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Stalker Andretti claims sixth Toronto victory

17 July 2000

For the first 70 laps of Sunday's Toronto Molson Indy, Michael Andretti's jet black Lola-Ford watched those ahead of him, waiting for the right time to pounce. When the time came, the rest had no answer to him.

The Toronto Molson Indy around the streets of Exhibition Place marked the halfway point of this years excellent Fed-Ex Championship Series that is no closer to being resolved than it was at back at Homestead in March. Since the start of the first race, eight different drivers have made their way to victory lane and any one of a dozen have the ability to win this year's title. By the time the series reaches Fontana in October, only the strong will be left as there are countless pitfalls and concrete walls that await the drivers as they enter the second half of the most gruelling Champ Car season to date.

Mechanical wear and tear took its toll on Sunday as only 12 drivers survived the 112 lap race which saw the most successful driver in the CART series at Toronto, Michael Andretti, add to his already impressive five victories in the Canadian city.

The race remained close for much of its duration as Cristiano Da Matta fought off the challenges of pole man Helio Castroneves, Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. However after Andretti got ahead of the field after a lightning quick second pit-stop, the American veteran stretched the field as he eked out a five second lead over second place man Adrian Fernandez and Canadian favourite Paul Tracy who completed the podium.

There was action aplenty right from the word go as Juan Montoya tried to squeeze between Andretti and Da Matta into the first turn only to find the PPI driver moving across from the outside trying to take his line. Wisely the Colombian backed off as he knew that he had a long race ahead of him. Montoya's long race lasted as far as Turn Three on the opening lap for as Castroneves led Da Matta along the back straight, his Reynard snapped sideways under braking and the Brazilian slid wide. Da Matta locked up as he braked but was able to squeeze past on the inside as Castroneves gathered himself together. Andretti also scraped through with no difficulty but behind him, Montoya and Dario Franchitti weren't so lucky. The Scotsman had been looking to pass Montoya on the inside going into Turn Three but on seeing Castroneves getting sideways and Da Matta locking up, Dario slammed his foot on the brakes which pitched the Team Green machine left and into the side of Montoya's Lola-Toyota. Both cars were stranded just to the left of the apex of the corner but thankfully no-one else made contact. After the course workers literally ripped the two cars apart, both drivers toured back to the pits to retire. A very sad end to the afternoon for two of the major players in the race.

A brief caution period followed while the circuit was tidied and it was Da Matta who found himself in the lead of a Champ Car race for the first time in his young career. Behind him Castroneves had gathered his thoughts sufficiently to take second ahead of Andretti, Christian Fittipaldi, Kenny Brack and Gil De Ferran.

After several slow laps the field were unleashed and Da Matta led the pack very neatly into Turn One as Adrian Fernandez out-braked De Ferran for sixth. The Team Penske driver was then attacked by Oriol Servia and Paul Tracy, already up from twelfth on the grid, as they pounded down the back straight. Servia threw caution to the wind and dived to the outside while Tracy did his best to follow his path. De Ferran was clearly rattled as Servia forced his way ahead, losing out to Tracy as the cars rounded Turn Three. Tracy then dived inside of Servia going into Turn Five to complete a breathtaking piece of driving.

After such a frantic opening burst, the race settled down over the next 30 laps with Da Matta controlling the pace at the front with consummate ease. Castroneves, Andretti and Fittipaldi all remained with two seconds of the leader but weren't posing a serious threat. Brack was holding down fifth some five seconds behind the leader although the Swede had his mirrors filled with Fernandez, Tracy and Servia, the Canadian having to contend with a rubbish bag twisted around his right front suspension aswell as the persistent attentions of his Spanish rival.

The rest of the field followed at reasonably close intervals with De Ferran, and Mauricio Gugelmin completing the top ten. Jimmy Vasser was once again struggling with the balance of his Ganassi Lola and was trailing Gugelmin in eleventh place while Max Papis headed a gaggle of cars including Mark Blundell, Roberto Moreno, Alex Tagliani and Patrick Carpentier. Seventeenth was Bryan Herta in probably his last drive for Mo Nunn's team while the rest of the order read, Michel Jourdain Jr, Shinji Nakano, Norberto Fontana, Tarso Marques and finally Luiz Garcia who had lost time with a brief off course moment at the end of the back straight.

Already out was Takuya Kurosawa who had pitted after just ten laps with a mechanical failure and he would be joined on the sidelines by Mark Blundell who suddenly lost power on the 19th lap.

Up at the front it was clear that Da Matta was trying to conserve fuel as the lapped car of Luiz Garcia was able to easily keep pace with him. Despite this reduction in pace however and the tyres on the lead car going off causing several lurid moments, the chasing trio could not get on terms and were simply biding their time before the first round of pit-stops.

