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Two sparkling debuts

CART rookie Sebastien Bourdais sets the pace; drivers give the waterfront course good reviews.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- For nearly a year, officials promoting the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg likened the race along the downtown waterfront to a mini-Monte Carlo.

What do you know?

They were right.

But forget the sparkling blue water, brilliant sunshine and yachts in the background as cars speed by at 160 mph. It turns out the two have a chicane in common. St. Petersburg's temporary street circuit has a tricky backside chicane reminiscent of the popular Formula One race's famed swimming pool turn.

Only faster.

The Champ Car World Series turned its first official laps of 2003 on Friday, and drivers gave the 1.806-mile, 14-turn circuit in St. Petersburg rave reviews.

"I think it is a driver's track," Oriol Servia said. "This is a place where you can really attack and enjoy and go fast."

Rookie Sebastien Bourdais won the provisional pole with an average speed of 105.415 mph in the No. 2 Lola. His teammate at Newman/Haas Racing, championship favorite Bruno Junqueira, was next, .242 seconds behind. Servia was third.

Bourdais, a Frenchman, could become the first rookie to win the pole in his debut race since Nigel Mansell in 1993. Mansell was the reigning Formula One champion when he made his CART debut, winning from the pole at Australia on his way to the series title.

The rest of the field will try to knock Bourdais off the pole in today's second-round qualifying session, but as the provisional pole winner he is guaranteed a front-row spot for Sunday's race. The remainder of the grid will be determined today.

"The car was perfect," said Bourdais, a former F1 test driver who was fastest during CART's spring training test session two weeks ago at Sebring International Raceway.

"Qualifying is an exercise I really appreciate. I hope to continue like this. To be compared to Mansell is really nice."

Several drivers complimented the course.

At many street circuits, drivers must navigate bumps and irregularities in the road that are barely noticeable in a sedan going 40 mph, but make for treacherous conditions at four times that speed.

St. Petersburg allocated $85,000 to repave all city streets being used, which made for a smooth surface to everyone's liking.

"I like a lot this track," said Junqueira, last year's championship runner-up and a favorite to win the title this season. "CART and the St. Petersburg people did a very good job preparing the track. They are not going to need any changes for next year.

"To be true, last year when I went to Miami and Denver, the tracks were not that good," Junqueira said of 2002's first-year events. "They need a lot of changes for this year. This track doesn't need any changes. This will be one of the best street races of the year."

Though not terribly long, the course has a little bit of everything -- low-, medium- and high-speed corners; long, wide straightaways perfect for passing; and, of course, the tight chicane.

"It's really, really nice," Servia said. "I think there are a couple of places to overtake. It's quite wide. These cars, it's easy to make mistakes. I'm sure you're going to see a lot of overtaking."

Different from previous years, Champ Cars no longer have traction control, a computer device that keeps the tires from spinning. That, too, is adding to the degree of difficulty for drivers as they acquaint themselves with a new course.

Toughest is the transition onto and off of the runway at Albert Whitted Airport, which serves as the frontstraight. The runway was not repaved, so drivers must make the transition from one surface to another.

"When you come out of the last turn, the front tires get on the airport pavement, then you get more grip and suddenly it just snaps," Junqueira said. "It's really difficult to do the last turn. Same as braking to Turn1, because you brake with one level of grip, then you have a transition between concrete and asphalt."

Drivers will be challenged over the entire circuit.

"It's very technical," Junqueira said. "In the Mickey Mouse (part) -- Turns 4, 5, 6, those low corners -- I have to improve myself. It is very difficult to find a car I feel comfortable to attack the corners."

Asked what could be the trickiest part of the course, drivers agreed on the chicane. Bourdais, using the French word for swimming pool, compared it to Monaco's "La Piscine" turn.

Drivers will carry a lot of speed into the quick combination of Turn 11, a subtle right-hander, and Turn 12, a quick left-hander. Single file, the chicane is no problem. But if cars enter the chicane side by side, it could be troublesome.

"The back chicane is extremely quick, which is a lot of fun for the drivers," Servia said. "In the race, it may be a little dangerous, but right now it's very, very good. ... But I think they need to move the walls so we don't have a big wreck."

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