Things stay the same for Champ Car's glamor team
Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing has been here before. The best Champ Car organization is showing every sign of outdistancing the rest of the field with Sunday's 1-2 finish by Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal, writes John Oreovicz.
HOUSTON -- Mario and Michael Andretti. Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell. Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. Cristiano da Matta and Fittipaldi. Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira. Bourdais and Oriol Servia.
• Oreovicz: Same Newman/Haas
• Notebook: Mishap costs Servia
What do these driver pairings have in common? They all finished 1-2 in Champ Car races over the years for Newman/Haas Racing.
Now you can add the duo of Bourdais and rookie Graham Rahal to that list. They swept the Grand Prix of Houston on Sunday, giving the team two wins out of three races in 2007 under the rechristened Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing banner.
With his second win in a row, Bourdais put the nightmare of the Las Vegas season opener firmly behind him. His dominance at Houston was so great that he burned his push-to-pass on the few tours of the Jagflo Speedway at Reliant Park track and established a track record on the final lap, all despite battling fading brakes down the stretch.
To say that the 28-year-old Frenchman was motivated after being stripped of pole position (for blocking) would be an understatement. But Bourdais was mature enough to bide his time in the early portion of the 1-hour, 45-minute contest and let the race come to him.
He caused controversy at the start by skipping the chicane rather than risking an opening-lap accident. Then Team Australia boss Derrick Walker claimed Bourdais brake-checked Will Power (although Power didn't complain), allowing Justin Wilson to slip past into second place.
"There was just no room for two cars to go side by side through the chicane," Bourdais said. "I looked in the mirror to reposition myself and there was no way because Justin was on Will's gearbox and I didn't want to give away two positions. After that, it was a straighter shot, but it was still an eventful race."
Under orders from Champ Car, Bourdais allowed Wilson into a short-lived lead. But Sebastien then took matters into his own hands on the 14th lap, executing a clean pass on Wilson's R-SPORTS car into the chicane. He pulled out a six-second lead before a full-course caution bunched the field for pit stops.
Power lost positions on the pit-stop exchange and his afternoon went from bad to worse when a pair of later incidents that relegated him to 11th place at the flag. Forsythe Racing's Servia took up the chase of Bourdais in the second stint, but the Spaniard lost ground when he made his second pit stop under green and had to be held in the pits a few extra seconds to avoid colliding with his pitting teammate Mario Dominguez.
That put Rahal, a Champ Car rookie, directly behind his three-time champion teammate for the final stint. But they both trailed PKV Racing rookie Tristan Gommendy, who was again elevated into the lead by an alternate pit stop strategy.
Bourdais made one half-hearted pass attempt on his countryman, but he backed off when NHLR calculated that Gommendy would have to make a final stop for fuel. Sure enough, the Pay By Touch entry ran dry on course with about six minutes remaining in the race on the 87th lap, almost taking Bourdais out in the process.
"When I was following Gommendy, I was thinking, 'Don't mess it up,' " Bourdais said. "Between the brakes and the other issues we had in the car, it was not the time to ruin it. The engineers knew when he was going to pit, and I guess they pushed it as far as they could. But it nearly cost us the win because when he ran out of fuel at Turn 8 he was in the middle of the track and I touched him. I heard the front wing hit and I looked to see if it was still there. I guess the Panoz front wing is tough."
With his teammate riding shotgun, Bourdais could have cruised through the last six laps. Instead, he seemed hell-bent on stamping his authority on the race and ensuring he received the bonus point for turning the fastest lap. He turned the first lap of the race timed in the 58-second bracket on Lap 91 before clocking a stunning 58.018 on the final lap. That gave him a 4.82-second margin of victory in the first Newman/Haas/Lanigan 1-2 since Bourdais led Servia at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in September 2005.
"We've been very fast all weekend," said Craig Hampson, Bourdais' longtime race engineer. "We still had a lot of little things going wrong today, but it all worked out. I'm really pleased the team got a 1-2 because it has been over a year since we had one of those.
"I think we demonstrated how good a driver Graham is and Sebastien put his stamp on this race. And the points race is tight again, so it was a good day. The Newman/Haas/Lanigan team works harder than anybody else out there. They put in the hours and I think we deserve this one."
Bourdais has now won 25 Champ Car races, passing Bobby Rahal with Sunday's victory at Houston. Graham Rahal was asked his opinion about his teammate's success.
"The record speaks for itself," said the younger Rahal. "People say open-wheel racing isn't what it was, but it's still difficult to drive these cars to the limit for everybody. He shows it because he wins most of the time he comes to the track. Plus he's the king of saving fuel. If I can match him, hopefully my success will follow."
Based on the form he showed at Houston, it won't be long before Rahal is challenging Bourdais for race wins. After a terrible debut weekend in Las Vegas, which included a pair of crashes, Rahal qualified in the top five at Long Beach and became the youngest podium finisher in a Champ Car race with his runner-up finish at Houston.
"It's my job to be up here and to do this, to do my best every weekend," Rahal said. "Things haven't been going our way and certainly Long Beach should have been a batter result for us. If we keep performing this way, which is how I think we should perform, we'll be up there in the championship by the end of the year.
"[Las Vegas] was a very disappointing weekend, but finally we're building ourselves back up and we're finally where we belong. All in all it was a good weekend for the entire team. Sebastien was obviously the man to beat since the first session and we had good cars all weekend. It's just a matter of learning from him and putting it all together."
If there were actually any doubts that Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is the class of the Champ Car field, the past two races have certainly dispelled them. Whether they are racing a familiar Lola or a Panoz spec car, or running an 18-year-old rookie as their second driver, NHLR still generally puts the rest of the Champ Car field to shame.
With the win, Bourdais reclaimed the championship lead over Power. Can the Australian or anyone else prevent NHLR from a 1-2 championship finish in the first year of Champ Car's Panoz era?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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