Bourdais finally challenged; Rahal wins Atlantic race
MONTERREY, Mexico -- This wasn't just another ho-hum victory for Sebastien Bourdais. This time, the fleet Frenchman actually had to work hard for his win in Champ Car's Tecate Grand Prix of Monterrey.
Bourdais led the first 25 laps of the 76-lap contest in his Newman/Haas Lola/Ford-Cosworth but he lost the lead to Justin Wilson's RuSPORT Racing machine at the first round of pit stops. Compounding his misery, he got bottled up behind backmarker Dan Clarke on the restart and dropped to third place behind A.J. Allmendinger.
"That was the toughest moment of the race for us, and it could have been a pretty big disaster," Bourdais recounted. "They should have waved off the restart."
Not that it mattered in the end. Bourdais was able to keep pace with the RuSPORT duo despite being on the theoretically slower standard Bridgestone tires. Plus, he stretched his second fuel load three laps longer than Allmendinger and one lap longer than Wilson, allowing him to emerge from the pits on Lap 55 with a narrow lead.
Equipped with a set of alternate Bridgestone "reds" for the final stint, "Sea Bass" reeled off a series of record laps and after escaping a late scare when a pair of lapped cars went off course directly in front of him, he won at a canter by 3.066 seconds.
"I knew I couldn't get too crazy because it's better to finish third than to come away with nothing," Bourdais said after his 19th career win in the series and second at Monterrey. "The out lap after the second stop was crucial, and after that it was a sweet ride."
Bourdais is the first Champ Car driver to win the first three races of the season since Paul Tracy did it in 2003. He's also the first defending series champion to sweep the first three events of a new year since Al Unser did it in 1971.
"There couldn't be a better start to the season and today was a heck of a day," Bourdais said.
No love from Bourdais for IRL Cars
Bourdais is one racer who isn't shedding any tears because he is not in Indianapolis for the month of May and the Indianapolis 500. And he wasn't shy about explaining why.
"Those cars are unsafe," he opined. "Bruno [Junqueira] experienced it last year and so have many others. "I'm glad I did the race last year. I proved I could do it. But as long as they are in those [IRL] cars, I don't want to race there. I don't want to break my back and end up handicapped."
Rahal's first ride
It's hard to imagine that any driver could be more dominant than Sebastien Bourdais around Monterrey's Fundidora Park road course. But Graham Rahal managed the feat, leading all 32 laps of the Atlantic Championship support race from pole position for his first win in Champ Car's popular support series.
Graham, the 17-year old son of open-wheel great Bobby Rahal, was in a class by himself all weekend in the Gehl-sponsored entry he drives for Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing. He beat French rookie Simon Pagenaud by 3.5 seconds, with local favorite David Martinez some 13 seconds behind at the checkered flag.
"It's good to come out here and win one after a tough race last week in Houston," Rahal said. "Everything went as planned and we had a good car. I just kept putting fast laps together and eventually I guess I just wore everyone out."
Making the win even more special for Graham is the fact that his father spent the weekend with him in Mexico rather than overseeing his team's three-car Indy Racing League entries qualify at Indianapolis.
"It was good to have him here for the first win in Atlantics," Graham said.
Bobby Rahal, whose team fielded cars in the Atlantic series for upcoming open-wheel stars Danica Patrick and Chris Festa in 2003 and 2004, believes his son has advanced to a level beyond that duo at this stage of his career.
"I think so," said the 1986 Indy 500 winner and three-time CART national champion. "Obviously it's hard to compare, since they didn't race against each other and the cars have changed. But the Atlantic field is definitely deeper this year than it was in those days and I'm so proud of everything he has accomplished to date."
Bobby Rahal actually ran Graham's pit board during the Monterrey race.
"He was afraid I was going to fall down out there," quipped the proud papa. "I'm going to have to ask him for a pay raise."
And did Bobby do a good job on the pit wall?
"I think he was off by a couple of tenths once or twice, but he was pretty close," smiled Graham.
End of the line for Monterrey?
Was this the sixth and final Champ Car Grand Prix of Monterrey? Gerald Forsythe, who owns the race rights to the Mexican event run since 2001, seems to think so.
Forsythe said he thinks that Monterrey is "tired of" the race, which has suffered declining attendance for the last three years. An additional factor in this year's reduced crowd was a major national soccer match that began an hour after the Champ Car race ended.
Attendance at Monterrey peaked with an announced three-day total of 236,000 in 2002. Race organizer OCESA released a three-day crowd figure of 76,055 this year.
"My feeling is that we won't be back here," Forsythe said on Sunday morning. "It's a shame because the city and the venue have a lot to offer. The government did a nice job developing Fundidora Park for the community, and the racetrack is the centerpiece of the park. The Mexican fans are hugely into racing, but the sponsors down here are fickle and sponsorship drives everything."
Forsythe cited Tecate beer as a loyal sponsor and added he hoped a deal could be struck to continue the Monterrey race, perhaps as a night event to reduce the effects of the seasonal heat. Forsythe is also the race rights holder for Champ Car's Mexico City event that serves as the season finale; In the event of an open-wheel merger between Champ Car and the Indy Racing League within the next couple of years, Mexico City is likely to win the nod for the only race in the country.
"I will be extremely disappointed if we don't come back here to Monterrey, and I think the fans will be disappointed as well," Forsythe said.
Indy from a distance
Indianapolis 500 qualifying was a popular topic in the Monterrey pressroom, and many a laptop followed progress of the time trials throughout the weekend. No one South of the Border was surprised when Sam Hornish Jr. nabbed pole position and that Marlboro Team Penske and Target/Ganassi Racing swept the first four places on the grid.
What did raise eyebrows was the Indy Racing League's decision to shut down practice Friday afternoon to allow Roger Yasukawa to take a refresher test. Even more egregious was granting P.J. Jones his own private practice session after the 6 o'clock gun sounded to supposedly end the action on the final day before Pole Day.
Quite frankly, I think Hornish should have been given an extra 15 or 20 minutes of practice. That bonus track time might have been enough to push his pole speed over 230 mph, or prevented the Sunday accident that wrecked his backup car from happening.
Maybe Danica Patrick could have used a few more practice laps to move further up the grid. Al Unser Jr. hasn't been in a car for a couple of years; he's another candidate. Oh yeah -- they already allowed him and fellow veteran Michael Andretti to share the track during Rookie Orientation a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps they will rectify the situation and open the track for a select few drivers during one of the off days prior to Carburetion Day and the race, just to provide the level playing field that the Indy Racing League prides itself on.
One thing's for sure: The extra hot laps didn't help Yasukawa and Jones, who respectively qualified 10 and 13 mph off the pace.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.