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Bourdais Shows He's Street Savvy

The 2005 winner of the Grand Prix of Long Beach wins this year's pole with record speed.

April 09, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

French driver Sebastien Bourdais and his fiancee recently built a house in St. Petersburg, Fla., because he enjoys being near the water. When it comes to his race car, he feels the same way about Long Beach.

Bourdais leads the field in the 32nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach today, a seaside street race he won last year on his way to his second consecutive Champ Car World Series title for Newman-Haas Racing.

About 90,000 fans are expected to see if Bourdais, 27, can again hold off four-time Long Beach winner Paul Tracy and 16 other drivers over 81 laps on the 1.97-mile temporary course. The race is the season opener for Champ Car.

Bourdais won the pole position Saturday at a record qualifying speed for the course's latest configuration. (The track's length and design have changed several times in last three decades.) It was his 19th pole but his first at Long Beach.

Bourdais ran a lap at 105.924 mph, surpassing Tracy's record of 104.983 set last year. Bourdais also had won the provisional pole in the first round of qualifying Friday, which guaranteed him a front-row spot even if he hadn't topped the field again Saturday.

The top six qualifiers, in fact, beat Tracy's 2005 speed. One reason: Race officials widened Turn 1 this year by 12 feet, to nearly 50 feet, which allows the drivers to carry into the turn more of the top speed they reach on long, sweeping Shoreline Drive.

The change "is significant," Bourdais said. "It's five- or six-tenths [of a second] quicker."

Justin Wilson of the RuSport team will start alongside Bourdais. Wilson, 27, ran a lap at 105.416 mph.

The Grand Prix of Long Beach is the nation's oldest and most successful street race, the course wrapping around the city's Convention Center, Long Beach Arena and the Aquarium of the Pacific. The cars navigate 11 turns, including a tight hairpin that funnels onto Shoreline Drive, where the cars reach speeds of about 185 mph.

Today's race marks the debut of Katherine Legge, who is trying to become the first female to win a major league auto race, just as Danica Patrick is attempting in the rival Indy Racing League.

The British-born Legge, 25, moved up to Champ Car with the PKV Racing team after a strong showing in the series' developmental Atlantic Championship series last year. That included a win in her first Atlantic race -- on the Long Beach course -- a year ago.

But Legge, who qualified next to last in 17th, and the five other rookies on the grid have their work cut out against the likes of Bourdais and Wilson.

The lean, bespectacled Bourdais -- whose father, Patrick, drove five times in the 24-hour race in Le Mans, where Sebastien was born -- said his success last year increased his desire to conquer Long Beach again.

"My motivation has always come from winning, not just trying to win," said Bourdais, who drives the No. 1 McDonald's car. "It's one thing to get to the top, but to stay there is much harder. Everyone knows that.

"You want to stay at the top of your game, and that's very much the way I feel," he said. "It's not that I want to prove myself to people, it's more that I want to prove to myself that I'm still able to do it."

Another driver eager to prove he can still do it is Bourdais' teammate, Bruno Junqueira, who is driving his first Champ Car race since suffering spinal injuries in a crash at the Indianapolis 500 in May. He starts in the third spot today.

The Brazilian was second in the Champ Car championship standings for three consecutive years, from 2002 through 2004, but he has yet to win the Long Beach race. He finished third last year.

While Junqueira was recuperating, Spaniard Oriol Servia took his place with Newman-Haas -- he is Legge's teammate now with PKV -- and replicated Junqueira's role as the runner-up in points by finishing second in the title chase to Bourdais.

That spoke volumes about the underlying strength of the team owned by actor-racer Paul Newman and Chicago businessman Carl Haas, other drivers said.

"They don't seem to have any weak areas," said Wilson. "They're strong in every different aspect of Champ Car, whether it's road, street or whatever.

"It's been our goal to catch up to the Newman-Haas team."

Even so, the 27-year-old Englishman and his RuSport teammate, A.J. Allmendinger of Hollister, Calif., are also considered strong contenders today.

So is Tracy, 37, who finished second behind Bourdais in the race last year and starts in the sixth position today. His Forsythe Racing teammate, Mario Dominguez of Mexico, qualified fifth.

Tracy, who drives the No. 3 car, won the series title in 2003 and says he's shooting for another championship, even considering the possibility that he might become a full-time NASCAR driver in a year or two.

"We have the ability, we have the speed," Tracy said. "We just need to cut out the mistakes and some of the bad luck" that plagued him last year. Nonetheless, Tracy won two races in 2005, at Milwaukee and Cleveland, lifting his career total to 30.

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