- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ASSEN, Netherlands -- What looked like a lost season for Justin Wilson is starting to look a lot better.
Wilson won the Bavaria Champ Car Grand Prix at the TT Circuit Assen on Sunday, elevating himself from fourth to second place in the Champ Car World Series points standings. It was the first victory of the season for the 27-year-old Englishman, who entered the 2007 season as a championship favorite, and the fourth triumph of his career.
The win was also the first for RuSPORT Racing since Champ Car series co-owner Dan Pettit acquired the Colorado-based team from Carl Russo. There was plenty of uncertainty about the RuSPORT group's future early in the year, and Wilson struggled in testing until the team entered a technical partnership to pool data with Rocketsports Racing and driver Alex Tagliani.
As summer rolled around, Wilson got closer to the pace inevitably set by Sebastien Bourdais in qualifying. But he still was often unable to keep up in races, when Bourdais' peerless ability to run fast while saving fuel has helped him rack up six victories so far this year.
Bourdais had pole position at Assen, but Wilson beat him in the long drag race from the standing start to the first turn. Once in front, Wilson's only challenge came from Bruno Junqueira, whose Lap 8 flat tire turned into an advantage because it put the Brazilian onto a different pit stop sequence that allowed him to lead 30 laps.
However, Wilson regained the lead for good after making his final pit stop on Lap 51 of 69. He won by 7.226 seconds over Jan Heylen, with Junqueira third.
Bourdais stalled leaving his final pit stop and finished in seventh place. He holds a 58-point lead over Wilson with two races to go; Dutch hero Robert Doornbos, who finished 13th Sunday and dropped to 63 points back, is the only other driver with a mathematical chance of stopping Bourdais from clinching a record fourth consecutive Champ Car title before he departs for Formula One in 2008.
With Bourdais struggling for a change, Wilson was only too happy to lead the charge of those picking up the pieces.
"I was definitely concerned at some points during the race that Bruno might be able to get the lead," Wilson said. "But I just stuck to my plan of trying to save fuel. I focused on getting very good mileage, and I let Bruno pull away.
"When it was time to go, I felt pretty good," he added. "The car was working well and the faster I went, the better the balance was."
Before the race, Wilson was certainly not optimistic about his chances even though he started from the outside of the front row. He missed the Sunday morning warm-up session because of a leaky gearbox oil line.
Wilson credited RuSPORT engineer Mike Talbot for a competitive race setup and said his only problem was running too short a top gear after a change in wind direction.
"Circumstances worked out for us today," Wilson said. "We weren't particularly confident but figured we had nothing to lose. I think we worked out what we had done wrong with the setup, and I guess our predictions worked out.
"But it was pretty tough," he continued. "I could see Jan was quick, and he was quick where I was weak. We got top gear wrong, and I was hitting the rev limiter through Turn 15 and until the chicane. I had to work hard to make sure I didn't hit the rev limiter too hard and lose momentum."
Heylen didn't have the speed at the end to challenge for the win, but second place was still by far the best result in Champ Car for the second-year driver from Geel, Belgium. It was also Conquest Racing's best finish since joining the Champ Car series in 2003.
Circumstances worked out for us today. We weren't particularly confident but figured we had nothing to lose. I think we worked out what we had done wrong with the setup, and I guess our predictions worked out.
The podium finish came one week too late for Heylen, who had his home weekend at Zolder nearly ruined by a Friday practice crash caused by Dan Clarke.
"Finally!" Heylen exclaimed. "We had a tough start to [the] season and missed the first few races and then we had some bad luck in the first couple races we ran. But from the first time on track here, the car felt good. I think we showed our pace Saturday, but I didn't get the best out of qualifying.
"I told Eric [Bachelart, Conquest Racing owner] that I had the same feeling this morning as when I won the Formula Ford festival. It was time for all the bad luck to change, and I'm so happy for the team and all the sponsors involved. Everyone has done an amazing job for the budget we have."
Junqueira was disconsolate after qualifying 11th at a narrow track where passing was expected to be impossible. But his early puncture turned out to be a blessing because it put him in front on two occasions.
However, Junqueira had a slow final pit stop, caused by a misfunction of his Dale Coyne Racing car's pit-lane speed limiter. A 4-second lead turned into fourth place.
"This is the only race with two pit-lane speed limits, and when I pressed the button for 75 mph, for some reason it went to the 40-mph setting," related Junqueira. "I tried to recycle it for 75 mph and probably lost three or four seconds on that stop. But I'm very happy after starting 11th. We have a third and a second and hope we can finish the season with a win."
Junqueira wasn't the only driver who had a problem with his Cosworth engine's electronics; pole winner Bourdais dropped to sixth place on the opening lap when he pressed "Power to Pass" and got the pit-lane limiter instead. That prompted Race Control to order all drivers not to use Power to Pass.
Junqueira was under investigation by race stewards for violating that order. The Brazilian claimed he had trouble hearing radio communications from his team.
Assuming Wilson wins the next Champ Car race Oct. 22 at Surfers Paradise, Australia -- but does not score any bonus points for leading a qualifying session or setting the fastest race lap -- Bourdais can clinch the series title with a 14th-place finish.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.