The status quo at the front was broken by fifth placed Brack on lap 35 who brought his Team Rahal Reynard along pit road for fuel and tyres. As he did this, Marques made an ill advised lunge down the inside of Fontana at Turn Eight which failed to come off. Both cars were pitched into the tyres and only local yellows were displayed although there was more to come at the Turn One where Moreno was tapped by an over enthusiastic Tagliani who had tried to usurp the championship leader from his 13th place. In doing this, Tagliani was passed by his team-mate as Moreno was left to watch the oncoming traffic miss him by inches before spinning around and continuing.

By this time a full course caution was out and the rest of the leaders headed into the pits where there was yet more drama. Jourdain Jr had already abandoned his Lola when the two Newman-Haas Lola's rumbled down the pitlane. Both Andretti's and Fittipaldi's crew did a masterful job leaving both drivers almost neck and neck as they tried to return to the track. Between them was De Ferran who was still making his way to his pit-box. The Team Penske driver found himself in a rather unfortunate situation with Andretti on the inside lane blocking access to his box, and Fittipaldi glued to his gearbox trying to get ahead of his team-mate. Left with no other option De Ferran braked as late as he could to avoid Andretti and swung into his box at the last possible moment. Fittipaldi was too close to react and thumped the rear of the Marlboro car, tearing his nosecone off in the process. Sadly for Christian, the mountings had also come adrift and there was no way of attaching a replacement nose leaving another disgruntled spectator.

A little further down the pit-lane Herta had no choice but to abandon his mount when methanol spilt onto the engine causing a brief conflagration. No-one was singed and the flames were soon doused although Herta's day was over.

This sudden decimation of the field left only 17 cars running as the green flag fell on lap 39. Da Matta still led after an incident free stop although Andretti had now emerged as his closest challenger after his swift but eventful stop. Castroneves was third ahead of Fernandez, Servia, Brack and Tracy although the Canadian driver continued his heroic progress by neatly out-braking Brack into the first turn after the re-start. Behind him there was action as fellow Canadian Carpentier did exactly the same to Gugelmin for twelfth a lap later.

The race seemed to settle down once again after the second burst of action with Da Matta and Andretti hotly disputing the lead for lap after lap but with the PPI driver always remaining on top. Castroneves had dropped away from the lead two back into the clutches of Fernandez and Servia, the Spaniard having another impressive outing for PPI and looking desperately to find a way past the Mexican. A seemingly perfect opportunity came on lap 44 when Servia tucked his Reynard tight against the inside wall as the pair thundered along the back straight. Fernandez left just enough room for the Spaniard to squeeze ahead by the time they reached Turn Three although the Mexican was able to stay round the outside as the pair almost banged wheels. Adrian was able to stay on the inside for the cut back at Turn Four and despite being off line, Servia was still marginally ahead as they entered Turn Five. The track had been gathering marbles and dust off-line since the start of the race and as Servia tried to take the corner from his wide position, the rear of his car almost lazily swung around and he was helpless to avoid making contact with the tyre barrier. After much fumbling around, reverse was selected and he was on his way once again, albeit three laps down on the leaders.

As the race reached the half way point, Da Matta and Andretti consolidated their lead over Castroneves at five seconds although it was clear that the Penske driver was now beginning to hold up the following bunch, now led by Fernandez and Tracy. Sure enough on lap 48 Helio brought the Marlboro backed car into the pits to retire, the Brazilian having to watch another potential major points haul disappear. At about the same time, Gugelmin stopped on the circuit with an electrical failure and Nakano pulled into the pits with a similar problem.

Almost incredibly, there were only 13 cars left running as the race entered its second half, however there was still plenty of excitement on the track as the top eleven cars all began to close up as once again Da Matta focused on his consumption figures rather than blistering pace. Fernandez quickly dealt with the five second gap to Andretti once Castroneves was removed from the scene while the inspired Tracy did his best to haul Brack, De Ferran, Tagliani, Vasser, Papis, Carpentier and Moreno up to the leaders. Behind the points leader Garcia circulated alone, one lap behind while Servia had rejoined the action amongst the leaders and was keeping pace with his team-mate whilst trying to stay out of the way.

As in the first stint, Da Matta's tyres went off about ten laps before he was due to pit which allowed Andretti to really pile the pressure on the young Brazilian. However, racing with a maturity well beyond his years, Da Matta could not be shaken by the wily veteran despite several more hairy moments exiting the final few corners.

Back in the pack, the remaining Team Penske car of De Ferran was also struggling, being passed by Tagliani and Vasser on consecutive laps. In this case though there was nothing wrong with the machinery, more the confidence of its driver who has never finished higher than 15th in Toronto in his career.

As lap 70 approached Tracy had closed the gap to Fernandez and was now just 1.5 seconds behind the leader with Brack chasing him hard. The Swede made several half hearted attempts at getting passed on the back straight until on lap 69 he got alongside the Team KOOL Green Reynard on the run down to Turn Three and almost managed to poke his nose ahead. Tracy though kept Brack on the outside where there was less grip and was able to fend him off although the Swede quickly darted across the track to get a run on the inside going into Turn Five where Tracy once again somehow managed to hold him off.

