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Matos leads Atlantic test times at Sebring
SEBRING, Florida– In the first day of open testing Saturday for the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, it sort of felt like the first day of school.

With 25 drivers representing nine different countries – including a remarkable 19 rookie Atlantic racers – posting lap times at Sebring International Raceway, the first part of the day seemed to be dedicated to just getting acquainted. As drivers became acclimated to their new teams and each other on the 1.669-mile Sebring short course, the competitive rhythm began to settle in and it quickly became evident that the ’07 Atlantic field is going to be very tough and very talented.

The Mazda-Cosworth/Swift Atlantic machines, riding on the new Cooper racing rubber, completed a remarkable 4,760 relatively trouble-free miles under sunny skies and 75-degree temperatures Saturday in the first of three pre-season open tests prior to the official beginning of the ’07 season on April 8 in Las Vegas. And after seven hours of intense testing, the top 21 competitors were separated by less than a second on the timing sheets.

Keeping with the school theme, on the first day of class – not surprisingly – it was the upperclassmen that had their way with the freshmen, at least for the most part. Four of the top six lap times posted on the day were recorded by veteran Atlantic racers, although the rookies certainly showed their share of speed.

Topping the charts at the end of the afternoon was Brazilian Raphael Matos, who returns to pilot the #6 Pro-Works car for Sierra Sierra Enterprises this season. Matos, coming off a 2006 campaign that saw him post a win, four poles and fourth place in the final series standings, enters this season as one of the favorites to claim the Atlantic crown and the impressive $2 million champion’s Champ Car bonus. The second-year racer clocked the day’s top time of 58.587 (102.555 mph) on his 70th of 77 laps.

“We changed a lot of things at Sierra Sierra from last season and everything seems to be working really well,” said Matos. “We could see the progress that we were making during the day. We weren’t too worried about outright speed, we just wanted to do really good and really consistent lap times and we were able to do that. We couldn’t start the year any better than this.”

Just behind Matos on the leaderboard was another series racer testing for the team he raced for last season – Monterey, California’s Jonathan Bomarito. Returning to the cockpit of the #23 Miracle Sealants PR1 Motorsports car that he guided to his first Atlantic win at the ’06 season finale, Bomarito checked in with a fast lap of 58.612 (102.511 mph).

“It took a little while to get back into the swing of things, but once we got comfortable we showed we were one of the quickest cars out there,” said Bomarito, who felt he might’ve topped Matos’ mark if he hadn’t experienced a pushrod problem late in the afternoon after getting ready to post a fast lap by switching to new Cooper tires. “It was still a good first day back and I’m really thankful to both PR1 and Miracle Sealants for the opportunity to test here.”

One of Atlantics’ top new young guns came on late to claim the third-fastest mark of the day. J.R. Hildebrand, the 2006 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 champion who will race the #36 car for Newman Wachs Racing this season, was quick throughout the day and posted a top time of 58.618 (102.501 mph) just minutes before the end of testing at 5 p.m. ET.

“We tried a lot of different things, trying to learn about the car and the new tires, but we really starting feeling good at the end of the day,” said Hildebrand. “I got caught up behind traffic for a couple of laps there at the very end when I thought I might have at least another tenth of a second in the car with the tires coming up to speed, but overall we’re really, really happy with the way things went.”

After leading the morning session, 15-year-old Forsythe Racing Red Bull driver John Edwards wound up fourth on the day with an impressive mark of 58.668 (102.414 mph). Testing for Gelles Racing, second-year Atlantic racer Alan Sciuto was fifth in the rundown at 58.704 (102.351 mph). Series sophomore Ryan Lewis looked strong in his debut for Walker Racing as he owned a fast lap of 58.864 (102.073 mph) while his new teammate, Simona De Silvestro, also performed well for the Walker crew claiming the seventh spot on the day at 58.922 (101.972 mph).

Rookie Matt Lee will compete for Conquest Racing in ’07 and he started out the season on the right foot by posting the eighth-fastest lap of 58.930 (101.958 mph). Adrien Herberts was ninth at 58.989 (101.856 mph) while testing for Paladin Motorsports and Robert Wickens completed the top 10 at 58.995 (101.846 mph) for the Forsythe Red Bull team.

Sunday will see another full day of testing for the new Atlantic field with action set to get underway at 9 a.m. ET. Follow all of the day’s on-track activities and click on the Live Timing link at the official web site of North America’s top open-wheel development series, www.champcaratlantic.com

Combined lap times from Saturday’s testing at Sebring follow:

Raphael Matos, Sierra Sierra Enterprises – 58.587/102.555 mph
Jonathan Bomarito, PR1 Motorsports – 58.612/102.511 mph
J.R. Hildebrand (R), Newman Wachs Racing – 58.618/102.501 mph
John Edwards (R), Forsythe Racing – 58.668/102.414 mph
Alan Sciuto, Gelles Racing – 58.704/102.351 mph
Ryan Lewis, Walker Racing – 58.864/102.073 mph
Simona De Silvestro (R), Walker Racing – 58.922/101.972 mph
Matt Lee (R), Conquest Racing – 58.930/101.958 mph
Adrien Herberts (R), Paladin Motorsports – 58.989/101.856 mph
Robert Wickens (R), Forsythe Racing – 58.995/101.846 mph
Maximilian Gotz (R), Gelles Racing – 59.002/101.834 mph
Patrick Hogan (R), Conquest Racing – 59.019/101.805 mph
Junior Strous (R), Condor Motorsports – 59.048/101.755 mph
Daniel Herrington (R), Newman Wachs Racing – 59.081/101.698 mph
David Garza (R), US RaceTronics – 59.153/101.574 mph
Adrian Carrio (R), Genoa Racing – 59.198/101.497 mph
Carl Skerlong (R), US RaceTronics – 59.228/101.445 mph
Mike Forest (R), PR1 Motorsports – 59.331/101.269 mph
Justin Sofio, Mathiasen Motorsports – 59.349/101.238 mph
Ronnie Bremer, Polestar Racing Group – 59.486/101.005 mph
Michael Patrizi (R), Brooks Associates Racing – 59.518/100.951 mph
Tom Sutherland (R), Jensen MotorSport – 59.900/100.307 mph
Nathan Freke (R), Walker Racing – 59.974/100.183 mph
Richard Heistand (R), Polestar Racing Group – 1:00.134/99.917 mph
Frankie Muniz (R), Jensen MotorSport – 1:00.204/99.801 mph
R - Rookie driver

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