Toronto talk

Following a quick breather, CART's Champ cars are back in action for another three weekends in a row, starting in Toronto this weekend.

Toronto talk

The downtown street race in Toronto's Exhibition Place is the ninth of this year's 20 rounds, and with more than half the season to go the championship is absolutely wide-open. As is often the case in CART, so many drivers and teams are capable of running up front at any given race that it's extremely difficult for anyone to win successive races or otherwise take a dominant role.

Kenny Brack continues to lead the series from Helio Castroneves, with Dario Franchitti leaping to third in points after scoring a brilliant fuel-conserving win in Cleveland two weeks ago.

Also in the championship hunt are defending CART champ Gil de Ferran, Cristiano da Matta, Michael Andretti and, slightly more remotely, Jimmy Vasser and Christian Fittipaldi.

At this stage the latter is eighth in the championship, just thirty-six points behind leader Brack (CART remember, pays twenty points for a win) and even Paul Tracy, who's eight points and three places behind Fittipaldi, will tell you: "Don't count me out. We've still got a long way to go."

After a couple of relatively inconsequential races with his Rahal Lola-Ford, championship leader Brack needs to get back on track in Toronto.

"We didn't have a good race there last year, but I expect us to be better this time," Brack says. "You can't make a mistake there, but there are at least two good places to pass and that's important with a street circuit. We had a good car this year at both Mexico and Long Beach in the streets and we didn't finish like we wanted. The car wasn't as good in Detroit so I hope we can get back as we were at the start of the year."

Castroneves and Penske team mate de Ferran should be quick in Toronto. Castroneves was the man to beat in Detroit last month and was on the pole in Toronto last year. Like Brack, he also needs to get back on the board after a couple of weak races. De Ferran's in a similar position as the team tries to build the momentum required to defend its title with its pair of Penske-developed Reynard-Hondas.

Franchitti is in exactly the same position following his Cleveland win which broke a frustrating, 20-month winless streak. Dario has been quick in most races this year and Toronto is a place where he's been particularly successful. He took the pole in his rookie year, 1997, did it again in '98, led half the race in '98 and won in style in '99 as he led all the way with team mate Tracy finishing second.

"We've been able to put together some really good races of late and we need to keep the momentum going," Dario observed. "Toronto's one of the tracks where the car has to do everything well. It has to be able to brake well, it has to be able to steer well without too much understeer, yet it has to have good traction. You can't be weak in any of these departments.

"The layout is a challenge because it's got a combination of fairly fast straights and low speed corners, so it's difficult to hit the set-up just right. It's definitely a rhythm course that takes a lot of concentration."

Team mate Tracy was born and raised in Toronto and although he lives in Las Vegas these days, this is his hometown race. He's definitely the most popular driver with the Toronto fans and usually runs well in Canada. He won this race back in 1993 when he was driving for Penske and was second two years ago and third last year.

"It's been a tough stretch for us lately," Tracy said. "We've had strong cars everywhere we've been this year but racing luck has been holding us back. We turned things around at Toronto last year with a podium finish, and we are sure going to try to do it again."

Of course, the traditional favourite in Toronto is Tracy and Franchitti's new team mate Michael Andretti, who's won this race no fewer than six times! Andretti won last year's race after a fierce duel with Cristiano da Matta and, like Tracy, he's looking for his first win of the year and first victory with the expanded Team Green.

"I wish I knew why I was so successful in Toronto because I would definitely try to duplicate it at all the other tracks we race on," Andretti grins. "Apparently, my style is suited to Toronto, but really, there is no secret. I don't know if I have really good luck in Canada, but things seem really to go my way when I race in Toronto."

One factor favouring Franchitti, Tracy, Andretti and all the Honda and Ford drivers was CART's decision last week to accept Honda's appeal to temporarily halt the use of the new, extended 'pop-off' valve. The new valve, introduced amid much controversy in Detroit last month, has been put aside by CART for the next three races in Toronto, Michigan and Chicago. A yet-to-determined long-term solution to the 'pop-off' valve dispute will theoretically be agreed to by all parties and enacted for Mid-Ohio next month.

Meanwhile, it's back to the same valve used for this year's first five races, which should suit the Honda and Ford teams and possibly hinder the Toyota teams. More on this matter as the weekend in Toronto unfolds.

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