Doornbos leads rookie class in Cleveland learning curve

The Grand Prix of Cleveland was a wild affair, and rookies such as Robert Doornbos took full advantage of the learning opportunity, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: June 25, 2007, 8:32 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- Robert Doornbos thought his day was over before it really got started. Instead, the learning was just beginning.

Sebastien Bourdais
AP Photo/Tony DejakSebastien Bourdais appeared to be on the way to another good finish until engine failure struck.

The Minardi rookie was excited Sunday about his car for the Grand Prix of Cleveland after he qualified fifth, having worked hard to better a DP01 that two days earlier had been more middle-of-the-pack quality.

Doornbos figured he had a shot at his first Champ Car World Series win, but about five minutes into the race, that flew out the window. Black-flagged for a blocking violation while racing with fellow rookie Graham Rahal, Doornbos had to serve a drive-through penalty that sent him to the rear of the field.

"I was quite depressed," said Doornbos, who didn't agree with the steward's ruling. "You do hard work, then your race gets destroyed by a penalty like this. You feel down."

Down, but not out. Doornbos and a few of his rookie classmates found out that in as unusual a race as the one at at Burke Lakefront Airport turned out to be, there's plenty of time for the misfortune to be spread around.

What appeared early on to be another Sebastien Bourdais parade evolved into something quite different, a race in which several drivers had a chance to contend. Even if you served an early penalty or got involved in an early incident, there turned out to be opportunities to get back up front.

The rookies learned well, with two landing on the podium and three finishing within the top five for the second time this year. Doornbos finished second to Paul Tracy; Neel Jani finished a career-high third; Simon Pagenaud finished fifth to tie his season best; and Rahal, slowed only by a fuel tank that ran dry five laps from the finish, came home eighth.

"Coming into the championship, you know, you read what people say, you hear what people say on the Internet, that the series is full of drivers that are nobody. I can tell you, these guys are tough," Tracy said. "It's as tough of racing as I've ever done in my career today, to hold off Graham at 18 years old and me being 38 years old. It's not easy."

Rahal recovered from a Lap 4 incident with Tracy that put him in the grass, leading Champ Car laps for the first time when pit strategy came back to him. He then cycled back, but creeped up again later when the cycle began again and other drivers found trouble. In a four-lap span from 67 to 70, Bourdais dropped out of the race with engine failure, Doornbos pitted, then leader Will Power came in along with Pagenaud, Justin Wilson and Alex Tagliani.

Tracy inherited the lead when Power pitted, with Rahal and Doornbos in second and third. When green-flag racing resumed on Lap 72, Tracy and Rahal dueled for about a dozen laps, an intriguing battle of old vs. young, Forsythe vs. Newman/Haas/Lanigan.

The old man had the better of the battle, but unfortunately it ended when Rahal had to stop for fuel.

"We short-filled on the second regular stop and weren't in a position to make it on fuel at the end of the race," Rahal said. "It's unfortunate but just how it goes, so we just had to push Tracy as hard as we could. I think we had the car to get by Tracy; we were much quicker than he was."

It would be obviously great to do a clean race. I mean, it's crazy that you come from the back and still finish on the podium, of course. I kept my head down, and we're here.

Robert Doornbos

When Rahal bowed out, Doornbos was next to challenge. He fared no better, failing to catch Tracy in part because of a lack of available "power to pass" speed, but it was hard to argue with a runner-up finish and his fourth podium in five races, given his early penalty.

"It would be obviously great to do a clean race. I mean, it's crazy that you come from the back and still finish on the podium, of course," said Doornbos, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands. "I kept my head down, and we're here."

Ditto for Jani, who picked up a bonus point for most improved driver, finishing third after starting 11th. His race was a fuel-saving mission, albeit not quite the standard one.

"I actually had a fuel leak. The fuel was getting into my cockpit. I had it on my bum. It's burning quite a bit after some stages," Jani said, drawing laughter. "It was really all about fuel saving for me, actually, in this race. I had to be really careful. I guess I figured out that problem now, how I can save fuel."

That's what the Grand Prix of Cleveland was all about, solving problems to get to the front. Just five races into a 16-event slate, the rookies are soaking up the knowledge already.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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