- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It was easy to forget about Forsythe Championship Racing in the run-up to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and start of the 2005 Champ Car season.
As recently as two weeks ago, FCR looked like an organization in disarray, with a lack of sponsorship and an unconfirmed driver lineup. The only given was that the team's lead car would be driven by 2003 series champion Paul Tracy.
On Saturday, Tracy drove that Forsythe car to pole position for Sunday's 81-lap Long Beach street brawl, edging Friday's fast man Bruno Junqueira. Perhaps more significantly, Tracy was joined in the top three by a new teammate -- Mario Dominguez, who drove for the HVM team for the last three years before making a surprise switch to Forsythe less than a week before the start of the season.
Tracy is Champ Car's active leader in pole positions (23) and race wins (28, including four at Long Beach), so it was no surprise to see the 36-year-old Canadian pace the action. But it was the performance of Dominguez that confirmed the potential of Forsythe's blue-and-white cars.
"I'm very, very happy because I didn't even know anybody in the team until Thursday," said Dominguez, a two-time winner in Champ Car competition. "It's been a real crash course, to say the least. But it just shows how professional the Forsythe team is. If you are in a good team, it's easy to be fast.
"HVM had a very competitive package as well that we developed over the last few years," he continued. "But when I got in this car, I knew it was something special. There is a lot of experience and a lot of confidence in the Forsythe team. It's a team that can put a car at the front and I think Paul will be a force to be reckoned with this year. I know I can learn a lot from him."
Dominguez' future with HVM was in question throughout the winter, but only because the Mexican ace was exploring options in Formula 1. He came close to signing as the third driver for the Midland (ex-Jordan) team, but HVM enforced its Champ Car contract. However, HVM lost its chief backer (Mexican food conglomerate Herdez Group) over the winter and chose to sign Bjorn Wirdheim and Ronnie Bremer, a pair of European rookies who brought some financing.
Dominguez ran a day of testing in March for HVM, while Rodolfo Lavin, who drove for Forsythe in 2004, occupied the No. 7 Forsythe car. Over the course of the next 14 days and despite still lacking a title sponsor, Jerry Forsythe struck a deal to replace one Mexican with another, resulting in a net upgrade for his team.
"Mario coming in here and running so well with no testing proves we have a good car," noted Tracy. "You can't just jump in and go fast unless the car is good. But we learned our lesson last year when we didn't develop our car. Jerry freed up a lot of money to develop the car and it paid off today.
"Mario and I have a great relationship and we might have an advantage because Mario came in late and still has some test days left," he added. "That could prove useful later in the year when other teams have used up their days."
Though he won two races in 2004, including the Long Beach season opener, Tracy was disappointed with his championship defense. The Toronto native enters 2005 in great spirits, having just married his girlfriend of two years.
Not only did Tracy win the pole, he did it in a track record of 1 minute, 7.485 seconds (104.983 mph), beating Gil de Ferran's five-year old standard.
"It really doesn't change anything for tomorrow, but it puts us in a good mood today," Tracy said. "Back in 2000, the cars had 150 more horsepower, so that shows how the teams have refined the setups on the cars. They're just massaging more speed out of the car every year and the Bridgestone tires are better as well."
Forsythe Championship Racing and Newman/Haas Racing monopolized the first two rows of the Long Beach grid. Because he claimed the Friday pole, Junqueira would have started no worse than second under Champ Car rules. But the Brazilian was Tracy's closest competitor anyway, lapping in 1:07.644.
More significantly for Newman/Haas, Sebastien Bourdais could only manage fourth, ending a streak of 15 consecutive races that the defending series champion qualified in the top three.
"The McDonald's car was pretty good but I was just trying very hard and I made a couple of mistakes," said the Frenchman. "We just weren't fast enough to keep the record going, but if P4 is a bad day, I'll take it."
Two teams expected to challenge Newman/Haas at the front of the field fell short of the mark as RuSPORT's Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger ran fifth and 10th, respectively. PKV Racing placed Cristiano da Matta eighth for his return to Champ Cars, three spots ahead of teammate Jimmy Vasser.
"We still have a lot of work to do before the race and I am pretty disappointed with our qualifying effort because we were so much better in testing during the offseason," da Matta said. "I think part of the problem is that the Long Beach circuit is bumpy and we don't have a lot of data in that area."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.