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Rookies not major cause for concern yet

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- With almost half of the 19-car field never having run a Champ Car race, all eyes are sure to be on the rookies this weekend.

Friday's qualifying session was the first chance the drivers had on the track together in a competitive situation. Rookie Sebastien Bourdais claimed the provisional pole.

Most of the rookie mistakes were minor. Ryan Hunter-Reay stalled at the pit entrance, requiring a red flag for workers to remove his car from the racing line. Rodolfo Lavin spun exiting the pits a couple of times and Roberto Gonzalez and Joel Camathias had trouble keeping their cars from stalling in the pits.

The longest red flag of the session was brought out when veteran Roberto Moreno, at 44 the oldest driver in the field, backed into the tire wall in Turn 10, destroying his car's rear wing.

"The biggest problem I had today was with one of the most experienced drivers," said Oriol Servia, Friday's third-fastest qualifier. "I think as a rookie they will make mistakes because this series is complicated and there are a lot of things you think you know and, suddenly, they're coming to you for answers."

Bruno Junqueira affirmed that rookies posed little problem during qualifying. Except one.

"Sebastien was going too fast," Junqueira quipped, referring to teammate Bourdais. "On the track I had to pass some of them and so far they've done a good job. But when you put 19 cars in the middle of the track and the cars are cold, it's going to be different."

A major reason the rookies weren't a cause for concern was a lot of them seemed to be figuring out their cars and set-ups.

Besides Bourdais, the highest qualifying rookie was Mario Haberfeld in eighth. Seven of the final eight positions were filled by first-year drivers.

FLYING BUCS: Buccaneer players Mike Alstott and Jeff Christy jumped into two pace cars Friday and got a little taste of what the Champ Car drivers will face all weekend.

Riding in the passenger seats of separate Mustang convertibles, the running back and offensive lineman each circled the 1.806-mile track twice.

"I wouldn't want to be behind the wheel of that," Alstott said. "But from the passenger seat it was pretty cool to enjoy."

Christy said his driver took the Mustang to about 110 mph on the back straightaway but the most amazing thing was entering the corners and realizing how late the drivers hit the brakes.

"It was a lot of fun," Christy said. "The smile won't go off my face for a couple days. It was very neat to ride with someone who actually knew how to drive."

NEW CAR, SAME LOOK: This year's Champ Cars changed slightly from last year's, though it's going to be difficult for the average fan to notice.

In an effort to reduce the cost of running a team, CART officials have mandated a spec engine for all teams and implemented several other minor adjustments to the car. But money wasn't the only concern.

"With the current economy, we're seeing this across the board in all forms of motorsport. Cost-cutting is absolutely a top priority," said John Lopes, CART's vice president of racing operations. "And one of the things we use as a measure is, Can the fans tell the difference? Does it affect the show? It's very important.

"Your average fan can't tell the difference on all the aero bits that are on the car, but they can certainly tell the general outline of the car, the sleekness of the car and the general configuration."

Lopes said his staff will continue to hone the cars and proceed with plans to have multiple engine manufacturers by 2005.

BIKES, BIKES EVERYWHERE: From Emerson Fittipaldi all the way down to the rear-end tire changer at the end of the pits, bikes seem to be the way to navigate the Champ Car paddock. Crew members, team owners and mechanics use pedal power to get from one place to another.

With bikes being easily stored in the back of a hauler or just a couple of wrench twists from being assembled, the hardest part of getting around on two wheels is all the fans you have to avoid.

AROUND THE TRACK: At 10:03 a.m., Paul Tracy turned the first lap on the circuit during the first practice session. His time of 1:12.799 converted to 89.309 mph. ... Twenty-seven minutes later Alex Tagliani became the first driver to average more than 100 mph for a lap. ... Servia was the fastest car during the 10-minute warmup before qualifying.

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