Unknowns Hang Over San Jose

This afternoon's inaugural Grand Prix of San Jose has the makings of one of the most unpredictable Champ Car encounters in recent memory with a host of unknowns hanging over the race

Unknowns Hang Over San Jose

Series officials have taken the unprecedented step of stipulating a time limit of one hour and 45 minutes but no scheduled number of laps for the race distance - a change that will have major implications for fuel mileage and pit strategy.

"This is a first and it's very unique," said pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais. "It's something that the engineers aren't used to and it's extremely difficult to predict what will happen because you can't control how many laps of (full-course) yellow there will be.

"Normally, you are at least assuming a distance. But here you have to turn the problem around and start thinking in terms of gallons of fuel used per minute. And if there is something like 22 laps of yellow, it could be a one-stop race."

The layout of the 1.4-mile street circuit has been continually evolving over the course of the weekend and underwent further modifications on Saturday in attempt to allay safety concerns.

The fast Hilton chicane on the start/finish straight (Turns One and Two) was straightened out and the pit wall extended on Friday night to allow more of a 'fudge factor' at a point where cars on a flying lap would otherwise have tracked out perilously close to slower cars exiting the pit lane.

That addressed one problem but exacerbated another, namely that even higher approach speeds to Turn Three combined with an almost total lack of run-off room posed a risk not only to the drivers but to spectators in the grandstands.

As a result, a second, makeshift chicane has been installed a few hundred yards from the diabolically tight, 30mph hairpin. The narrow right-left succeeded in slowing the cars down from 170mph to around 80, but can only be negotiated single-file and will present a major obstacle on the first lap.

"The only passing possibility you had was at the hairpin, and they've taken that away now," noted third-place qualifier Paul Tracy.

An additional concern of all the drivers and teams ahead of today's race is mechanical reliability due to the stresses the cars are subjected to over the very bumpy surface.

The reprofiling of the Hilton chicane - one of two points on the track where the cars cross light rail tracks - altered the racing line and took the cars over an even harsher surface change, which in the Saturday morning practice session saw cars being pitched as much as six inches into the air.

Several cars didn't stand up to the punishment, with Mario Dominguez's Forsythe Lola sustaining a broken pop-off valve and a shock mounting point failing on Sebastien Bourdais' Newman/Haas entry.

Over the lunch break track workers set about alleviating the worst bumps by grinding down the high spots and filling in the low spots with cement - efforts that won a grateful thumbs-up from the drivers.

"For sure, they made improvements," Tracy said in the post-qualifying press conference. "From the first session this morning to this afternoon they made a huge improvement on the railroad tracks, which would be the first chicane. The cars were getting six inches off the ground; now they're a lot more stable.

"They're doing everything they can do. The track is built now, so there are very limited things you can do, but they've made little improvements everywhere."

"They've made it raceable," concurred Bourdais, while his Newman/Haas teammate Oriol Servia added that the San Jose event had great potential for the future if a more suitable circuit can be devised.

"I hope it's going to be such a great event for the city that they're going to let us use three or four more streets and have a bigger track," said the Spaniard. "That would be awesome. It's going to be a great event. The energy, the people (50,962 on Saturday according to official attendance figures)... I think we all feel really welcome.

"If only we could make the racing a little bit better with a bigger track."

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Author Alex Sabine
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