St Petersburg: Tracy wins opener

As a motor race, Sunday's Champ Car season opener on the fine new St. Petersburg temporary course won't go down as a masterpiece. But it was notable for the overall excellence of the first-year event and for Paul Tracy's measured victory over Michel Jourdain Jnr and championship favourite Bruno Junqueira.

St Petersburg: Tracy wins opener

Tracy, who was voted the Champ Car series' 'Most Popular Driver' in 2002 by fans, was content to let rookie sensation Sebastien Bourdais lead the early stages of the 105-lap contest. The Canadian kept his cool during a 13-lap stretch when he was trapped behind the out-of-sequence Tiago Monteiro, and he was ideally placed to pressure Bourdais into a mistake following the Frenchman's first pit stop.

Bourdais led from the start from pole position through a pair of early yellows, caused by Alex Tagliani and Rodolfo Lavin. When Patrick Lemarie's spin on Lap 15 led to a third caution period, most of the field pitted, with the exception of Bourdais, Adrian Fernandez, and Monteiro, who had already pitted twice.

When the green flew on Lap 18, Bourdais pulled away into a solid lead. However, third man Monteiro was losing more than a second a lap and holding Tracy up in the process.

"I was getting pretty pissed off when I heard I was 17 seconds behind Sebastien and I was about to use the chrome horn on (Monteiro)," Tracy said after his 20th career Champ Car race win. "It crossed my mind a couple of times that I was going to need to move the guy out of the way, but then he locked up and I got by and pulled away."

Bourdais had to pit at the end of Lap 30 due to CART's fuel window rule, and he exited the pit lane neck and neck with Tracy. Paul pulled ahead by Turn 4, and a couple of turns later, Tracy's team-mate Patrick Carpentier had also gone past.

Pushing hard on cold tyres, Bourdais finally made a rookie mistake and clipped the Turn 6 wall, necessitating rear suspension repairs that took eight laps. He returned to the race to finish 11th.

"I'm disappointed for the team because it was my mistake, not theirs," said Bourdais, whose performance has certainly gotten the attention of his teammate Junqueira. "I got passed by Tracy and Carpentier, so I was upset and tried to push to stay in a good position. The mistake was small but the consequence was big."

Tracy now led from Carpentier, but the French-Canadian soon eliminated himself by knocking the front wing off his Player's Lola after he and his team-mate pitted on Lap 46. From there on out, Tracy's only competition came from Jourdain, and he won easily by 12.136 seconds.

"Sebastien ended up taking care of himself and it wasn't too bad after that," remarked Tracy. "It's a good feeling to win my first race for the Player's team. They invested a lot of time and money switching from Reynard to Lola, pretty much at my request, so it's nice to see all the effort was worthwhile.

"Normally it takes me four or five races before I score any points, and it's tough when you get behind by 60 or 70 points," he added. "I hope we don't fall on our face at the next race!"

The result marked Jourdain's first trip to a Champ Car podium and it came after a career-best street course qualifying performance. "We knew we had to focus on that and I think we could have qualified even better without the red flags," said the Mexican. "I had a good car all weekend and this is a great result for us heading to Monterrey."

Junqueira seemed rattled by his rookie team-mate's pace throughout the weekend and spun in nearly every session. After overcoming a close call with Mario Haberfeld and Jourdain on the second lap, Junqueira dropped to the back when he stalled during his first pit stop. But he recovered well, passing a lot of cars on his way back to an attrition-aided third place.

"I had quite a difficult weekend," he admitted. "I had a fast car but I had a hard race. When I made it up to third, I tried to put pressure on Michel but I had problems with my rear brakes and after being last, third didn't seem so bad. I thought it was better to get 14 points than to get nothing out of trying for 16."

Haberfeld drew some harsh comments from Junqueira but drove an otherwise clean race to fourth place as the highest finishing rookie. Roberto Moreno endured to fifth ahead of Jimmy Vasser and Monteiro, while Carpentier recovered from his incident to take eighth place.

Darren Manning was running sixth when a clutch failure ended his race after 75 laps.

"We were competitive and we overtook a lot of cars," Manning said. "It's a bit of a shame we didn't make it to the end because we could have made it to the top four because the car was really good in the second and third stints."

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