Race: Papis keeps his cool
After a very difficult start to the season with no results to speak of, Max Papis rebounded in style in the Freightliner/GI Joe's 200 at Portland.
Papis qualified on the pole and led the rain-shortened race almost all the way to score the second Champ Car win of his career, his first since last year's Homestead season-opener.
The Team Rahal driver beat Roberto Moreno by a little over a second after Moreno pursued him closely through the race's second half while Christian Fittipaldi drove an excellent race to finish a closing third after a couple of aggressive late-race outbraking manoeuvres.
With light rain falling for most of the day the track was very slick come the start and sure enough the early laps in particular were bedevilled by many spins and yellow flag after yellow flag. In fact, there were four, full course yellows and not a single complete lap under the green through the first fourteen laps while no fewer than twenty-five of the first 47 laps were run under a yellow.
"That was the most difficult part of the race for me," Papis said. "It was my job to dictate the pace and coming to turn one on cold tyres and cold brakes I had to be very careful. I was trying to brake as late as I could without making any mistakes. That was very, very difficult."
The result of all this confusion was that the race was run to CART's two-hour time limit, the chequered flag flying after 76 of the scheduled 98 laps.
The race really took shape over the final thirty laps with Papis edging away from Moreno. A little further back an impressive Max Wilson had his hands full holding off the attention of Patrick Carpentier, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Christian Fittipaldi. With the race restricted to a time limit it was difficult for everyone to assess their fuel mileage, although most teams were convinced their drivers could run to the finish without any further pitstops.
"It was a very technical race," Papis said. "You needed to be very disciplined. I was chasing the grip, looking for the best parts of the track, and they were telling me on the radio to save fuel, save fuel."
For a while Moreno was able to put some pressure on Papis, edging closer to the leader, but every time Roberto got close, Max responded. Driving perfectly on the very slick track Papis made not one mistake as he maintained a small cushion all the way to the end.
"That was maybe the most difficult race I've ever driven," Papis said. "If a made a mistake I could easily have lost that second and a half. I tried to stay calm, to drive smoothly, and as soon as Roberto got close I tried to leave him."
After qualifying second from last in Detroit the previous weekend Papis was overjoyed to score such a complete victory.
"We needed to be smart and we needed to be fast," Papis grinned. "Today was a great success. We just kicked their asses! Inside of me I have a lot of fire and I'm very glad I can show my emotion. Yesterday it was just a good job done and I had to control my emotions but today I'm the happiest person here. We came back from zero to hero. Now 'Mad Max' is back!"
Papis finished the race with less than a lap of fuel left onboard.
"I don't know how much I had," he said. "They told me I had two laps left but I was looking at the dashboard and it said 1.2 something gallons, so there wasn't that much left."
Moreno was also delighted to make the podium for the second successive race. Like Papis, he too had a poor start to the season but appears to have found his feet in the past two races.
"Like I said in Detroit, it's taken me a while to figure out how to get the best fuel mileage out of this engine package, " Moreno said. "With Jimmy (Vasser)'s help I've learned how to do that. Today Toyota did a very good job with smooth mapping so that we didn't come out of the corners spinning our wheels. I tried to put some pressure on Max to make a mistake but I couldn't do it."
Fittipaldi was particularly impressive as he outbraked Carpentier and Wilson on successive laps to take third place. In the final six laps Christian halved the distance to Moreno to score his first podium of the year. It was a great comeback drive after an early mistake saw Fittipaldi fall back to seventeenth.
"It was a very hard race, especially at the beginning," he said. "A lot guys went out on brand new wet tyres and it was very slippery. I guess it took us a little while to get a feel for it. After the first twenty laps people stopped falling off the road. The thing that makes me happiest today is the amount of points we scored. We had a slow start to the season, but we're coming back strong."
Rookie Wilson drove a fine race to come from nineteenth to fourth at the finish. Wilson drives for the new Arciero-Blair team which missed two races in May while regrouping and switching from Phoenix (Ilmor) engines to Ford. In Portland he showed plenty of skill and potential fighting a tail-happy car in the closing stages.
"It was very hard to keep the car on the track," Wilson admitted. "Towards the end of the race the track was getting drier so my car was getting very loose because I was pushing very hard to try to overtake Moreno. I overtook him once but I overshot the chicane and had to let him by again. But this is great. It's our first points. We just missed the podium but I'm very happy with the finish."
Carpentier crossed the line directly behind Wilson with Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Michael Andretti equally close behind in sixth, seventh and eighth. Carpentier was another to enjoy his best finish of the year while Franchitti got as high as third in the early stages before spinning and clipping the tail of Bryan Herta's car. Dixon drove another good race to finish seventh while Andretti came from sixteenth on the grid despite a black flag drive through penalty for passing under the yellow before one of the many restarts. Michael also spun on another of the restarts, recovering and carrying on without losing many places. Ninth went to Oriol Servia while front row starter Cristiano da Matta finished a disappointed tenth after running into the back of Papis and spinning during one of the early yellows.
Championship leader Kenny Brack scraped home in eleventh place, good enough for two points, despite starting twenty-second and spinning three times during the race. Brack was twice hit from behind and had to take to the grass one other time to avoid a spinning Gil de Ferran.
"Luckily, I kept the engine going and drove it back onto the track each time," Brack said.
De Ferran finished out of the points in thirteenth after spinning and damaging his car's front wing on one of the pace laps. Team-mate Helio Castroneves, the winner in Detroit last weekend, also had a miserable day, finishing a lap down in seventeenth after spinning off on the opening lap. During the early brace of yellows he stopped at the pits no fewer than eight times, topping off his fuel tank each time and hoping for a chance to unlap himself, but it never happened.
At least Penske fared better than Mo Nunn Racing and Ganassi. Tony Kanaan eliminated Ganassi's new recruit Memo Gidley and his Mo Nunn team-mate Alex Zanardi on the opening lap as he slithered into their path after a spin. Gidley's team-mate Bruno Junqueira was again running strongly in the top ten when he was taken out in a pit lane collision with Paul Tracy, who had charged up the order from 13th to third in the early laps. Tracy rejoined after suspension repairs but would drop out after contact with PacWest's Mauricio Gugelmin.
The race had little effect on the championship as none of the title contenders collected any serious points. Will Portland turn out to be an anomaly, or does it presage a new change in the Champ Car order?
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