British Champ Car fans waited patiently for the better part of three days for genuine action at Rockingham Motor Speedway. But they were rewarded by a competitive race with a thrilling finish in CART's UK debut as Gil de Ferran made an outside pass on Kenny Brack on the last corner of the last lap to take the win. It was the defending CART champion's first win of the 2001 season.
Helio Castroneves crossed the line third to cap off a great day for Penske Racing, but he was later demoted to fourth place behind Cristiano da Matta after the Newman-Haas team successfully protested the Penske driver for making an illegal pass in the pits during the last round of pit stops.
De Ferran and Brack were the dominant men throughout the shortened event, leading every lap between the pair of them. Championship leader Brack led into the second and final round of pit stops on Lap 100, but the Penske crew turned in a lightning-fast stop to get their man out in the lead.
The stops came just after CART decreed that the race would be flagged after 140 laps instead of the already shortened scheduled race distance of 168 laps. That meant everyone could run almost flat-out to the finish before daylight began to fade.
After the green flew on Lap 104, de Ferran seemed to have things in hand until the lead duo encountered lapped traffic late in the race. They came up to lap Brack's team mate Max Papis with two laps to go, and the Italian was able to use his car to momentarily baulk de Ferran, allowing Brack to slip by the Penske Reynard-Honda on the outside and into a small lead.
De Ferran appeared to have accepted defeat, but he got a tremendous run on the straight between Turns 2 and 3 on the final lap before making a decisive move to the outside in the final corner. He was just able to keep his machine ahead on the run to the line, beating Brack by 0.634 second and Castroneves by 6.335 seconds.
"It's a very emotional day for me," de Ferran said. "We've been very close to winning on several other occasions this year, but it hasn't worked out. I spent many years racing in England, and my wife and her family are from here. So it's a very happy day for us.
"It was a very exciting finish, maybe a little too exciting for my taste," de Ferran added. "I prefer to win in a more boring way. But I have to take my hat off to Kenny, because he fought hard all the way to the end. We had a great race."
Brack started on the pole with de Ferran alongside, but Gil quickly gained the advantage on the first lap. After a brief yellow caused when Max Papis and two other drivers spun exiting Turn 4, the lead duo immediately pulled away from third placed Michael Andretti, who led Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Cristiano da Matta.
De Ferran built a three-second lead by Lap 25, but it began to evaporate when he moved into lapped traffic. Finally, on Lap 46, Brack took the lead in Turn 1 after de Ferran got trapped behind the car of Alex Tagliani.
On Lap 50, the yellow flew when Michel Jourdain Jr. spun exiting Turn 4, and the leaders all pitted on Lap 53. Brack maintained the lead through the round of stops ahead of de Ferran, while da Matta moved up to third and Castroneves fell to ninth after a bad stop.
Brack now led, and for the next stint, he maintained a two-second cushion. Behind them, da Matta, Andretti, Franchitti and Tony Kanaan scrapped for third, but the entire field bunched up when Brack began to wind his way through lapped traffic.
On the 94th lap, Adrian Fernandez suffered a blown engine and the yellow flew to clean up debris and oil. Five laps later when the pits finally opened, the leaders all pitted for the final time.
De Ferran and Castroneves both got great stops, and Gil exited the pits with a clear lead ahead of Brack. The Penske pits were the last in the pit lane, and a traffic jam ensued as Castroneves pulled out into the path of da Matta and Andretti, who both claimed that Helio made an illegal move. The Newman-Haas team's protest was upheld by CART Chief Steward Chris
Kneifel, elevating da Matta to third in the final results.
De Ferran, who said his car was good early before going loose, was happy with the car's balance for the final stint and he maintained a 1.5-second gap on Brack. But by Lap 120, they were into traffic that continued to the finish.
When they caught up to Papis in Turn 3 on Lap 138, he understandably did all he could to help his Team Rahal running mate Brack. And he was successful, causing de Ferran to momentarily lift while Brack streaked past on the outside entering Turn 1.
But they still hadn't passed Papis, who inadvertently repaid the favour by causing Brack to lose momentum on the final lap. De Ferran drove a flyer and committed to the high line through Turn 4. His left rear tyre nearly hit Brack's right front win as he chopped across as the cars exited the bend in the sprint to the flag.
"I just wish the race was one lap shorter, because it came down to traffic in the end," said Brack, who failed to take his fifth oval win of the year but still leads the CART championship. "Gil went loose at the end and I managed to get by him in Turn 1. I don't know why he got by me in the end. I ran into some traffic and Gil made a run on the outside. It wouldn't have been pretty if I hadn¹t gone down to the apron in Turn 3."
De Ferran, who led 83 of the 140 laps, said he thought the race to the finish was clean and fair. "I certainly wasn't about to give up," he remarked. "I just tried to stay with Kenny after he passed me so I could turn nothing into something. Kenny had exactly the same traffic problem I did and I got a good run out of 2 and into 3. I was able to carry the throttle a little deeper and I made it by.
"Certainly I enjoyed going wheel-to-wheel with Kenny," he added. "It was a good fight, and at no moment did I think it would all end in tears. It was lots of fun and it's fantastic to win the first Champ Car race here in England."
Brack agreed and said he believed it was a whale of a show for the crowd, which was announced at 38,000.
"These races are very unpredictable," he said. "Today was tough, exciting and all that oval racing should be, I think. It was a great race that wasn't decided until the final flag."
Da Matta had one of his best runs in the second half of the year, and he was happy with the extra two points he received for finishing third instead of fourth.
"I think that Helio forgot that CART changed the speed limit in that part of the pit lane for pit out because of Zanardi's accident," Cristiano said. "The car was a little loose, but I am happy with the fact that we ran up front today and were able to race for the fans."
Castroneves said he did nothing out of the ordinary during the protested pit stop.
"It was obviously very tight," he commented. "I think there were about four cars together, and I had the inside line and was still accelerating."
Andretti took fifth ahead of Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti. The Scot lost positions in both of his pit stops and fought an unbalanced car in the second half of the race.
"We had a good crowd today and I hope they enjoyed their first look at CART," said Franchitti. "I passed some guys in the first stint and got up to third, but then the temperature dropped and the car changed. It felt one way going into the corners and another way going out so we'll have to look into that. It was quite nervous toward the end of the race. Overall with the problems in the pits it wasn't the result we were expecting."
The win helped de Ferran trim Brack's championship lead to six points at 147-141, with Andretti third on 125 and Castroneves fourth on 123. Franchitti is sixth in the standings behind da Matta with 89 points.
The Champ Car series has a week off before racing in Houston on October 7.
For full championship standings, click here.
For full race results, click here.