Da Matta nips Tracy for provisional pole
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It's an old racing cliché: The first win unlocks the door to a sudden run of checkered flags for a team or a driver. And yet it happens all the time. Cristiano da Matta and PKV Racing are the latest example.
Fresh off a well-earned "first" victory just five days ago at Portland International Raceway, da Matta edged Paul Tracy to claim the provisional pole Friday for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank.
After trailing Tracy by two-thousandths of a second for most of Friday's qualifying session, da Matta shaved a few thousandths off his best lap to guarantee a front row starting spot for Sunday's 94-lap run at Burke Lakefront Airport.
Of course, the Portland victory wasn't da Matta's first Champ Car win; he was the series champion in 2002, notching seven victories in that season alone. And that's precisely why the rebuilding PKV team hired the diminutive Brazilian -- he is a proven winner.
On Friday, da Matta gave PKV an additional psychological boost with his pole-winning lap. Tracy turned a 58.440-second lap exactly halfway through the Friday session, followed six minutes later by da Matta's 58.442. But whereas the Canadian was unable to improve in the final 12 minutes, da Matta uncorked a 58.436 (129.742 mph) with just three minutes to go.
"We were quick in Portland, but we were never a hundred percent sure if we were going to be quick here in Cleveland," da Matta said. "We're a new team so we lack a little bit still in the database from track to track to track. I'm happy to see that we've been able to progress weekend after weekend.
"I'm obviously very happy about the way everything went today," he added. "It's a hell of a change for us in the team."
One key factor in da Matta's recent rise is his greater understanding of the soft alternate-compound Bridgestone tires recognizable by their red sidewalls. At Portland, da Matta learned that the red tires get up to optimum temperature and grip levels faster than the standard Bridgestone blackwalls.
"The red tires are at their best on the second or maybe third lap, but the standard tires aren't ready until the third or fourth lap," da Matta said. "If you wait too long with the red tires, you lose their advantage."
The Forsythe team has won at Cleveland twice in the last three years (Patrick Carpentier in 2002 and Tracy in 2004) and the team's new recruit, Mario Dominguez, effectively backed up Tracy by taking third on the provisional grid.
"When you have a good car, this racetrack is very enjoyable," said Dominguez. "I'm getting to know the team better and we are starting to gel."
In fact, Tracy felt he should have nabbed the overnight pole.
"The car was quick on the reds but on my next-to-last lap I came into the back chicane and found one of the corner-marking tires had been kicked out onto the track," Tracy said. "I clipped it with my front wing and broke it, so that was that."
Championship leader (and 2003 Cleveland winner) Sebastien Bourdais was fourth-quickest on the opening day, just 0.13 second off da Matta's time. Alex Tagliani continued his consistent qualifying form for Team Australia and rounded out the top five ahead of Jimmy Vasser and Oriol Servia.
Bourdais said his biggest worry is the start. In the past, Champ Car officials have used cones to try to create a narrower entry into the hairpin first turn, but opening lap incidents still happen often.
"I think the officials might have another approach for the start this year, so we'll see how it goes," Bourdais said. "Maybe if they just try to narrow the track a little it would limit the temptation to gain a bunch of positions on the start. Everybody knows that if the leader stays on the left side of the track, everybody is going to go to the right and many cars do that. You end up with 10 drivers shooting for the same apex and we know that doesn't work for everyone."
Justin Wilson certainly knows that. Last year, the Englishman qualified on the outside of the front row for Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing, only to be knocked out at the first turn. Now driving for RuSPORT Racing, Wilson was a crestfallen eighth-fastest on Friday on what he calls his favorite track in America.
"I'm seriously disappointed," he said. "We need to get the car better overall to contend for the pole, but we're better than [eighth]."
After experimenting with Saturday evening starting times the last couple years, the Cleveland race returns to a traditional Sunday afternoon slot this year. That should mark the return of the heat the race has become famous for, with temperatures near 90 degrees and a chance of a thunderstorm forecasted.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.