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Da Matta Has the Edge in Qualifying

Auto racing: He costs his Newman-Haas teammate, Fittipaldi, a point by clocking 102.542 mph for fastest of first day at Long Beach.

April 13, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christian Fittipaldi knows the importance of one point.

One point more in 1999 and he would have been CART champion and $1 million richer. As it was, he and Juan Montoya finished the season with 212 points each and Montoya was declared champion because he had more victories.

One point was at stake Friday when the 28th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach got underway with qualifying for Sunday's 90-lap race around a twisting 11-turn, 1.97-mile circuit with the Queen Mary as a backdrop.

Again, Fittipaldi came up a point short.

With time running out on the one-hour session, Fittipaldi's lap of 102.352 mph looked like a winner. Then his Newman-Haas teammate, Cristiano da Matta, squeezed out one slightly faster, 102.542 mph, to gain the point.

Both drove Toyota-powered Lolas for the team owned by Paul Newman and Carl Haas.

The point padded da Matta's lead in the CART season, giving him 22 points to 16 for Dario Franchitti and 14 for Fittipaldi.

It also assured da Matta, winner of the season opener last month in Monterrey, Mexico, a spot in the front row, no matter what happens in today's second round of qualifying at 1:45 p.m.

Curiously, although da Matta has won five races--including the last three--in four seasons as a CART regular, he has never won a pole.

"The car ran better than it did in Mexico," da Matta said. "I would love to get my first pole, but it's a good feeling to know that we are still out in front."

Fittipaldi was fastest at Monterrey, but because he caused a red flag during qualifying, he was penalized his fastest lap and the pole and the point went to Adrian Fernandez. Fittipaldi was also fastest during morning practice Friday.

One of the many changes Chris Pook made after taking over last December as president and chief executive officer of CART was to change the qualifying format and give the first day some meaning. Today's fastest car also will be on the front row, with the pole going to the fastest of both days.

In the past, the fastest first-day qualifier was only a provisional pole-sitter and could slide down the grid if second-day speeds were faster.

Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr., driving Lola-Ford-Cosworths for Bobby Rahal, took the next two positions. Vasser, who was fastest before Fittipaldi and da Matta moved in, had a 102.126 mph lap, with Jourdain at 101.869 mph.

"I came up on traffic in the hairpin and unfortunately it slowed me up," said Vasser, winner of the 1996 race. "Then on the last lap I had a clear go at it, but I started out a bit conservative because I knew it was my last lap and I didn't want to make a mistake right off the bat. It's difficult with this system to wait for the right time and then go out and not encounter traffic."

Although drivers have an hour to qualify, they are limited to 15 laps.

This created a vacuum at the start of qualifying. When starter Jim Swintal waved the green flag, no one wanted to go. In fact, it was 19 minutes before rookie Mario Dominguez ventured out, taking several laps before Paul Tracy led a pack onto the track.

Although Dominguez's name was atop the leader board for some time, his 100.380 mph dropped him back to 17th in the 20-car field.

One of the big surprises was Michael Andretti's inability to get his Reynard-Honda up to speed. The three-time Long Beach winner's 100.431 mph left him 16th.

"We made a big change from the morning and basically took a gamble and it didn't pay off," he said. "In fact, I think it made things a bit worse, but I'm confident we can go back and have a better car. We've got some work to do tonight."

From da Matta's fastest lap to Scott Dixon's at No. 20, the gap was only 2.05 seconds.

Qualifying results...D12

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