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Changing weather creates mystery on track

By MIKE READLING and BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- The weather during the first two days of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has been unpredictable. Conditions on the track haven't been the same during any of the three Champ Car practices or either qualifying session.

Crew chiefs and drivers have seen conditions go from a cool haze early Friday to warmer temperatures later in the morning to downright hot, then back to overcast with rain on the horizon Saturday afternoon.

The result is all 19 Champ Car teams scrambling to nail down the proper set-up for a track they've never raced.

"It's changing fast," said Patrick Carpentier, who qualified fourth for today's race. "You see the temperature has dropped down just a little bit, and that's where you see the difference with the traction control. We don't have it any more, and a lot of guys kept spinning off on cold tires. I don't know what to expect weatherwise, I don't know what to expect for the race, and I don't know what to expect from my car."

Carpentier's teammate, Paul Tracy, said the effect windy conditions Saturday afternoon had on his qualifying run bothered him. As the temperature dropped, the track's grip went with it. That meant plenty of cars facing the wrong way on the 1.806-mile circuit.

"Every time we seemed like we were on a good lap, the red flag came out because someone had spun," Tracy said.

Of course, if you're Sebastien Bourdais and you're trying to protect your pole position, the weather was great.

"That's one of the reasons why we were pretty good," Bourdais said. "It'll probably change during the two hours we race too."

THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR: Carpentier and Tracy showed the advantage of having a teammate.

Tracy changed engines before Friday's qualifying run and missed the warmup session while his team finished installing it, only to finally hit the track and run the 10th fastest qualifying time. Carpentier was fourth overall, so the two sat down and discussed their setups.

"His setup was a little bit different," Tracy said. "His springs were shorter, he had a different motion ratio on his rocker arms. ... I decided to start with his setup (Saturday) morning, and then I made a few changes. And then he made a few of the same changes to his car for qualifying."

It worked. Tracy qualified second and Carpentier fourth.

"This morning he helped me, and we made it faster," Carpentier said. "I'm pretty happy, it's been excellent teamwork this weekend, pretty much the best teamwork I've seen. The main thing is we're both up high."

HOT STUFF: Joy Albury stood just beyond the pits, sweating. She would be quite pleased, she said, if that's all she has to do today.

Albury, 24, is one of the St. Petersburg firefighters who will be stationed along pit road and elsewhere today.

"Warm," she said of the gentle breeze passing between the team tents containing tires, computers and the rest of the equipment needed on race day.

Albury was cocooned in 20 pounds of protection -- heavy gloves, a canvas fire suit, an insulated thermal barrier underneath it to protect her against the heat, a fireproof layer under both in case the outer layers catch fire and regular clothing under all of that. Her mask and helmet were within arm's reach.

Her face was flushed. There are more comfortable places, in more comfortable clothing, to spend an afternoon than under a bright sun.

"I don't mind," Albury said. "I've never been to a race before. It's kind of interesting to see all (the crew members) doing all the tire changes and things. The whole racing circuit is new to me. It can get a little warm but I'm not complaining."

WHERE'S ORIOL?: On Friday Oriol Servia posted the third fastest time in provisional pole qualifying, but Saturday he was deep in the field.

The problem was Servia began racing too early on cold tires and backed into a tire wall, ruining his qualifying effort. Because he brought out a red flag, his fastest qualifying lap was taken away, and he was forced to use his second fastest lap to determine his position on the grid. He will start ninth.

ROOKIE WATCH: For the second day pole-winner Bourdais and Mario Haberfeld (sixth overall) were the fastest first-year drivers in a field filled with rookies.

After Haberfeld, the next highest rookie qualifiers were Darren Manning in 11th and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 12th. First-year Champ Car drivers took up seven of the final nine spots in the 19-car field, including the final four positions.

"This is my first race in these cars and with the limited testing we have done, I am happy to be as close to the field as we are," said Roberto Gonzalez, who qualified 18th.

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