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Smooth course makes mechanics' job easier

Biggest decision has been when to change the mandated spec engine.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- The drivers aren't the only ones who appreciate the smoothness of the street course at the first-year Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. After two days of qualifying, the mechanics are growing to love it, too.

"The track hasn't been very hard on brakes," said Rob Hill, team manager for American Spirit Team Johansson. "It hasn't been very hard on equipment."

And that has made for few real surprises in the Champ Car garages, a relief for mechanics who have enough to do without worrying about the effect a less-than-ideal course might have on their cars. But that doesn't mean they haven't been busy. There are always adjustments and decisions to make the night before the race.

For many teams this weekend, one of the bigger calls was when to replace an engine. This season CART mandated a spec engine for all teams, and "because of the (new) specs, the engine will run about 1,500 miles" instead of 500 or 600, said Pedro Campuzano, a former St. Petersburg resident and chief mechanic for Sebastien Bourdais' No.2 car, which won the pole for today's race.

Generally it's better to have a fresher engine, Campuzano said, but since the Grand Prix is the first race with the new engine specs, no one is sure where the mileage "sweet spot" lies. Bourdais got a new engine after Saturday's qualifying. Newman/Haas Racing teammate Bruno Junqueira's car got one Friday.

Generally, mechanics go over every inch of the car the night before the race, tighten anything loose and change out the brakes.

Campuzano said many of the adjustments "are just to put the car a little more on the edge," and make them faster, like changing the suspension setup a little bit "so the front end tends to slide a little bit." Sometimes mechanics adjust the car's aerodynamics, moving small parts of the wing to force more air downward on the car, making it better grip the track.

How well the car grips the course plays a huge part in a driver's comfort level. Generally the more rubber left on the track, the better the tires adhere, which means street courses -- particularly St. Petersburg's, which was recently repaved -- need a few days of racing to get a grip.

The mechanics figured the Saturday afternoon downpour probably lessened some of the accumulated grip. During the day, intense sunshine and drops of oil from the cars might make it slicker. The drivers -- and their mechanics -- will have to adjust.

"(The rain) will wash some of the rubber down," Hill said. "It will make the track a little bit greener. It will be more aggressive on the tire wear. We'll set things up a little bit different so we don't abuse the tires so much."

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