De Ferran takes pole in Houston

Championship leader Gil de Ferran added one more point to his tally by taking his fourth pole of the year in Houston on Saturday. De Ferran will start from the front row for the eighth time this year on Sunday as he attempts to build his point cushion over Roberto Moreno, Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy

De Ferran takes pole in Houston

The 32-year old de Ferran improved by almost a full second from Friday to beat Dario Franchitti to pole by just under one-tenth of a second.

"It was a pretty exciting qualifying session," de Ferran said. "I managed one clear run of two laps on my first set of tyres. I pushed a little harder and did a 58.7. The car was not that bad and I came in and sat and waited for the last ten minutes when the track was at its best. It was a very tense time. At any moment I was expecting Roger to call on the radio to say I was P2 or P3.

"When I finally went out for my final run on my second set of tyres I got traffic a bit from Patrick (Carpentier). I lost the best of my tyres and wasn't able to improve on the time I did on my second set. But I've got a good car for the race. I'm pretty happy for tomorrow."

Team boss Roger Penske was delighted with de Ferran's run to the pole. "He does a great job, doesn't he?" Penske observed. "He doesn't say a lot but he knows what he's doing. He's great with the team."

With three races to go, de Ferran leads Moreno by nine points and Andretti by eleven. How does he look at the championship battle? "As Dario says, last year he was twenty-nine points behind Montoya when he came here and he left Australia in the lead," de Ferran said.

"There are seven or eight guys still in contention for the championship. You can certainly overcomplicate things and think too much about strategy, but you've got to simplify and just drive normal," he added.

Franchitti beat Jimmy Vasser to the outside of the front row by the most slender of margins, just 0.001 of a second. This will be the fifth time Dario has started on the front row this year and the sixth straight round where the Scot has qualified in the top four.

"I didn't have a great qualifying car," Franchitti said. "I had to get very close to the wall and was driving over the limit of the car. I had to drag it 'round. But I think I have a very good car for the race. I think I can give these guys a hard time tomorrow."

Franchitti had to serve an eight-minute penalty at the end of the session after causing a red flag in Friday's qualifying session. "We knew we had limited time and I spent most of it in traffic, trying to get a clear lap. The good thing is with the harder tyres we have this year you can do more laps and still get the best out of them," he said.

Jimmy Vasser produced his best qualifying performance at a road or street circuit since Long Beach in April despite crashing at the start of Saturday's final qualifying session. Vasser was third fastest in his spare car after a brake problem resulted in him hitting the wall on his first hot lap.

"We had changed the rotors and pads," said Vasser, "but there must have been something wrong with the system because the left front was locking up and when I did my first hot lap the left front locked up bad and it wouldn't turn. I thought I'd blown it big-time."

Vasser had to run back to the pits and jump into his spare car which he had only driven for a few shake-down laps on Friday. "The guys did a great job. They got the back-up car ready and in the pitlane right away and it was perfect. That's the difference between a championship team and any other team," he said.

Helio Castroneves was fourth fastest, 0.002s behind Vasser. Castroneves was caught in traffic at the end of the session, and believes he can win on Sunday. "I started on the second row in Detroit and won the race, so tomorrow we'll just go for it," said the young Brazilian.

Championship contender Michael Andretti qualified fifth, improving by five places from Friday. This is Andretti's best qualifying run in four races and he believes he can race to victory on Sunday.

"Starting fifth is nice, we can do what the leaders are doing as far as pit strategy," Michael said. "The car is good on used tyres which will be good for the race. I think we have a car to fight with and that's what we need to do now for the championship - fight!"

Juan Montoya qualified sixth within a tenth of a second of Andretti and just over 0.2s slower than poleman de Ferran. "I'm really pretty happy with the car," Montoya said. "We are not in bad shape for the race. It's always easier from the front row but I've got a good car and I think we will have a good race tomorrow."

Christian Fittipaldi and rookie Alex Tagliani qualified seventh and eighth with championship contender Paul Tracy ninth, less than half a second slower than de Ferran.

"I just didn't get all the sections right," Tracy said. "It's a little disappointing, but we're not that far back and overall the car is pretty good. I think we're quicker than we showed. I've just gotta survive, stay on the track. We've just got to have good pit strategy, good fuel mileage and stay out of the run-off area."

An impressive performance came from Tarso Marques who qualified Dale Coyne's Swift-Ford eleventh, just over half a second slower than pacesetter de Ferran. This was Marques's best qualifying run of the year by far. Marques spun and clipped the wall after his hot lap but hopes for a strong run tomorrow. "The car was always sliding, on my fast lap and on the lap I hit the wall," Marques said. "I was trying very hard."

Championship contender Roberto Moreno qualified fourteenth in his first visit to Houston. Moreno was within 0.9s of de Ferran. "The car is good," Moreno said. "We've got it figured out I think, and we should be good in the race. We'll need some luck with the yellows and good pitstop strategy."

G de Ferran Penske Honda Reynard 58m757s
D Franchitti Team Kool Green Honda Reynard 58m843s
J Vasser Ganassi Racing Toyota Lola 58m844s
H Castroneves Honda Reynard 58m846s
M Andretti Ford Lola 58m909s
J Montoya Toyota Lola 58m961s
C Fittipaldi Ford Lola Firestone 59m131s
A Tagliani Ford Reynard 59m150s
P Tracy Honda Reynard 59m223s
T Kanaan Mercedes Reynard 59m228s

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