Queensland carnage sets up showdown

By the end of the Honda Indy 300, the question on most people's lips was: "how the hell did that happen?"

Queensland carnage sets up showdown

With Gil de Ferran starting from the front row and basically only needing to outscore Paul Tracy by a handful of points to clinch his first CART title, the logical expectation was that the Brazilian would leave Australia as Penske's first champion since Al Unser Jr in 1994.

Alternatively... try this unlikely script: de Ferran, Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti all exiting stage right after a first corner pile-up, Paul Tracy leaving the field standing until a throttle problem intervened, Michael Andretti losing a likely victory thanks to a huge engine fire, Alex Barron fighting for the win in Dale Coyne's Lola and finally Adrian Fernandez coming through it all to win for Patrick Racing, despite having been way off the pace all weekend and only qualifying 17th.

The chaotic beginning to the race set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. De Ferran got a great start to challenge polesitter Montoya into the first chicane, but succeeding only in making contact with the Ganassi Lola, which then bounced back off the wall into de Ferran's Penske Reynard. Both were out, as was the habitually unlucky Dario Franchitti, caught up in the post-shunt shuffling further down the order.

Paul Tracy therefore found himself in the lead for Team KOOL Green. A win in Australia would have seen him usurp de Ferran at the head of the standings, and he made his intentions clear by storming away from the field at a rate of up to 2.5s per lap when the race went green again. Andretti ran third ahead of Ganassi's Jimmy Vasser and the second Newman-Haas Lola of Christian Fittipaldi, who had quickly snatched fourth from the fast-fading Tony Kanaan.

Then disaster struck for Tracy as his throttle jammed after just 11 laps. He brought the car to a safe halt and managed to return to the pits under the subsequent caution. Team Green reset the electrics to clear the fault and he rejoined, just as rapid but now down in 21st place.

Andretti now led but couldn't break away from Vasser and Fittipaldi. However, they maintained that order until pitting from lap 24. Vasser stayed out longer and emerged ahead of the Newman-Haas Lolas but found himself behind a whole crowd of cars who had pitted under the early full course yellows.

Team Rahal's Kenny Brack therefore led the race from Forsythe's Alex Tagliani and Alex Barron, the latter having a superbly competitive run in Dale Coyne Racing's Lola-Ford. Fernandez was among the early pitters and ran fourth, just ahead of the rapidly recovering Tracy. The Canadian had scythed his way past the tailenders and having taken fuel and tyres while his throttle problem was being rectified now had no reason to pit for another 10-15 laps.

Brack, still to win a CART race in his rookie season, held a comfortable 3.4s lead over Tagliani until the next round of pit stops. A good service by the Rahal crew got Brack out again fourth behind Vasser, Andretti and Fittipaldi, but Tagliani never got that far, running out of fuel on his 'in' lap.

Then a chaotic 40th lap resulted in the return of the pace car. First contact between Max Papis and Mark Blundell left the latter stranded on course, then both Shinji Nakano and the incredibly unfortunate Andretti stopped trackside with fiery engine failures. It was another cruel, cruel blow for Andretti, as he stood to gain significant ground in the title chase today.

The CART officials decided to get the field formed up behind the pace car before opening the pit lane, a decision that Vasser felt cost him a second consecutive race win. Everyone took advantage of the caution to pit for a final time, except Fernandez, Barron, Roberto Moreno, Papis and newcomer Jason Bright, the hometown hero making his graduation from Indy Lights in the Della Penna Reynard normally driven by Memo Gidley. This quintet moved into the top five positions, but they were all gambling on having plenty of yellows in the second half of the race to allow them to conserve fuel and save the need to pit for a third time.

Behind them, Brack and Tracy both dived into the pits for short top-up stops and emerged sixth and seventh, ahead of Fittipaldi, Vasser and Cristiano da Matta, the highest placed drivers on a 'conventional strategy.'

The next ten laps were a mess. As the CART officials prepared to wave the green flags, Moreno was caught out by his cold tyres and crashed exiting the final turn. As everyone jostled in avoidance, Bright was left with nowhere to go and slammed into Papis, ending his impressive Champ Car debut.

The second attempt to get things back underway proved messier still. Eager to get back into the lead fight, Tracy tried to pass both Rahal cars into the first corner, a move which ended with him on the grass and Papis in the wall. Oriol Servia then got involved, making up a handful of places by short-cutting a chicane and emerging ahead of Tracy. The CART rules demand that anyone gaining track position by taking such detours should immediately drop back behind any cars they had passed but Servia proved reluctant to do so. Tracy scrambled past with his own chicane-hopping move, only for Servia to retaliate with a desperate lunge that sent the Canadian crashing heavily into the wall.

