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Questions abound at CART start

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

There was just one significant off-season change for Team Penske and it had nothing to do with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves driving the team's two entrants in the 2001 CART series.

It also had nothing to do with personnel, chassis and engines. No, the change was much more simple than any of those things.

"Last year we changed virtually everything but the core group of people," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "This year the only thing we are changing is the number on Gil's car."

Last season's changes, which included drivers, engines and chassis, helped de Ferran win his first title, earning him the right to wear the No. 1 that traditionally signifies the previous season's champion.

De Ferran will be the first to admit that an encore won't be easy. But he's excited about the 21-race challenge that begins Sunday at the Monterrey (Mexico) Grand Prix.

"The fact that I did win a championship doesn't give me an advantage as I move forward," said the 33-year-old de Ferran, who won at Nazareth and Portland last season and finished on the podium five times. "I still enjoy what I'm doing and I'm not working less because I won a championship."

There's little doubt winning a championship in this series is tougher than ever. Last year there were a series-record 11 different race winners, eight drivers were in the championship chase with three events remaining and five had a shot to win the title in the finale at Fontana, Calif. De Ferran held off Adrian Fernandez, Roberto Moreno, Kenny Brack and Paul Tracy.

The 2001 favorite is anybody's guess.

The Penske duo is a good place to start. But it's also hard to count out the Barry Green trio of Michael Andretti, Tracy and Dario Franchitti. Andretti will drive under the Team Motorola banner and share a technical partnership with the Team Kool Green duo of Tracy and Franchitti and each will use the Honda-Reynard package that has won the championship each year since 1996.

Alex Zanardi, who won titles for Chip Ganassi Racing in 1997-98, returns after a two-year absence to join Tony Kanaan at Mo Nunn Racing.

Patrick Racing lost one contender when Fernandez formed his own team. But 1996 champ Jimmy Vasser steps in and joins Moreno. Other contenders include Fernandez, the Newman-Haas duo of Christian Fittipaldi and Cristiano da Matta, Team Rahal's Brack and Max Papis and Forsythe Racing's Patrick Carpentier.

And then there's Chip Ganassi Racing, the place where preseason favorite talk has begun the past several years. This year, despite having rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian at the wheel, Ganassi says his team again has a shot at the title.

"Obviously you have people wanting to use the term "rebuilding year' for our team," Ganassi said. "It's not that at all. I would say it's more like a renewal of our team."

MONTERREY GP: De Ferran led Friday's practice at 96.390 mph on the 2.1-mile, 12-turn permanent road course in Monterrey's downtown Fundidora Park.

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