Qualifying: Gugelmin takes shock pole

Mauricio Gugelmin didn't apologise for winning pole position for Sunday's Champ Car race at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. But he admitted that unusual circumstances played a big helping hand in winning the pole over Adrian Fernandez and Max Wilson

Qualifying: Gugelmin takes shock pole

For years, CART's split qualifying sessions at road racing events have been a point of contention among drivers and teams. The inevitable finally happened on Saturday afternoon at Cleveland as rain began falling two minutes before the second (and theoretically faster) qualifying group took to the track.

When the rain persisted, it guaranteed a surprise pole position for Gugelmin, who was the fastest man in the first group. Gugelmin and his group enjoyed the best track conditions of the Cleveland weekend, with plenty of cloud cover and cooler temperatures. That definitely wasn't the case as the second group took to a wet track to essentially fight for 14th place.

"We'll take them any way we can get them," said Gugelmin, whose last pole came in the 1997 season finale at California Speedway, when he turned a then-record lap of 240.942 mph. "I think my lap (57.356 seconds, 132.185 mph) was pretty decent. It would have taken a big effort on someone's part to beat it.

"But we need to come up with a system that's more equal for everyone," he continued. "We've been looking up and down trying to find some way to put everyone on the track at the same time for qualifying. If it means parking a guy because he causes a red flag, so be it. But this is the second week in a row that the first group had an advantage, and this week it was huge."

Despite being the beneficiary on this day, Gugelmin stressed the need for CART to provide a level playing field for everyone.

"There's another series, Formula 1, that doesn't have a problem running all the cars at one time," he said. "Being in the slow group is even more of a disadvantage than it seems, because in our series, the track tends to get better and better as the weekend goes on, especially on the temporary circuits. I've said before that getting out of the slow group is almost harder than winning a race."

In the past, Saturday's rain would not have posed as much of a problem. But this year, CART changed the race weekend format, eliminating Friday afternoon provisional qualifying at road course venues in favour of an extended practice. The groups are determined by championship standings.

At Cleveland, the track dried enough that the second group was able to venture out on slicks. Dario Franchitti got down to a 59.8 before the heavens opened for real and action was stopped due to lightning. The second group got one more chance, because they had not received their guaranteed 20 minutes of green flag track time. But the track was still soaked for the last six minutes of running they were granted.

Franchitti, therefore, won the battle to line up 14th, alongside Alex Zanardi, who was slowest in the first group with a 58.566s.

"We made the best of a bad deal there," noted the Scot. "People complain about being in the slow group, but today being in the slow group was an advantage. So you can see that it does even out a bit."

"I don't feel bad for those guys at the back," commented Fernandez, who achieved his best qualifying result since forming his own team this year. "I've qualified at the back when I knew I had a better car than that for qualifying. I'm sure it's frustrating for them because of the circumstances. But I'm happy that this happened because maybe the system will change for the better to make it more fair for everyone."

Wilson backed up his run to fourth place in the rain last week at Portland by outperforming 10 of the 13 drivers in his group to line up a CART-career best third.

"The Arciero-Blair guys are working very hard," Wilson said. "Last weekend we got our first points, and that was very important for us. We struggled before with the engine and some bad luck, but since we changed to the Ford-Cosworth package, things have turned our way and we had a great result at Portland.

"We were lucky because it was wet for the second group, but I think my time (57.892 seconds) would have been good enough to be in the top 10 or 12."

Bryan Herta qualified a season-best fourth, just ahead of Memo Gidley, on board for his second race with Ganassi Racing.

The big names were packed in the second half of the field, with series leader Kenny Brack 17th, Cristiano da Matta 19th, Gil de Ferran 20th, Michael Andretti 21st, and Helio Castroneves 23rd. Paul Tracy will start 26th and last.

"There is nothing you can do about it," said Brack. "But the race should be interesting."

"It's really a shame because obviously qualifying isn't representative of any of this weekend's practice times," de Ferran added. "It's a real mess, but it could make for an interesting race with all of the fast guys from practice starting at the back of the field."

For full qualifying results, click here.

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