Byline: J.P. VETTRAINO
Indy? What Indy? The enthusiastic British fans at Brands Hatch didn't seem to care it was opening weekend at the Speedway. Perhaps as important, for the first time in the Champ Car paddock, no one seemed preoccupied with the thought that the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was under way across the pond.
Almost everyone at Brands was focused on the London Champ Car Trophy, the first American Indy-style race at the circuit in 25 years. Every-one watched as Paul Tracy's quest for a record four straight, season-opening CART wins vaporized in spewing bits of shattered gears and transmission lubricant. The wrecked tranny might not have mattered anyway, because at that point Tracy was running second to rookie Sebastien Bourdais, who subsequently left England with his first CART win.
In the paddock, it was an almost strange feeling. Maybe it's due to Champ Car's massive team and driver turnover this year, or hope of reconciliation gone, or maybe simply reality settling in. But this was May, and everyone went about business with hardly a thought-much less discussion-of events taking place in the middle of Indiana.
Brands Hatch was the new Champ Car. The race fit what CART CEO Chris Pook calls his "Pete Rozelle model,'' for the former NFL commissioner who made urban centers the focus of American football's growth. Pook wants to take CART's racing to the people, and avoid permanent tracks in the countryside. Brands sits at the fringe of greater London, 12 miles from the city. The Rockingham oval, where Champ Cars raced the previous two years in England, is in a predominantly rural area of the Midlands.
Of course, plenty of people went to Rockingham, at least the first year, when the race was held just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Unfortu-nately, those who came had little to watch. Thanks to some poor planning and lousy track drainage, there was no track activity the first two days. Some 55,000 British fans show-ed up race day at Rockingham not sure if there would actually be a race. There was, along with the only practice session of the weekend, but the next year the crowd dropped to less than 30,000, and there were indications track management hadn't worked hard enough to lure people back.
There is, obviously, something in this arrangement for Brands Hatch. Opened in 1950, now owned by the Octagon Motorsport conglomerate, Brands was the site of the British Grand Prix throughout most of the 1970s and '80s. In the early '90s, it got aced out for Britain's biggest race in a political battle with Silverstone. Brands hopes to build a new marquee event with Champ Cars. Its contract with the series runs five years, and to stack the deck in CART's favor, promoters also put a British Touring Car Championship race on the card. The tin tops, as locals call them, form Britain's second most popular professional auto racing series.
CART used Brands' 1.192-mile, seven-turn Indy Circuit, so named for the lone USAC event held there in 1978 and won by Rick Mears. A handful in the current Champ Car field had raced there previously, though obviously not in that USAC event. These included familiar names such as Fernandez, Moreno, Tracy and Vasser, who competed in the annual Formula Ford Festival. Rookie Darren Manning was probably the veteran measured by seat time at Brands, and it was funny to watch drivers with more CART experience follow Manning in practice to learn their way around the track. The Englishman stepped up in qualifying, in an overmatched Reynard, and secured eighth on the grid for his best starting spot of the year.
Tracy's three-race roll continued through qualifying. He started on the front row for the fourth time in four races, only this time he won the pole in the first qualifying session, when temperatures were considerably lower.
The race promised to be one of the most demanding on the schedule. Thanks to its length and densely packed traffic, it required a short oval's mental focus. On top of that, it proved as physically demanding as the toughest road courses like Mid-Ohio. Brands made the drivers leery about the show's quality, and few expected real opportunities to overtake. "It's very hard, very demanding,'' said Mario Dominguez. "Like a go-kart track with 800 horsepower.''
On Monday afternoon (it was Bank Holiday in England), Tracy drove off from the green flag, and the first third of the race was less than scintillating. The field settled into tight nose-to-tale clumps, yet no one did much but follow the man ahead.
Tracy built nearly a two-second cushion within a few laps. Behind him was Bourdais, who had started second, with Bruno Junqueira third. Yet Tracy was running more downforce than his Newman-Haas rivals, and therefore used more fuel. He pitted for the first time on lap 55 of 165, and Bourdais put the hammer down. When Bourdais pitted a lap later, he managed to return to the circuit ahead of Tracy, in the lead.
The two ran in tandem for the next 58 laps, the gap varying slightly from 0.5 second. Junqueira, meanwhile, got trapped behind slower cars and lost touch with the leaders. Tracy pitted first, again, for the second stop, and Bourdais held the lead in the exchange. Yet Tracy was barely adrift when the stops were complete, and the two were set for a race to the finish.
Until Tracy's gearbox exploded.
"I could feel it tightening up for a while,'' he said. "It was only a matter of time. I couldn't get the mileage Bourdais had, but we were good to the finish. It was going to be a race.''
Whether or not he might have run Bourdais down, the British were deprived of a potentially exciting finish, and Tracy was deprived of almost certain points that could have extended his lead in the championship.
From there it looked easy for Bourdais, though it wasn't as easy as it looked. Thanks to the Indy Circuit's tight confines, there was traffic to negotiate, backmarkers to get around, and it was made more difficult by the need to conserve fuel to avoid a third stop. As he had been with Tracy breathing down his neck, Bourdais was impressively smooth and patient, never once putting a wheel wrong. So what that he stalled his car doing celebratory donuts that required he be towed to the winner's circle. Bourdais made no rookie mistakes when it counted.
The first three races suggested it was only a matter of time before Bourdais would stand atop the winner's podium. After an 11th place and two DNFs, Bourdais' time came at Brands Hatch, in the country where he won his first F3000 race.
"I was not going to push like hell to win this race, because I needed a solid finish,'' said the reigning European F3000 champ. "Everything just went perfect.''
Junqueira finished second in unspectacular fashion, making it a Newman-Haas 1-2, but he wasn't particularly pleased. "I couldn't get the mileage Sebastien did, and that cost me any chance to win,'' he said.
Dominguez was third, but unlike his fluke win in Australia last year, this one was well earned. He outperformed veteran teammate Roberto Moreno at every turn, at a track he'd never seen before.
With only one caution period for five laps and race laps averaging 112 mph, the London Champ Car Trophy finished in less than two hours. Four races in, the season is clearly shaping up as a Tracy/ Newman-Haas battle, and Tracy's smoking transmission reduced his lead over Junqueira to 11 points.
Pete Rozelle did okay the first time through greater London. Brands' prime grandstands were packed. General admission around the edge of the circuit was lined up 10 or 15 deep. The official race attendance of "just under 40,000'' didn't seem terribly out of kilter, and both CART and track management crowed about the success of Brands' inaugural event.
It's overly optimistic to take Brands as validation of Pook's business plan. It's worth noting that there were more people the first year at Rockingham, and that event is history after just two tries.
But the first London Champ Car Trophy was a good start for the "new'' Champ Car, and a decent show for British fans who were quite knowledgeable about the proceedings. But from the new CART perspective, the most encouraging thing might be that no one seemed worried about what was happening back home again, in Indiana.
Fourth time proved to be the charm for Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais., Paul Tracy suffered, well, let's just say he suffered well.