First qualifying: Gil rides the wave at Surfers

FedEx CART Championship leader Gil de Ferran showed that his declaration in Houston two weeks ago that he was going to "push from the word go and try to drive from the front," was no idle threat after first qualifying at Surfers' Paradise.

First qualifying: Gil rides the wave at Surfers

De Ferran added that he intended, "to attack in Australia," and he did that in Friday's opening session. The 32- year-old Brazilian took the provisional pole by more than half a second, handily outpacing Ganassi team mates Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser.

De Ferran has qualified on the front row in his Penske Reynard-Honda in four of the last six races. If he takes the pole on Saturday, that string will extend to five in the last seven races and become his fifth pole of the year, one less than only Montoya.

"The car is handling really well," de Ferran said. "I really couldn't be much happier. But today is only Friday. We're taking nothing for granted. I'm sure everybody's going to try to improve tomorrow. I had a lot of wheelspin on my first set of tyres but the team made a very small change and I picked-up a little traction on the second set."

The morning's opening practice saw some rain, although the afternoon's qualifying session was sunny and warm. More rain is predicted for Saturday morning, but the weather should be fine again for the afternoon's final qualfying. "If it rains, it won't be a bad thing for me," de Ferran grinned. "It would be one more point in the championship."

De Ferran appears as steady as ever so far this weekend. The pressure of fighting for the championship seems no to be affecting him at all.

As de Ferran goes for the championship, Ganassi team mates Montoya and Vasser led the list of spoilers capable of stealing valuable championship points from the top four or five championship contenders. Montoya and Vasser were second and third on Friday, with Montoya beating his team mate by a little more than a third of a second.

"I tried a bit too hard on my first set of tyres," Montoya said. "I said, 'Let's be cool and think about it.' On my second set I was going better, but there was a red flag at the end of the session and I didn't get the chance to finish my next lap. But the car is handling better and better and there's more potential in it. The car seems to be really competitive and being fast in qualifying I expect to have a super car in the race."

Houston winner Vasser topped the time sheet for much of Friday's qualifying session, but like Montoya he wasn't able to turn in the best possible lap on his second set of tyres because of a late red flag caused by Michael Andretti crashing.

"We've got the same platform as we had at Houston," Vasser said. "The car is pretty good. We did a good time on the first set of tyres but didn't on the second set. We were jockeying for position and I came up to Helio (Castroneves) and backed off to get a good run. Then the red came out."

Vasser said he's confident his car will be even quicker tomorrow. "If it rains, we'll have to make some changes," he said. "If it doesn't rain I think you'll see us in the 31s tomorrow."

Vasser also said he enjoyed his test last week in one of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR stock cars, and is taking a serious look at NASCAR for next year.

"The test went well," he said. "We went quick and made the car better. They want me to do it, but it's a tough decision. But right now, I don't have any options in CART. There's a lot of talk, but nothing has happened yet. I may be forced to do it."

Championship contender Michael Andretti was fourth on Friday, despite running wide and hitting the wall near the end of the qualifying session.

"We were three-tenths of a second quicker in turns one and two and then I went off and it didn't count," Andretti said. "I locked the rear brakes and missed the turn. I think I could have been second quickest, but being fastest would have been tough."

Fifth fastest was Tony Kanaan, who was quickest Mercedes driver by more than a full second. "I'd say I had the closest thing to the perfect lap that we could get," Kanaan said. "We were right at the edge all the way around the track. On the next lap I tried to brake even deeper into one of the chicanes and just plain missed it."

Dario Franchitti qualified sixth on Friday, complaining about a lack of traction. "We've got to work on it for tomorrow," Franchitti said, "but I think we have the potential to challenge for the pole."

Team mate Paul Tracy was eighth behind Christian Fittipaldi. Tracy went down an escape road and stalled with about 12 minutes left in the session. That brought out a red flag and meant Tracy had to serve an eight-minute penalty so that he never got to make a final run on his second set of tyres.

"Dario held me up on my quick lap," Tracy said. "Then I went out for my second run and locked up. I went into the run-off area and stalled and that brought out the red flag. We went out again with about two minutes to go, but it went red again as soon as I left my pitbox."

Two championship contenders who had even worse days than Tracy were Patrick team mates Roberto Moreno and Adrian Fernandez. Moreno is third in championship points, but struggled with his car's handling all day Friday and qualified 19th. Fernandez lost time with an electrical fault and finished the day 15th, more than two seconds slower than pace setter de Ferran.

To read Autosport.com's Q&A with Gil de Ferran, click here.

1, Gil De Ferran (Penske), 1m32.057s
2, Juan Montoya (Ganassi), 1m32.685s
3, Jimmy Vasser (Ganassi), 1m33.052s
4, Michael Andretti (Newman-Haas), 1m33.123s
5, Tony Kanaan (Mo Nunn), 1m33.165s
6, Dario Franchitti (Green), 1m33.380s
7, Christian Fittipaldi (Newman-Haas), 1m33.490s
8, Paul Tracy (Green), 1m33.572s
9, Cristiano da Matta (PPI), 1m33.761s
10, Patrick Carpentier (Forsythe), 1m33.798s
11, Kenny Brack (Rahal), 1m33.856s
12, Max Papis (Rahal), 1m34.132s
13, Michel Jourdain Jr (Bettenhausen), 1m34.282s
14, Helio Castroneves (Penske), 1m34.295s
15, Adrian Fernandez (Patrick), 1m34.333s
16, Mauricio Gugelmin (PacWest), 1m34.514s
17, Alex Barron (Coyne), 1m34.558s
18, Shinji Nakano (Walker Racing), 1m34.972s
19, Roberto Moreno (Patrick), 1m34.992s
20, Oriol Servia (PPI Motorsports), 1m35.101s
21, Mark Blundell (PacWest), 1m35.399s
22, Alex Tagliani (Forsythe), 1m35.436s
23, Tarso Marques (Coyne), 1m35.668s
24, Luiz Garcia Jr (Fast Racing), 1m38.689s
25, Jason Bright (Della Penna), 1m38.768s

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