Japan: Andretti wins, Franchitti second

Most of the way on the high-banked Motegi oval in Japan, it looked as if Juan Pablo Montoya had everything in control, but a problem on Montoya's final pitstop enabled Michael Andretti to score his first win of the year.

Japan: Andretti wins, Franchitti second

Montoya dominated the first 175 of the 201 laps at Motegi with teammate Jimmy Vasser the only man able to offer a serious challenge. Vasser blew an engine just past half distance however, leaving Montoya on his own until the young Colombian hit trouble in his final pitstop. The electronic control line for Montoya's pop-off valve was inadvertantly torn off by his fuel vent man and Montoya had to come back into the pits for a quick fix. The additional stop dropped Montoya to the tail of the restart line and elevated Michael Andretti to the lead.

The final sprint to the finish came with just five laps to go and Andretti had to hold off a determined attack from Dario Franchitti who enjoyed his best race so far this year to finish just half a second behind. It was a day of resurgence therefore for Andretti and Franchitti, neither of whom has had much good luck until now.

Championship favourites going into the season, both had their problems in the first three races and appeared to be out of the title reckoning but Japan might turn out to be the beginning of a turnaround for both men.

Montoya took his first pole of the year at Motegi and led away from the start chased by Kenny Brack, Andretti and Vasser. So it went through the first round of pitstops with Montoya in command. He continued to lead after everyone had stopped with Vasser emerging in second from Andretti and Roberto Moreno while Brack fell to sixth thanks to a slow stop.

Through the next ninety laps it was all Montoya and Vasser with Andretti the only man to keep them in sight. Both of Chip Ganassi's pair of Lola-Toyotas were in cruise mode with their fuel mixtures on full lean and for most of the way it looked as if Toyota was about to score a mighty first triumph at home in Japan, and at a Honda owned track to boot. It started to go wrong just before the third round of fuelstops however when Vasser's engine blew in a big way.

"I was just cruising," Vasser said. "The car was great and we had the fuel mixture turned down. I was able to maintain my position without any trouble and then I felt a big vibration and that was it. We had a great shot at a one-two finish today, but they knew the red cars were here today."

Vasser's demise left Montoya on his own, about a third of a lap clear of Andretti, but it all went wrong for Juan Pablo on his fourth and final stop. The electronic control line to his pop-off valve was knocked out of position as Montoya's fuel vent man completed his job and Juan Pablo had to come back into the pits for the electrical line to be re-connected. Fortunately, this happened under the yellow, so that only a small amount of time was lost, but the extra stop dropped Montoya to the back of the restart line in seventh place.

"It's too bad because we were in great shape," Montoya remarked. "I lost my radio at the start and had to give the guys hand signals, but that wasn't a problem. We got great fuel mileage and I was just cruising. But our time is coming. We're going to get that first win for Toyota this year and win some more races after that. There's no doubt it's going to happen."

Montoya's troubles meant the frequently luckless Andretti took the lead with Franchitti breathing down his neck. Andretti had run with the leaders all the way while Franchitti moved through the field steadily from a lowly starting position. Franchitti came close to being lapped by Montoya a couple of times in the early stages only to be saved by a yellow flag, but rapid pitstops and steady improvements to his car's handling during each stop helped the Scot work his way into the hunt. At the end, Franchitti was hard on Andretti's tail, looking for a way by on a couple of occasions, but not quite able to get close enough to strike.

"That first oval win still eludes me," Franchitti said. "We really struggled in qualifying. I was very disappointed with where we qualified but we knew we had a good race car. I was very quick on new tyres when they were cold, but I made a mistake on the last restart when I tried to go high around Michael. He's a pretty difficult guy to pass, but it's nice to be up here. I forgot what the press room looked like!"

Franchitti freely admits that his pre-season testing accident at Homestead in February set him back, but believes he's now ready to attack the rest of the season.

"It's a relief to get on the podium," he said. "I've had a difficult start to the season, and it's nice to be finally on the pace. With the accident I lost a lot of testing time. It's nice to feel comfortable in the car. It takes a lot of seat time and I haven't been getting it. I haven't done any testing, but we'll be testing at Milwaukee next week and I think we're finally back into the swing of things."

Andretti was equally relieved to score his first points of the season and become CART's fourth different winner in four races.

"The race went really smooth for us," Michael said. "The Ganassi cars were pretty tough. I don't know if we would have had anything for them, but for once, luck went our way. We could have been up here a few times this year, but we've just had a lot of bad luck. "The season is far from over," Andretti added. "We have a long way to go. We have sixteen races to go, so there are a lot of points out there to get. It just feels really good to break the ice and get back up here. This was one of those days when everything worked perfect."

Roberto Moreno drove another good race to finish third, just over two seconds behind Andretti and Franchitti. Moreno has finished all four races so far and is currently tied with Jimmy Vasser for second in the championship.

"My crew made up a lot of time in the pits," Moreno commented. "They did a fantastic job and I think I learned a lot on the restart from Michael who's the master."

Also turning in another good performance was Cristiano da Matta who duplicated his finish in Brazil two weeks by finishing fourth. Da Matta was in the hunt all the way and has emerged equal fourth in points with Homestead winner Max Papis. Fifth went to Kenny Brack who started from the front row but lost time in the pits and also fought a tail-happy car after his weight jacker broke.

Championship leader Paul Tracy consolidated his position at the head of the points table with a persistent drive to sixth place. "The car was really nervous," Tracy said. "It was sliding a lot and I couldn't drive it up underneath anyone, but considering where we started sixth place is a fantastic result. We had some great pitstops which really helped me get closer to the front. It was a tough day, but all in all, I'm pretty happy."

Montoya made it home in seventh place, hard on Tracy's tail. "At the end I thought about trying to make a move on Tracy," Juan Pablo remarked, "but I decided it was best to get some points rather than risk crashing."

Next is the postponed Nazareth race from last month where Montoya will start from the pole. He and Vasser will be busy at Indianapolis the following day where they will be the first CART drivers to start the 500 since 1995. They'll be busy practising and qualifying at Indianapolis this week and will be trying once again at Nazareth to score that elusive first Champ car win for Toyota. Based on their form in Japan, their chances look good, but the competition remains deep and strong.

1 Michael Andretti, Newman Haas, 201 laps
2 Dario Franchitti, Team Green
3 Roberto Moreno, Patrick
4 Cristiano de Matta, Arciero
5 Kenny Brack, Rahal
6 Paul Tracy, Team Green
7 Juan Montoya, Ganassi
8 Max Papis, Rahal
9 Gil de Ferran, Penske
10 Adrian Fernandez, Patrick
11 Christian Fittipaldi, Newman Haas
12 Michel Jourdain Jr, Bettenhausen

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