Qualifying: Papis takes surprise pole

After qualifying outside the top 10 in every race so far this year, Max Papis produced a major surprise by taking the pole at Portland in one of Team Rahal's Lola-Fords. Papis has struggled at most races this year and rumours have circulated that he will be replaced next year, but he showed his stuff in style at Portland.

Qualifying: Papis takes surprise pole

The 31-year-old Italian turned the second quickest lap in this morning's practice session then took the pole despite running in the traditionally slower first group. CART splits its road course qualifying sessions into two groups with the slower half of the field running first. With more rubber down, the second session for the faster half of the field is usually substantially quicker, but Papis was helped by cloud cover during his session before the sun broke through for the second group.

"I'm the same person who qualified 24th in Detroit," grinned an elated Papis. "Today was great! The goal was to be fastest of my group and to be in the top 10. I didn't care if my time held up. I won my race by being fastest in my group. I achieved my goal. To come out of all the trouble we've had shows the tremendous ability of our team."

This is only the second pole of Papis's career, his first coming at the inaugural Chicago race in 1999. He says he key to this weekend's turnaround has been finding the right glue for all the changes at Team Rahal last winter.

"We changed a lot of things in this team," Papis said. "We changed chassis, had a new damper programme, a new engineer for my car, and a new team manager. There was a lot of shaking up and in the first part of the year I always had a lot of understeer in my car and not enough grip. I couldn't get a good feeling out of the car, but this weekend my car is feeling really good."

Although the Honda drivers have complained all weekend of being down on power and straightaway speed, Max had no such complaints about his Ford/Cosworth engine, which suffers from the same new power-reducing 'pop-off' valve. "I'm really proud of what Ford had been doing since the beginning of the season," Papis said. "They've been working on the whole range, not just the top end and on the fuel mileage. Honda gets a lot of credit for having power and good fuel mileage, but Ford is doing just as good a job.

"We have a great relationship with Ford, not just on the engine, but on the chassis as well. They are the best possible partner for us."

Immediately after taking the pole Papis called team boss Bobby Rahal in Germany. "I think we woke Bobby up," Papis grinned. "He said he was very proud of me."

Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves qualified second and third so that three different teams and engines took the top three places. Da Matta has been quick all weekend in one of Newman/Haas's Lola-Toyotas and is confident of being able to race to win.

"I've been very happy with my car all weekend," da Matta said. "We tried many different things all weekend and I think we are very prepared for the race. We'll see what the weather brings tomorrow and make our decision on set-up."

The forecast for Sunday is for occasional thunder storms or showers, rated at 60 percent possibility, with temperatures in the mid 60s (F).

Da Matta won the season-opener in Mexico and finished a close second to Castroneves at Long Beach, but hasn't had any results to speak of since then. Da Matta says this has just been a result of bad circumstances rather than a lack of speed. "The performance has been there all the time," Cristiano said. "We just couldn't get it right at the right time."

Castroneves was unable to repeat his pace-setting performance from Friday and Saturday morning despite seriously locking-up wheels under braking for the Festival chicane. Helio also had to face an eight-minute penalty, sitting out the start of the session after causing a red flag during the final qualifying session in Detroit. Castroneves said he didn't get his car set-up correctly for today's final qualifying.

"I was trying pretty hard," Castroneves said. "I was two-tenths faster through the Festival curves but my car wasn't quite right in the high-speed turns. This morning we were very fast through the high-speed corners, but in qualifying I had to work very hard there and unfortunately we were very weak on the straightaway so there was nothing we could do. Just like yesterday, we're five mph slower than the other guys on the straightaway which makes it tough."

Team mate Gil de Ferran, winner of this race the past two years, was more than half a second slower and a dozen places further down the field. This is six places further back than de Ferran has ever started at Portland.

Rookie Scott Dixon qualified an impressive fourth fastest. This is Indy Lights champion Dixon's best qualifying run to date, and only the second time he's qualified in the top 10 this year.

Dario Franchitti improved steadily to qualify fifth, fastest by far of the three Green Reynard-Hondas. Team mates Paul Tracy and Michael Andretti qualified thirteenth and sixteenth.

Looking good again in qualifying was rookie Bruno Junqueira who qualified sixth, less than three-tenths of a second away from poleman Papis. Junqueira's new team mate Memo Gidley was a full second slower, qualifying 25th ahead of only Alex Zanardi. This was Zanardi's worst showing in a thus far dispiriting return to Champ Cars. "Things can't get any worse," Zanardi said. "Obviously, we have some serious problems with the car."

Also in trouble in qualifying was Papis's team mate Kenny Brack as the fortunes of Rahal's drivers took opposite turns. Championship leader Brack was this year's most consistently competitive driver until Detroit last weekend when he qualified 10th and finished ninth. Brack was fourth fastest on Friday in Portland but was in trouble with a failed exhaust system during Saturday's final qualifying. Brack had to pull off with an engine fire and was unable to get back to the pits to drive his spare car so he will start Sunday's race from 22nd.

For full qualifying results, click here.

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