Qual 1: Carpentier flies

Patrick Carpentier dominated the opening day's action at Laguna Seca, setting the pace in free practice this morning and then topping provisional qualifying to lock out a front row starting spot for Sunday's race. The French-Canadian won at the hilly Californian road course last year and now has an excellent platform from which to repeat the feat - especially since overtaking opportunities are at a premium around Laguna and grid position is all-important

Qual 1: Carpentier flies

"It's fantastic - I love this track, especially in a Champ Car," said Carpentier, who has recently fuelled speculation that he is set to switch to the IRL IndyCar Series next year by telling the media that he has had attractive offers from IRL teams but "nothing special" on the Champ Car front.

In common with most of the other frontrunners - with the notable exception of Sebastien Bourdais - Carpentier elected to use one of his two sets of softer, 'alternate' tyres in Friday qualifying. Each driver has been allocated two sets of alternate (aka option) tyres for the weekend, at least one of which they must use in the race. Although Laguna Seca has a smooth surface by Champ Car standards, the high number of long-duration, medium/fast corners makes it quite abrasive and tyre management is likely to be one of the keys to success this weekend.

"My engineer made the call [to run on the alternate tyres]," said Carpentier. "I didn't want to do it... I said, 'I want to save them for the race' and he said, 'You know, you've got the car and this is your day, you've got to give it a shot.' So I said 'okay' and put them on and, man, they were sucking up the ground - they were great tyres."

Bourdais has been the unrivalled master of qualifying this year, but on this occasion the Newman/Haas star had to give best to Carpentier, who was the only man to dip beneath the 1m10s barrier with a 1m09.918s lap. For much of the session Bourdais was lying on the fringes of the top six, but he made a big improvement on his final run and vaulted to second on a 1m10.130s.

"I'm pretty happy," said the Frenchman. "We struggled here last year, but the McDonald's car suits my driving style better this year. We were trying to make the car good on entry and exit, which was impossible, so this year we are working more towards a compromise. We ran the regular Bridgestone tyres in qualifying today so we have two sets of alternate tyres for tomorrow, which should be an advantage."

Defending series champion Paul Tracy was third fastest in the second
Forsythe entry. He pronounced himself reasonably satisfied with his car's handling but admitted he left it too late to go out on his second set of tyres - whereupon he received a face full of sand from team-mate Carpentier, who had just gone for an off-course excursion at Turn 3!

"We were looking for a gap on the track because there was a lot of traffic out there, and we waited too long," said Tracy. "By the time I got my tyres up to temperature, I only had one lap to shoot for the pole. I let Pat get around me, and then he went off the track which threw dust and rocks on my car and all over my helmet. I couldn't see for the next few turns, so I wasn't able to improve my time before the session came to the end."

Yet another Canadian, Alex Tagliani, posted the fourth quickest time for Rocketsports Racing, marking a welcome turnaround from his form at this track last season when he qualified and finished a lowly 14th. Bruno Junqueira blamed both understeer and traffic after qualifying a slightly disappointing fifth, one place ahead of Montreal nearly-man Mario Dominguez.

AJ Allmendinger once again was top of the rookie class in seventh, having opted to save both sets of alternate tyres for the remainder of the weekend, while Brits Justin Wilson and Guy Smith were mired on the penultimate row.

Wilson had looked reasonably competitive in free practice, and was frustrated at being unable even to match his morning time during qualifying after some set-up changes to his Conquest Racing Lola over the lunch break proved counter-productive.

Smith claimed pole for the Laguna Seca Indy Lights race back in 1999, so for the first time in his young Champ Car career he has prior experience of the circuit. The Yorkshireman has a new engineer this weekend, Harvey Spencer, with whom he has worked in both Indy Lights and sportscars, but admits he is still struggling to adapt fully to the left-foot braking required to get the most out of the Champ Car.

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