GK on Cleveland
To Cleveland then, in many ways the best of CART's 20 Champ car races. The track is fast, wide and bumpy - quite agricultural in fact - as it rolls from runway to runway across the otherwise fully active Burke Lakefront Airport. Cleveland's downtown airport for private planes faces Lake Erie, looking north towards Canada. The airfield closes on Friday morning of race weekend and re-opens on Sunday evening, producing the only road circuit I know where you can see the entire track from most grandstand seats
The spectacular view of the 130mph course is complimented by the fact that there is so much room for passing. There are at least two or three places - sweeping turns all - that are ideal for inside or outside moves and the first turn is usually a feast in itself. There's more than enough room across the wide runway for three or four cars to run side by side and there are plenty of different trajectories worth trying to get the best possible run up through the gears on the drag race that follows. Down at the far end of the track a fearsomely fast and bumpy series of right-handers bring the cars onto the frontstraight. They are spectacular to watch through there and again, there's plenty of room to race across the uneven pavement.
So there it is - wide, open and fast, a great racing track. Cleveland is the opposite of most other temporary circuits run in the much more constraining setting of city streets. It's a little like Silverstone 30 years ago. Slightly dowdy in presentation, but a classic high-speed airport circuit with room to race and pass, and even better spectating.
Last year's race in Cleveland was won by Roberto Moreno who was the man to beat all weekend, qualifying on the pole and leading all the way, save pitstops. Kenny Brack drove a great race from 15th on the grid to finish second, chasing Moreno across the line by less than a second. Cristiano da Matta was third from Michael Andretti, Patrick Carpentier and Juan Montoya, who qualified and finished sixth. That was all Montoya could do 12 months ago against the same Champ Car stars who are running up front again this year. Juan Pablo is a rare and special talent to be sure, but anybody who doesn't seriously rate the speed, skill and racecraft of guys like Moreno, Brack, da Matta, Andretti and Carpentier isn't living in the real world. Any one of them would do a fine job in a Formula 1 car.
After a great start to the season, Brack has lost some momentum with two poor races in a row. He was ninth in Detroit two weeks ago and 11th in Portland last weekend so that Kenny's championship lead has dwindled to seven points over Helio Castroneves, who won from the pole in Detroit but dropped it on the opening lap in the rain at Portland. Helio is plenty fast, as quick as Montoya some believe, but he still needs seasoning, a little more maturity. With that, and with Penske's extremely Penske-ised Reynards and Honda engines Castroneves should be the man to beat this year - although Brack will have none of that. The 35-year old Swede is at the top of his game and has helped galvanise Bobby Rahal's Lola-Ford team into a winning package, further witnessed by Max Papis's surprisingly dominant victory in very difficult conditions in Portland last Sunday.
Papis's win emphasised Champ car racing's utter unpredictability. He was this year's fifth different winner from seven races, and the fact that he finished 11th after qualifying 24th in Detroit the previous weekend should give any Champ Car driver confidence that he too can go from, "zero to hero". Of course, it can also go the other way, and Max knows that as much he was king of the day in Portland he's got to prove it all over again this weekend.
As far as the championship is concerned it looks like a Brack-Castroneves contest, but there are plenty of others who could knock their seasons into title-contending shape, particularly if Brack or Castroneves falter as both have shown themselves capable of doing. Michael Andretti sits third in points at this stage, more by stealth than speed, but he must not be underestimated. Remember, this is Michael's first year in Barry Green's expanded three-car team. The combination has made a very good if unspectacular start and should only get better as the year wears on.
Lurking fourth and fifth in points are Newman/Haas's Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi. Da Matta has been completely out of luck in the past three races and needs to rebound while Fittipaldi drove a great race in Portland, showing a true racer's flair. Next in points is Dario Franchitti who got his first podium, an excellent second in Detroit, then survived a couple of misadventures for sixth in Portland. Dario is knocking on the door and a few good races would propel him into the championship equation.
Leading rookie Scott Dixon is seventh in points and keeps showing that he's the real thing, fast: cool, and mature, three weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday. It's difficult imagining the young Kiwi as a championship contender but I'm sure he's going to be on the podium again this year.
Defending champion Gil de Ferran is eighth in points right now, tied with Dixon, and has been overshadowed to this point by his younger, more charismatic team mate. Gil had a dismal time in Portland and obviously hopes to bounce back in Cleveland where he's enjoyed considerable success in the past, winning in 1996, finishing second in 1998 and '99, taking the pole in '95 and qualifying second the last three years.
Sharing ninth in points are Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vasser who are just two points ahead of Portland winner Papis and last year's Cleveland winner Moreno. Each of these four have shown some strengths, but revealed weaknesses too. The next two or three races are critical to this group if any of them is to have a serious impact on the season.
Of the rookies other than Dixon, Bruno Junqueira looks like being Dixon's most serious rival. Junqueira has qualified well and ran well in many races. He's clearly a smart, confident young man and with a little luck he will at least make the podium a few times this year. Max Wilson has also impressed, particularly at Portland last weekend, while Oriol Servia, although not a rookie, has also shown a lot of speed.
And of course, everyone who knows Memo Gidley is pulling for him to make his mark with Chip Ganassi's team. Memo is an extremely good man and I believe a seriously underrated driver by the world outside Champ cars. Gidley had a true baptism by fire last weekend, but with one shortened race weekend under his belt, the sweeping runways of Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport should provide a much better opportunity for the 30-year old Californian to show his stuff.
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