When some semblance of order was finally restored, Fernandez quickly opened up a lead as Brack moved ahead of Barron by taking his own chicane short-cut. Luckily the Swede realised his error and let Barron make ahead, allowing the American to take a run at Fernandez. It was great to see an underdog combination like Barron and Dale Coyne Racing fighting for victory, as the team encouraged their young American driver to richen the fuel mixture and give it everything. Sadly, they would not even be rewarded with points, Barron striking mechanical trouble just five laps from the end of a race curtailed by the two-hour time limit for CART's street and road course events.

With Barron gone, Brack made a late charge for victory, hounding Fernandez all the way to the flag but falling short by just 0.3s. Jimmy Vasser completed the podium, but only after an incident with Fittipaldi that left the Newman-Haas driver out of the race.

A quiet day for da Matta resulted in fourth place, while Patrick Carpentier was fifth despite an early visit to the turn three escape road. Helio Castroneves fought back impressively to take sixth for Penske despite losing a lap mid-race after contact with Servia left the Reynard-Honda with a punctured tyre.

Michel Jourdain Jr took a strong seventh for Bettenhausen, ahead of 'works' Mercedes runner Kanaan, the latter falling back after a competitive early run. Servia slipped to ninth in the closing stages as his battered front wing began to fold up under his PPI Reynard, while both PacWest cars reached the flag this time, Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell right on Servia's tail by the end. Luiz Garcia Jr scored a rare point for Arciero PRG, while Tarso Marques was an unrepresentative 13th in the Swift after a series of pit lane penalties dropped him down the order.

Fernandez has therefore sneakily moved himself into contention for the championship, just five points behind de Ferran with only the Fontana finale remaining. Fernandez won that race last year, and is invariably strong on the superspeedways.

However, Kenny Brack and Paul Tracy are still in the hunt too, even though both really need to win with Fernandez and de Ferran out of the points. It may be a cliché, but anything can happen in a 500-mile race on the world's fastest circuit. After 19 races over seven months, it all comes down to the wire in California two weeks from now. Can de Ferran avoid a repeat of his Australian error and take his first CART title, or will Fernandez snatch a surprise championship victory as a farewell present for his Patrick Racing team before he leaves to form his own outfit in 2001? And don't forget the likes of Tracy, Montoya, Brack, Vasser, Franchitti, Andretti, Castroneves, Tagliani, Moreno, da Matta and Fittipaldi either, any of whom could be in with a shout at Fontana. Don't miss it.

1 Adrian Fernandez Patrick Reynard-Ford 59 laps
2 Kenny Brack Rahal Reynard-Ford + 0.329s
3 Jimmy Vasser Ganassi Lola-Toyota + 4.059s
4 Cristiano da Matta PPI Reynard-Toyota + 4.813s
5 Patrick Carpentier Forsythe Reynard-Ford + 5.231s
6 Helio Castroneves Penske Reynard-Honda + 10.343s
7 Michel Jourdain Jr Bettenhausen Lola-Mercedes +11.006s
8 Tony Kanaan Mo Nunn Reynard-Mercedes +15.370s
9 Oriol Servia PPI Reynard-Toyota + 18.181s
10 Mauricio Gugelmin PacWest Reynard-Mercedes + 18.581s
11 Mark Blundell PacWest Reynard-Mercedes + 18.723s
12 Luiz Garcia Jr Arciero PRG Reynard-Mercedes + 1 lap
13 Tarso Marques Coyne Swift-Ford + 2 laps


Alex Barron Coyne Lola-Ford
Christian Fittipaldi Newman-Haas Lola-Ford
Max Papis Rahal Reynard-Ford
Paul Tracy Green Reynard-Honda
Jason Bright Della Penna Reynard-Toyota
Roberto Moreno Patrick Reynard-Ford
Michael Andretti Newman-Haas Lola-Ford
Shinji Nakano Walker Reynard-Honda
Alex Tagliani Forsythe Reynard-Ford
Gil de Ferran Penske Reynard-Honda
Dario Franchitti Green Reynard-Honda
Juan Montoya Ganassi Lola-Toyota

1 Gil de Ferran Penske 153 points
2 Adrian Fernandez Patrick 148 pts
3 Paul Tracy Green 134 pts
4 Kenny Brack Rahal 134 pts
5 Jimmy Vasser Ganassi 131 pts
6 Roberto Moreno Patrick 131 pts
7 Michael Andretti Newman-Haas 127 pts
8 Helio Castroneves Penske 125 pts
9 Juan Montoya Ganassi 123 pts
10 Cristiano da Matta PPI 112 pts

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