Aside from those brief flurries of action, the race was surprisingly calm as the leaders readied themselves for their all important final fuel stops. The situation was made even more intense by the fact that the eleven cars left on the lead lap were all covered by six seconds as the pit-window opened on lap 72.

Unsurprisingly in view of his rapidly deteriorating tyre situation Da Matta was the first to stop, coming in on lap 75 along with Brack and Papis. All three stops were solid and the trio rejoin the track in much the same positions as they left it.

Next time by it was the new leader Andretti who led the way along the pit-road with Tagliani and De Ferran in tow. For the second time of the afternoon the Newman-Haas crew were superb in their servicing of Andretti who rejoined the track on the run down to Turn One just as Da Matta was crossing the start/finish line. Despite being on cold tyres, Michael used his innumerable years of experience to keep Da Matta at bay until his tyres had gained some heat.

Meanwhile at the front Fernandez, Carpentier and Moreno had all saved enough fuel for at least one more lap and it was left to Tracy and Vasser to occupy pit-road on lap 77. The Team KOOL Green crew continued in the same form that Tracy had been in all afternoon while Vasser was slow engaging gear as he left his pit-stall. Tracy's crew had done such a good job that he was leading as he rejoined the track and carefully made his way down to Turn One. However Andretti and Da Matta were both carrying more speed and were on warmer tyres leaving Tracy open prey along the back straight. First Andretti dived by and then, in one of the bravest moves all day, Da Matta flirted with the outside wall as he braked incredibly late to slot infront of the Canadian as they rounded Turn Three.

The incredible Moreno became the fourth leader of the race as he was able to squeeze yet another lap out of his fuel tank while Fernandez and Carpentier finally exhausted their supply and had to pit on lap 78. The Patrick crew capitalised on having to put slightly less fuel into the car than the earlier stoppers and were able to get the Mexican out just ahead of Andretti, a la Tracy. Almost the exact same scenario followed with Andretti using his warm tyres to calmly out-brake Fernandez round the outside of Turn Three. Da Matta wasn't so lucky though and had to make do with third, for the moment.

Once he had some clear track ahead of him, Andretti quickly hammered home his advantage and had built up a comfortable three second cushion by lap 82. Fernandez was consolidating his second place although Tracy was beginning to threaten, the Canadian having passed Da Matta a lap earlier when the Brazilian slid wide at Turn Three. The PPI driver now had to contend with the close attentions of Moreno who had finally stopped on lap 79. There was a small gap back to Tagliani who had moved into sixth ahead of Brack. De Ferran still led the second Player's car of Carpentier and the strangely subdued Papis in tenth. Vasser's tardy getaway had cost him time and he now brought up the rear of the leaders, eleven seconds behind Andretti.

In a race which included periods of stability interrupted by sudden bursts of action, the final round of stops represented the final real moments of excitement and with Andretti leading comfortably the event began to wind down to the finish. Fernandez did his best to keep things interesting by pressuring the leader for all that he was worth, safe in the knowledge that he was fine on fuel figures whereas Andretti may not be. The Newman-Haas team had done their sums correctly however and Michael cruised home for a record sixth victory in Toronto and his first since 1995.

At the chequered flag, the American had five seconds to spare over Fernandez and seven seconds over the unrelenting Tracy whose day was made even more special as he wore a specially designed helmet incorporating the colours of his late friend and Toronto native Greg Moore.

Andretti's second win of the year was made even more significant when Moreno retired ten laps from home. The Brazilian had been dropping away from Da Matta steadily for several laps until he was suddenly engulfed by the chasing pack. A slow puncture was suspected until the car ground to a halt out on the circuit. The American is now just two points behind 'Pupo' in the title chase with ten rounds gone and ten rounds to go.

Da Matta was thus given a clear run to fourth in his most assured performance to date in the series, coming two weeks after his second most assured performance in the series at Cleveland. Things can only get better.

Fifth was a fine reward for Tagliani who had battled hard all day from his lowly 19th place starting slot, gaining Rookie of the year ground on Brack who spun with 15 laps to go and dropped to tenth in the process.

De Ferran was more relieved than anything else to have finally scored points at his bugbear track, the Brazilian erring on the side of caution just to ensure that he made it to the finish, a sign that for the first time he is thinking in terms of championships rather than individual races.

Carpentier made it a good day for Canadian Motorsport by guiding the second Player's car home in seventh place. Since his return from injury at Milwaukee, Carpentier has scored in every race and could even become a title threat if his form continues into the second half of the year.

Papis, Vasser and Brack completed the top ten while both Servia and Garcia Jr both scored points simply by virtue of being running at the end. Well Garcia was almost running at the end but sadly he was forced to give up eleventh place just five laps from home when his Reynard inexplicably cut out. Servia, who had run as quickly as the leaders after his altercation with the tyre barrier, inherited the position although Garcia was still classified twelfth and given the final point just because he survived longer than anyone else.




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