Matos dominates first-round Atlantic qualifying HOUSTON, Texas (April 20, 2007) – About the only thing that can slow down Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) these days is a damaged race car.
Although he suffered a broken front suspension late in Friday’s first-round of qualifying for this weekend’s Fast Trac 100 at the Grand Prix of Houston (tape-delayed broadcast on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 26) Matos still emerged from the 35-minute afternoon session at JAGFlo Speedway at Reliant Park with the provisional pole position and another championship point. The 25-year-old Brazilian racer recorded a blazing lap midway through qualifying and he was able to cruise through the rest of the session, struggling only after his suspension gave way, as the rest of the 28-car Atlantic field tried to get in the same vicinity of his top time.
Once the checkered flag flew to end provisional qualifying, it was a familiar site so far in the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. Matos was left on top of the charts with an impressive mark of 1:05.394 (92.651 mph) on the 1.683-mile street circuit constructed around Reliant Arena. The time was nearly seven tenths-of-a-second faster than the next-best qualifying lap as the series leader continued his early-season dominance in pursuit of the Atlantic title and the $2 million champion’s bonus to compete in the Champ Car World Series in 2008.
After winning the first two events of the season, at Las Vegas two weeks ago and on the streets of Long Beach last week, Matos is off to a fantastic start as he tries to become the first Atlantic driver to win the first three events of the season in 17 years. In addition to securing a front-row starting position for Sunday’s race for topping Friday qualifying, Matos also earned a bonus point and now carries a 12-point lead in the series standings, 66-54, over his closest competitor.
With the benefit of the Sierra Sierra team behind him, Matos’ teammate, James Hinchcliffe (#9 NOCO/ProWorks), also enjoyed a strong qualifying. The 20-year-old native of Toronto followed up a third-place performance in Friday morning practice with a runner-up result in the afternoon. “Hinch” carded a top time of 1:06.092 (91.672 mph) for the second-fastest lap overall.
After an accident involving Carl Skerlong (#24 King Taco/USRT) and Richard Heistand (#37 Eola Capital Investments) brought a halt to qualifying late in the session, the Atlantic competitors were left with less than three minutes to try and measure up to the mark established by Matos. Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Konica Minolta/Dynacor) did the most with the time remaining as he got up to speed quickly and threw down a quick lap of 1:06.300 (91.385 mph) on his 19th and final lap of opening-round qualifying. The time was good enough for third on the provisional grid.
In the opening practice of the weekend, Frenchman Franck Perera (#11 CJ Motorsport) battled Matos for the top mark among all series drivers. Perera also fared well in qualifying as he finished fourth with a time of 1:06.310 (91.371 mph). Storming back after a tough first two races to begin his Atlantic career, David Garza (#4 Axtel/Tecate/Madisa/USRT) completed the top five qualifiers with his fast lap of 1:06.555 (91.034 mph).
Newman Wachs Racing rookie J.R. Hildebrand (#36 Newman Wachs Racing) also enjoyed a strong Friday as he was sixth overall with a time of 1:06.615 (90.952 mph). Continuing his impressive early-season performances, Mathiasen Motorsports’ Justin Sofio (#26 RLM Investments) owned a top time of 1:06.666 (90.883 mph) for a seventh-place qualifying effort.
Junior Strous (#16 Shell/Best Box/HTP/Red, White & Bluezz USA) of Condor Motorsports and the Netherlands slotted in eighth on Friday with his fast lap of 1:06.675 (90.871 mph), while Italy’s Giacomo Ricci (#18 Banca Italease/Lotto/Global) of Conquest Racing was ninth at 1:06.709 (90.824 mph). Walker Racing rookie Simona De Silvestro (#5 Deans Knight/Wasteco) rounded out the top 10 with her quick mark of 1:06.784 (90.722 mph).
With some work to do overnight to catch up to the pace set by Matos to begin the weekend, the Atlantic field returns to the track Saturday with a 45-minute practice beginning at 8:45 a.m. CT. The final round of qualifying will take the green flag at 12:15 p.m. Saturday afternoon where the final grid for Sunday’s race will be determined.
Log on to www.champcaratlantic.com to follow all of the action this weekend from Houston and to watch Sunday’s race on demand.
ATLANTIC QUALIFYING NOTES
With a new track layout and new length of 1.683 miles this season at JAGFlo Speedway, Matos’ first-round qualifying time of 1:05.394 goes down as a new Atlantic track record.
The top three drivers in today’s opening round qualifying all started among the top six in last season’s Atlantic race at Houston. Matos won his first series pole last year at this circuit; Hinchcliffe qualified fifth and Bomarito was sixth in final-round qualifying in 2006.
Quotes from the top three drivers in today’s qualifying follow:
Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) of Sierra Sierra Enterprises:
“We definitely found out a couple of things in the car in the first session today. We improved a lot during qualifying. I was a bit surprised with the gap between first and second place. My engineer came on the radio and told me the gap, 1.4 and I said okay, I am one tenth and a half quicker and he said no, 1.4 seconds. So I was very surprised with that. When we put on the new tires, the red (flag) came right on the next lap we were not able to put a lap together. When I came to the pits because of the red, we found out that we had a lower arm that was broke. The Sierra Sierra crew did an amazing job to get that fixed. We went back out but I was last in the line so I was never able to put a lap together with the new tires but the car felt much, much better. I think there is a little more time in the car and hopefully we can keep doing what we’re doing and get the pole tomorrow.”
James Hinchcliffe (#9 NOCO/ProWorks) of Sierra Sierra Enterprises:
“We had a few issues in Long Beach last week but the Sierra Sierra guys did a real good job taking the car apart, finding a few little issues and putting it back together good enough to be right up at the front it’s kind of a mantra in the series if you have a good Friday it’s going to be a good weekend but if you don’t, you’re kind of chasing because it’s just so competitive you’re just like that one session behind for the rest of the weekend. That’s kind of what happened in Long Beach. Like I said we put a good car together. To be quite honest, I’ve never been so gutted to be in second place in my life when your teammate is seven tenths ahead of you. Obviously it was a clean session for us but on new tires we were not able to get a lap with the red flags. I had a temperature problem with the car and I had to come in when I first went out on new tires and then right as I went back out that red flag came out and I could get those two laps in at the end. I was just about half a tenth off of my fast lap and I wasn’t able to improve and still it’s a gargantuan gap up to Rafa. Good start but we still have work to do.”
Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Konica Minolta/Dynacor) of PR1 Motorsports:
“We had a long red again right at the end of the session. We all knew we were going to get two, possibly three laps at the beacon. We knew we had to try and lay down a flier. I was able to somewhat maximize the package I had, we definitely left some on the table today but not a second. Rafa’s out there a bit so we really need to put our heads down tonight and work hard. (About the red flags coming near the end of the sessions) We’ve definitely been one of the better cars right at the end when we only get one or two laps. But again we definitely missed the boat. Like you said, it’s been a common trend, we were planning on it but we still missed, we should have put the new tires on about five minutes earlier than we did, it was in the plan but you kind of get in the heat of the moment trying to make progress on the car before going to the new tires. We just waited a bit too long and the red came out and then we were forced to throw one down at the end.”