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Drivers: Thumbs-up for race

Those who competed in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg say only minor changes needed.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Several experts were asked Sunday afternoon how to improve the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for next year. They didn't come up with much.

And they should know.

They did the racing.

A trio of veterans climbed onto the rostrum after 105 laps on the 1.806-mile, 14-turn street circuit along the downtown waterfront, then gave the event their resounding approval.

"We had a great first race, a great crowd," winner Paul Tracy said. "People can walk away from here and say, "I saw a great race.' They'll come back."

Drivers raved throughout the three-day event about the layout and condition of the circuit, which was far better, they said, than street courses at first-year events in 2002 in Miami and Denver. The track was smooth, wide, fast and technically challenging.

But, in the end, slippery.

After Friday's initial practice session, drivers promised plenty of passing for Sunday's race -- good news to any race fan. But a variety of factors made passing difficult.

This was the first race in which CART did not allow traction control, a computer device that keeps tires from spinning. Heavy rains Saturday night washed any accumulated rubber off the surface. And drivers complained they had insufficient grip to brake hard into the corners, the best way to pass on street circuits.

As a result, there were only two lead changes in nearly 190 miles of racing and the only pass for the lead came on a little-watched corner of the track, Turn 5.

Tracy was behind rookie Tiago Monteiro for nearly 20 laps, unable to get around though he had the faster car. Not until Monteiro made a mistake -- he locked up the brakes and swung wide -- did Tracy sneak past to take the lead on Lap 35.

Then again, the Daytona 500 had only one on-track pass for the lead in 272.5 miles, when Michael Waltrip overtook Jimmie Johnson on a restart at nowhere near top speed.

Street races usually do not feature much on-track passing, but the St. Petersburg circuit seemed conducive. Tracy suggested asofter tire might help.

"The tire was pretty hard that Bridgestone brought," Tracy said. "They don't know any different, first-time event. I think if we had a softer tire it would make us go faster, for sure, maybe make it nicer to drive."

All drivers agreed the exit to pit road should be modified. Cars leaving pit road merge from the right just as cars on the track are swinging wide coming off the left-handed Turn 2.

"Obviously, pit-out needs to be improved," said runner-up Michel Jourdain Jr. of Mexico, who enjoyed his best career finish. "It's very hard to see who is coming if you are on the track or in the pits."

During the weekend, several drivers remarked on the tight backside S-turn, hinting organizers might want to move the walls out to make it wider. But no one wrecked in the right-left combination designed to slow cars before making the hairpin turn onto the runway at Albert Whitted Airport, which served as the front straight.

"For the first time to race here, for the track to be this nice really impresses me," said third-place finisher Bruno Junqueira of Brazil, who expected to contend for the championship. "The only point that I don't feel comfortable is coming out of the pits can be a little bit dangerous. They can study a better way.

"Apart from that, it's very good."

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