Mid-Ohio preview: on the road again

After two consecutive oval races, the CART championship hits the Mid-Ohio circuit - the first permanent road course on the schedule since Portland back in June.

Mid-Ohio preview: on the road again

The implications this has for the title are many, and one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory could be set to take another turn.

The two drivers on the move in the last few races have been PPI's Christiano da Matta and Newman-Haas star Michael Andretti. The American has scored 76 points in the last five races, to move himself into a strong championship lead. Da Matta on the other hand won PPI's first race at Chicago two weeks ago, and has moved into fourth place in the standings, with 57 points scored since Portland.

However, question marks over Andretti's Lola chassis and da Matta's Toyota engine mean that the pendulum could swing back against them - neither Lola nor Toyota has won a road course race this year, and championship hopefuls such as Dario Franchitti and Gil de Ferran will be desperate to capitalise.

Though seeming to spring from nowhere, da Matta has been scoring consistently in the last sequence of races. The Brazilian finished in the top five in four of the last five races, which includes a victory and a third place. The Toyota powerplant now appears to be a match for the best powerplants in CART, at least on the ovals, and The PPI team is fired up after its first win in four years of trying.

"We've won three in a row on the ovals," said Jim Aust, Toyota's motorsport vice-president. "Now it's time to get that first road course victory. Our teams are really coming together and all five cars are capable of running in the top 10."

Toyota is second behind Ford in the manufacturer's points, but has in fact led most laps - 824 this season so far. The next highest manufacturer is Ford, with 576 laps lead, followed by Honda on 428 laps and Mercedes-Benz - manufacturer champions three short years ago, but now having led only 46 laps from 12 races.

Toyota has undoubtedly been at its best on the ovals, with 120 points scored on 'left-hand-only' tracks, as opposed to 67 on road/street tracks. Toyota powered cars have performed well at non-oval tracks, with Ganassi's Juan Montoya storming into an unassailable lead at Detroit before mechanical failure intervened. The manufacturer will have to have cured the early driveability shortfall if the cars of those such as Montoya and da Matta are to work around Mid Ohio.

The main mover in the last few races, though, has been Andretti. The Lola-Ford driver took the championship lead at Toronto and has stretched it ever since. The American has been the only driver to score consistently for much of the season, and could begin to make a break at Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course. He has scored most of his 120 points on oval courses, but still has the second highest points tally on road or street courses with 44. Only Helio Castroneves beats this with 45 scored on non-oval tracks.

However, there are still question marks over the ability of the Lola chassis on fast road courses; the English built cars have performed well on street tracks and ovals, but have struggled on the faster road courses such as Portland and Cleveland. This may also stymie Juan Montoya's challenge. The Colombian won here last year, but totalled a Lola chassis in the Elkhart Lake test which suggests that he is less than comfortable on the sort of track where previously he could be expected to excel.

If anyone is to challenge Andretti it may well be the Penske drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. Team Penske impressed onlookers in the CART test at Elkhart Lake last week, leading to speculation that the century-winning team could be dominant at all road courses on the rest of the CART calendar starting this weekend. Castroneves' startling road course record would seem to bear this out.

"You know those weekends where Penske just dominates, where they're just killing everybody? Sometimes, they make it look easy, and it looks like we could see it again at Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake," suggested a member of a top Champ Car outfit, according to CART.com.

Helio Castroneves set a time of 1m40.80 which eclipsed his team mate, one place behind him, by nearly a second.

However, beating the Penske cars at the Elkhart Lake test was Team KOOL Green's Dario Franchitti. But trackside sources suggest that the Scot was running on Firestone development rubber and not the designated rubber for the track. In addition, Franchitti set his time in cool conditions and after two days of rubber had been laid down.

"This was a good test," said Franchitti. "Although we unloaded with a good basic set-up on Wednesday, the car was unsettled on the bumpy parts of the track. Overnight, (race engineer) Steve Challis worked on some different settings and on Thursday the KOOL Honda/Reynard was much better - and it showed."

Times were as follows:
Dario Franchitti (Reynard) - 1m40.67
Helio Castroneves (Reynard) - 1m40.80
Gil de Ferran (Reynard) - 1m41.70
Michael Andretti (Lola) - 1m41.80
Christian Fittipaldi (Lola) - 1m42.10
Alex Tagliani (Reynard) - 1m42.10
Shinji Nakano (Reynard) - 1m43.30

The Green cars of Franchitti and Tracy run the same package as Penske, and can be expected to fight them every inch of the way. Franchitti has taken pole for the last two Mid-Ohio races, and believes he has a good set-up for the race. Franchitti desperately needs a good result to lift his season, and the two following races, Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake are races where he has performed exceptionally in the past, and the Reynard-Honda package continues to work as well as ever on all tracks.

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