The rookie is no longer a secret after earning the pole for today's race, his first in CART.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- Were it not for the wonder of satellite television, Paul Tracy and Adrian Fernandez might have been a little more surprised than they appeared Saturday.
But both had watched Sebastien Bourdais drive before this weekend, and his talent was evident even half a world away.
"I saw the races that he won last year in Formula 3000, and I knew he was testing in Formula One," Tracy said. "You don't get an opportunity to do things like that unless you're a talented driver."
Hired to drive the second entry for Newman/Haas, which won the CART championship with Cristiano da Matta last season, Bourdais pulled a fast one in his Champ Car World Series debut.
The Frenchman, who turns 23 Friday, won the pole Saturday for today's inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with a 106.710 mph lap.
"It is very difficult to expect a better result," Bourdais said. "The car has been great all through the weekend. ... It's so good to start the season this way."
Bourdais is the first Champ Car rookie to earn a pole in his first event since Nigel Mansell in 1993, but he is still an outsider surrounded by the remains of CART's old guard.
Of the nine rookies who start today's race, only Mario Haberfeld joins Bourdais in the top 10.
"Out on the racetrack, it's still the same," said Tracy, who qualified second at 105.758 mph. "You're pushing to the limit all the time. Maybe the field is not as deep as it used to be. But the front eight or nine guys, it's everything you have when you're out there for qualifying. It doesn't change."
Tracy, 34, briefly held the pole during the afternoon qualifying session and lost it almost instantly to Bourdais.
A veteran with a reputation for tricking inexperienced drivers and trying to psyche them out at the starts of races, Tracy leads active drivers with 19 series wins and 13 poles yet is searching for his first CART championship.
"If I look at the reputation, it's not a good way to approach a race," said Bourdais, who will attempt to become the first since Mansell to win his first CART race. "He's very experienced. He's quick. I'm young. I still have a lot of things to learn, but I also have been racing for a long time. We're all professionals."
Fernandez, who missed the final three races of the 2002 season with a neck injury that he continues to recover from, qualified third, followed by Patrick Carpentier and Michel Jourdain.
"I'm not 100 percent," the 37-year-old Fernandez said. "I hope I can get into a rhythm (today) and get to the end. ... Apart from that my speed is coming back. I've been trying just to make no mistakes, take my time and not pressure myself."
Fernandez has won seven races in 160 starts. "I didn't expect him to be so quick so soon," Fernandez said of Bourdais.
And particularly not as quick as Bourdais' Newman/Haas teammate Bruno Junqueira, who is driving the same car da Matta won the championship in last season.
Junqueira failed to improve his time Saturday.
"I think (Bourdais) got the attention of Bruno more than the rest of us," Fernandez said.
The 26-year-old Brazilian spun during qualifying, lost credit for a lap that would have put him in third place and instead will start seventh.
"I couldn't get more than two laps in a row together," Junqueira said. "It was pretty frustrating. ... The team is one of the best in terms of race strategy and pit stops so that can only help me in the race. I do have a fast car, that's important.
"Unfortunately I couldn't show that in qualifying."