Record pace as de Ferran takes pole

Championship leader Gil de Ferran added another point to his tally by taking his fifth pole of the year at the California Speedway on Saturday. De Ferran broke Mauricio Gugelmin's track record from 1997 by less than a tenth of a second, establishing an all-time closed course speed record at 241.428 mph.

Record pace as de Ferran takes pole

De Ferran has run just as quickly in the morning practice session, but there's always some type of draft or slipstreaming effect when other cars are on the track, and there was no guarantee that he could run as quick in qualifying on his own.

"Really, it wasn't that difficult," de Ferran grinned. "The car wasn't sliding. There was no understeer. If anything it was a slightly on the loose side which is what you want for qualifying. When I felt the car underneath I said I'm not going to lift. I don't know how we could have improved on that lap."

De Ferran ran only one hot lap, not bothering to run a second lap after his record run. "This is fantastic," he exclaimed. "Obviously, it was very important for us to get the extra point. It brings us a little cushion for tomorrow."

Every Reynard team has produced their own subtly different bodywork and aerodynamic package for this race. The Penske team has their own entirely unique bodywork arrangement and one of the team's engineers estimated that all the teams have spent a collected total of around $2 million on wind tunnel time specifically for this race.

"The team did a lot of work trying to develop our car for this track," de Ferran said. "The car is handling extremely well and I have to thank Honda as well for a fantastic engine. They always exceed my expectations."

Like most of the fastest cars, de Ferran's was fitted with a single wastegate engine for qualifying, although everyone will revert to the more conventional and reliable twin wastegate motors for Sunday's race. De Ferran said he had ran some practice laps on Friday with the engine combination he will race.

"It's not much different than what we had for qualifying today," the Brazilian observed. "It really doesn't have any affect on the balance or handling of the car."

De Ferran explained his approach to Sunday's 500 miles. "You've got to try to stay on the lead lap. You've got to hone the car in the first part of the race and get to the end in good position. I don't think in the middle or two-thirds of the way into the race you have to be concerned where the other guys are. You've got to try to get to the closing stages in a good situation and at the end we'll decide whether we're going to go racing or just do what we have to do to finish."

The polewinner was asked whether he thought 240 mph was too fast. "The problem is not being able to drive at 240 mph," de Ferran commented. "The level of concentration is like you're driving at 60mph. Everything seems to happen very slowly. The issue is when something happens or goes wrong. The faster you are the bigger the consequences."

De Ferran cautioned against trying to trim too much speed from the cars. "We've got to be careful how much we slow the cars down. These are supposed to be the fastest cars on earth. They're supposed to be difficult to drive and when you master the beast it's a real achievement. You don't want to cut too much speed. I think CART has done a good job since I've been in this series with trying to control a 240 mph race car."

Michael Andretti qualified second, just under three-tenths of a second slower than de Ferran. This equalled Andretti's best qualifying performance of the year at the Michigan 500 in July. Andretti is always a threat in 500-mile races and he and teammate Christian Fittipaldi confirmed that likelihood by qualifying second and third on Saturday.

Andretti said his car had a shade too much 'push' or understeer, and Fittipaldi said he had to lift a little because his car, "wasn't absolutely perfect." Both Newman-Haas drivers believe they have good chances to win on Sunday.

"The car feels really good," Andretti said. "We have had bad luck in some races and we just want to end on a high note. We almost won in Michigan and we hope to take the 'almost' out of it here. If the car runs all day we'll have a shot at it, but there are so many variables in a 500-mile race. This race will be different from the Michigan race because the groove is narrower here and there's less room to race. Nobody wanted to lead the last lap at Michigan, but they might want to here."

Fittipaldi has not won a race this year and has had terrible luck in general, finishing few untroubled races. "There is still one more race to go to get a win this year and that's our goal," Fittipaldi said. "We qualified good this season, but just didn't manage to put the racs together. Sooner or later it comes back around and everything starts working right again."

De Ferran's teammate Helio Castroneves qualified fourth with last year's champion Juan Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser qualifying fifth and sixth. Montoya had turned the fastest lap in practice at over 242 mph, about one-tenth of a second quicker than de Ferran's pole lap, but said his car lacked straightaway speed on his qualifying run. Dario Franchitti was seventh fastest followed by outside championship contender Kenny Brack was eighth. Ninth was Paul Tracy, also a longshot championship possibility. Tracy said his team had fitted with his car with an incorrect gear ratio for qualifying that stopped him from pulling maximum rpm.

De Ferran's most serious championship rival Adrian Fernandez qualified a slightly disappointing 14th. Fernandez was a second slower than poleman de Ferran in qualifying. "We knew we couldn't do a 239," Fernandez said, "but I was surprised we didn't have a little more speed. I was flat-out but we just didn't have the speed. The important thing is that the car is very balanced and very easy to drive, so we should be OK in the race tomorrow.

"The team just has to do what is has done all year," Fernandez added. "We have to stay out of trouble and be patient. We have to do our best, work our race strategy, and hopefully, the car will carry us to the end of the race."

Fernandez's teammate Roberto Moreno qualified a disappointing 19th. Moreno had to take the pole and earn the bonus point to stay in the championship battle but with de Ferran taking the extra point, Moreno is no longer a championship contender. That means four drivers--de Ferran, Fernandez, Tracy and Brack--retain mathematical hopes of winning this year's CART title.

For the starting grid for the California 500, click HERE.

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