This is my 10th in a
continuing series of articles that take a different perspective
on races, i.e. what happened that others might have overlooked.
Check back with AutoRacing1.com the week following every race for my
Long Beach presents CART with one of their signature events. We could even go so far as to compare it to Monaco in F1. It's a fast track with long straights and of course the famous hairpin. This is only the second race of the season and guys like Zanardi, Moreno, Fernandez and Fittipaldi have to work to erase their disastrous outings in Mexico.
Honda has always been recognized as producing strong engines in the CART series. In fact, one has to think back to 1995 before we have a driver's champion not powered by Honda. In particular, Honda's dominance exists in the strength of the cars on road and street circuits. That dominance was in question when in Mexico a Ford took pole and a Toyota outside pole. A third place starting position isn't exactly shabby but not what de Ferran wanted, I'm sure. So, during a wacky qualifying session in Long Beach the pole went to Castroneves in the closing minutes (literally) and returned Honda to the forefront of the field.
I always like to look at the opening lap and particularly how the field charges toward the first turn as a precursor of what to expect during the race. I have to say that I couldn't believe my eyes when it appeared that Brack was going to take the lead into the first turn. I couldn't believe the raw power of the Ford engine in pulling slightly ahead of Castroneves' Honda. Under braking, however, Brack couldn't make the pass stick. Here we are presented with that question of the Penske-Reynard. This is not a stock Reynard. We know that, there is no denying that. But, Castroneves was able to brake much further into the corner than Brack. That is why I was surprised to see that Brack couldn't really keep up or mount any challenges in the opening stages of the race.
This isn't the first time we talked about the differences of the Penske-Reynard with the rest of the field. I think Long Beach underlined the differences of the Penske's. And I think it is ironic that the shape and profile of the Penske side pods look so similar to that of the Lolas. I say it is ironic because Lola has really shown that they are going to be tough to beat. Mexico proved that. Brack and de Matta both in Lolas showed the rest of the field around the Fundidora Circuit. In the opening session of qualifying in Long Beach it was Jourdain that was the class of the field, again in a Lola. The top four positions for much of the race were Penske-Reynard, Lola, Lola and Penske-Reynard. Early results from testing showed that Penske was going to remain the team to beat for 2001 as they were in 2000. Additionally, testing suggested that Lola was going to be strong on the ovals, particularly the short ovals. This changes the scope of things with how strong Lola has been in these first two road/street circuits.
Earlier I mentioned that Zanardi, Moreno, Fernandez and Fittipaldi, had to shake off a disappointing opening race in Mexico. You know, when I heard that Zanardi was coming back to CART I was happy. To be honest, I was never really a big Zanardi fan but I liked what he brought to the sport. He got people excited with his doughnuts and his fiery drives from mid-pack. Maybe, Zanardi had too much fire for his first CART start in three years. So, I anticipated that he would settle down and find a comfortable rhythm for Long Beach. He started in the 20th position. Granted, he is in the "slow" group because he has no points from the previous race. Unfortunately, he finished 26th due to mechanical difficulties.
Last year, Roberto Moreno was my sentimental favorite last year. I was glad to see a team like Patrick take a chance on Moreno and I was beyond myself when he dominated Cleveland last year. I was disappointed when a still green track in Mexico bit him. For qualifying, Moreno was pushed back to the "slow" group because of his finish in Mexico. He started 22nd and finished 11th. No small feat on a street circuit and points are points. And considering his close encounter with his countryman Gugelmin during a late race restart. Apparently, Moreno was looking down to adjust a map setting and didn't see Gugelmin slowing in front of him.
Fernandez had a lot riding in Mexico. He is one of that country's biggest sports heroes. So, it was a major disappointment that he finished 19th. He finished 16th in Long Beach. Let us not forget that this is a totally new team. But that new team has a lot of quality experience with Tom Anderson who came from Ganassi Racing and Fernandez. This is a well-sponsored team with Tecate/Quaker State and should be able to shake off the teething problems. Look for this team to get back to the front.
Christian Fittipaldi is in the unenviable position of being de Matta's teammate right now. De Matta is on a rampage to prove that he is a genuine championship contender. He won Mexico in his first outing with Newman-Haas racing and was always in the hunt in Long Beach. He remains our points leader going into Texas. Fittipaldi on the other hand finished 20th in Mexico and 24th in Long Beach. This is not the way, I'm sure; he wanted to open the 2001 season after winning the last race of 2000 at California Speedway. This is the greatest opportunity for success for Christian at Newman-Haas. His teammate isn't a brand name like Andretti and he should be able to muster equal billing. A little racing luck and Fittipaldi will return to the front of the field.
Team Green has a lot of expectations riding on them this year. The addition of Andretti to the stable gives Green three very talented and proven race winners who can battle for the championship. The secret will lie in their ability to transform the talent and the information into a winning formula. The haven't had a bad start to the season they just have to figure out a way past the Penske Team, Brack, and de Matta.
Tony Kanaan is experiencing a rebirth with Mo Nunn's switch to Honda engines after a disappointing year with Mercedes/Ilmor. The addition of Zanardi puts a spotlight on the team. So far, it is Kanaan that is making the most of it.
Michele Jourdain Jr. was on the verge of brining greatness to Coyne Racing before he moved to Bettenhausen. The untimely death of Tony Bettenhausen set this team back. Combine that with the total lack of competitiveness from Mercedes/Ilmor and nobody expected too much from this team. Now, the team enjoys partnership with their primary sponsor and the strength of Ford power and we are starting to see the potential of this young man. I believe that he would benefit from a teammate but it doesn't look like that will happen this year.
Jimmy Vasser drives the unsponsored car of Patrick Racing this year. This is in stark contrast to his years with Ganassi. The 1996 Champ is proving that he still has the fire and drive to win races and championships. If Patrick Racing can put together better qualifying efforts this year, Jimmy and Roberto will be tough to beat.
Patrick Carpentier does not need another injury sideline like so many years past. He had surgery to repair a break in his wrist and hopefully will be ready for Texas.
Max Papis is not taking to easily to the Lola like his teammate. Hopefully Max can shake whatever is ailing him and return to the front where he belongs.
Pac West is starting to show those winning ways of so long ago. They didn't necessarily show that with their race result in Long Beach but this team has got it going. They have taken a liking to their Toyota power. If they can sort their engineering program, they could be the sleepers of this season.
Now, we are onto the oval in Texas. I have to admit that I excited about this race upcoming. It should be fast and furious. I hope there is a good turn out by the fans and hopefully give those Texas fans a look at open wheel racing CART style.
The beginning of every new season brings with it a number of questions and question of the questions. This season is of course no exception. Prime among those questions is who will take the title? Well, if the competition is any bit as good as it was last year we won't know the answer to that question for awhile.
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