Hinchcliffe leads the way in Atlantic qualifying LAS VEGAS, Nevada – It’s Vegas and Lady Luck was smiling on James Hinchcliffe (#9 NOCO/ProWorks) on Friday afternoon.
The 20-year-old Toronto racer didn’t clean up at the craps table and he didn’t hit the jackpot on the slot machines. Instead, Hinchcliffe avoided an early and potentially dangerous spin on the fast and fabulous downtown Vegas street circuit and then he turned on the speed. With a dramatic final-lap push, “Hinch” scorched the top time of the day to lead the first round of qualifying in the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.
After finishing third in the morning practice session as the first cars to turn laps on the 2.44-mile temporary street circuit, Hinchcliffe came out strong in qualifying, but almost watched it slip away. He spun on track just a few minutes into the 35-minute session and narrowly avoided hitting the wall and bringing out a red flag, which would’ve cost him his fastest qualifying lap. He also managed to avoid making contact with any cars in a treacherous corner while he tried to get back underway. After rejoining the qualifying fray, Hinchcliffe began his pursuit of the provisional pole.
While Hinchcliffe was thanking his lucky stars, some of the other top young rising stars of the Atlantic Championship were busy beating up the timing clock. Several drivers harnessed their speed on the smooth circuit, taking their place at the top of the qualifying leaderboard.
Carl Skerlong (#24 King Taco/USRT) was impressive for the US Racetronics team as the rookie from Mukilteo, Washington secured the top early time. Robert Wickens (#3 Red Bull/INDECK) of Canada also made his presence felt as he paced the session at Vegas, along with fellow rookie Simona De Silvestro (#5 Deans Knight/Wasteco) of Walker Racing. Hinchcliffe’s teammate at the Minden, Nevada-based Sierra Sierra Enterprises team - Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) – also proved speedy after pacing the morning practice session.
After qualifying was brought to a halt when Dominick Muermans (#22 Muermans Group) made hard contact with a tire barrier, the 27-car Atlantic field had just 13 minutes once the session was re-started to get the most out of their Mazda-Cosworth/Swift/Cooper machines.
In the final minutes of the session both Wickens and Skerlong took turns at the top of the timing sheets as they continued to impress in their first series qualifying. But just before taking the checkered flag, Hinchcliffe had the final say as he stopped the clock at 1:32.410 (95.055 mph) to lead all drivers in the action-packed session. The impressive lap gave him the first championship point of the season and helped him secure a front-row starting position for Sunday’s 50-minute Vegas Grand Prix Atlantic race (tape-delayed on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. ET on Friday, April 13).
Skerlong, the 2006 Formula TR 2000 Pro Series champion, finished second overall as he clocked a top time of 1:32.433 (95.021 mph). After capturing the Formula BMW USA title last season, Wickens also began his Atlantic career in fine fashion securing third in qualifying with a fast lap of 1:32.542 (94.919 mph).
The top returning Atlantic racer from last season, Matos narrowly missed a top-three performance in qualifying as he slotted in fourth at 1:32.693 (94.764 mph). Another returning racewinner from ‘06, Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Daltile/Konica Minolta/Dynacor) of PR1 Motorsports, claimed fifth in opening-round qualifying with a mark of 1:32,835 (94.619 mph).
The second half of the top 10 qualifiers from Friday also featured some of the top expected title contenders for ’07. Newman Wachs Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand (#36 Newman Wachs Racing) was sixth after posting a time of 1:33.014 (94.437 mph) while French racer Franck Perera (#11 CJ Motorsport) of Condor Motorsports wound up seventh in provisional qualifying at 1:33.083 (94.367 mph).
Mexico’s David Garza (#4 Axtel/Tecate/Madisa/USRT) was eighth with a top lap of 1:33.088 (94.362 mph), while De Silvestro owned a time of 1:33.298 (94.150 mph) and American John Edwards (#7 Red Bull/INDECK) completed the top-10 rundown at 1:33.478 (93.369 mph).
Saturday the Atlantics return to the Vegas streets with a 45-minute practice session beginning at 8 a.m. PT. The final round of qualifying will take the green flag Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
For more information on North America’s premier open-wheel development series and to follow all of this weekend’s action from Vegas through the Live Timing link, please visit www.champcaratlantic.com.
Quotes from the top three drivers from the first-round of qualifying follow:
Robert Wickens (#3 Red Bull/Indeck):
“It was my first qualifying session in the Champ Car Atlantic season and I didn’t really know what to expect, but once I got into it I realized it was like any other qualifying session. It went pretty well, went pretty mistake free. There was a red flag right about half way so it worked out basically perfect for us. Team Red Bull Forsythe did an outstanding job and they gave me a car to put me out front. The track is outstanding, they definitely did an amazing job with it, there’s a couple of bumps that are pretty hard to get used to but once you figure that out it’s not that bad. It’s extremely wide. I go into corner one and I don’t know where to go. That took a little bit of time to get used to but I think I figured it out now.”
Carl Skerlong (#24 King Taco/USRT):
“I came in here and didn’t really know what to expect. It definitely is a competitive field. I was used to a seven-car field so it was definitely an adventure going out but it’s just like any other qualifying session. It was put my head down and go. (About being up to speed quickly) In (the test at) Laguna we were somewhat the same way. I knew with the limited sessions we had here on the track it was important to get up to speed quick. I walked the track really well yesterday, found my marks and put it to use today. (About the track) It is Las Vegas to start, you can’t beat it. There are a few bumps but it’s a street course you go in there somewhat expecting it and it’s a great venue.”
James Hinchcliffe (#9 NOCO/ProWorks):
“It was a moderately eventful session for us. On the old tires on the first stint I made a little mistake and got the car backwards. I managed to keep it off the wall and again managed to keep it from going backwards into the wall when I was spinning it around. The biggest issue was not getting stuck on the track because then I would lose my fastest lap. Then I had a pretty good lap and a red flag came out. At the end I got caught behind another car but I finally got by him and my crew came on the radio and told me that I was P8 with one minute to go and that this was my last shot. I didn’t have the chance to work my tires too much and see what they were capable of so I held my breath and closed my eyes and prayed for the best. (On the importance of locking up a front-row start) Starting out front is so key. It takes a bit of the pressure off for tomorrow, but we will still go out there and try and repeat.” Champ Car Atlantic PR