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Rookies display mettle

The first-timers generally show promise throughout the weekend.

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- As one of nine rookies starting Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Tiago Monteiro heard a couple of words of advice.

"I told him to just finish the race," said Emerson Fittipaldi, co-owner of the No. 7 car and winner of two Formula One world championships, one CART title and two Indianapolis 500s.

Of course, not every first-year driver can pull in for a tire change, look over and see one of the greatest open-wheeled drivers in history analyzing data from his car.

Monteiro put it all to good use, finishing seventh overall and highlighting one of the strongest rookie showings on the Champ Car circuit in almost 20 years.

Led by Mario Haberfeld in fourth place, four rookies finished in the top 10 Sunday, tying the Champ Car record set in 1985 when Arie Luyendyk, Danny Sullivan, Roberto Moreno and Rupert Keegan finished in the top 10 at Tamiami Park.

Pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais finished 11th, lending credence to the belief that this might be one of the most qualified rookie classes in CART history.

"I think most of the rookies come from very good formulas," Haberfeld said. "You learn a lot about driving on street circuits there."

The nine rookies in Sunday's 19-car field are far from battle tested and few have driven as fast for as long as CART races demand. Mental and physical fatigue were concerns but none of that showed up on the 1.806-mile circuit through downtown streets.

In fact, many drivers said the rookies were at an advantage because they started on a first-year course.

"That definitely plays to the advantage of the rookies," Monteiro said. "If you start this race at Laguna (Seca, in Monterey, Calif.,) where the veterans know it by heart, it wouldn't be the same."

This was not Laguna, it was St. Petersburg and the rookie track took care of its rookie drivers.

Bourdais ran the fastest lap (1:01.825, or 105.161 mph, on Lap 29) and Monteiro led Laps 31-34. Of course, it didn't hurt that the first-year drivers weren't intimidated by the likes of Paul Tracy, Patrick Carpentier and Bruno Junqueira.

Haberfeld even was warned for blocking Junqueira down the frontstretch, though he called it racing.

The finish was in complete contrast to the rookies' qualifying efforts which, aside from Bourdais on the pole and Haberfeld sixth, were poor.

The remaining seven rookies occupied starting positions between 11th and 19th, including the final four spots.

Monteiro said that was in large part due to getting a feel for the car in practice, then carrying that over to the race.

"Where we qualified wasn't really where we were supposed to be," Monteiro said. "Of course, we're not going to be in the top six or whatever, but I expected to be in the top 10. When I came here I didn't have that much confidence in the car. I used the first practice to get comfortable with the car and then the rest to get used to the track.

"It's amazing. I wasn't expecting to lead my first race in the first few laps."

The big question now is can the rookies continue to surprise? Could one even win the championship? "I think it's too early to talk about (championships), right now we just have to enjoy this one," Haberfeld said. "Obviously we're going to make mistakes, it's not going to be as easy as this."

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