I was glad we made it through," said Bourdais. "I was nervous about this race, and I'm just very, very glad we made it to the end."

The Frenchman now leads the Championship by 67 points with three races remaining, while the best Tracy can realistically hope for is to beat Servia to second in the standings.

Pos  Driver              Team                   Time
 1.  Sebastien Bourdais  Newman Haas            1:26:22.636
 2.  Oriol Servia        Newman Haas            +     0.312
 3.  Jimmy Vasser        PKV                    +     3.604
 4.  Mario Dominguez     Forsythe Championship  +     7.169
 5.  Rodolfo Lavin       HVM, Inc.              +     7.538
 6.  Bjorn Wirdheim      HVM, Inc.              +     7.555
 7.  Alex Tagliani       Team Australia         +     8.162
 8.  Timo Glock          Rocketsports           +    1 lap
 9.  Marcus Marshall     Team Australia         +    1 lap
10.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    Rocketsports           +    1 lap
11.  Justin Wilson       RuSPORT                +    2 laps
12.  Cristiano da Matta  PKV                    +    2 laps
13.  A.J. Allmendinger   RuSPORT                +    3 laps
14.  Andrew Ranger       Mi-Jack Conquest       +    4 laps
15.  Ricardo Sperafico   Dale Coyne             +    5 laps

RETIREMENTS:

     Driver              Team                   On Lap
     Nelson Philippe     Mi-Jack Conquest        127
     Paul Tracy          Forsythe Championship   123
     Ronnie Bremer       Dale Coyne               41

Fastest lap: Bourdais, 26.336 on lap 166
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