FA: Rahal youngest winner after Monterrey victory
21 May 2006
Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Atlantic driver Graham Rahal became the youngest ever winner of a Formula Atlantic race, the 17-year son of Champ Car legend Bobby producing a dominant display to claim victory in round three of the series at Fundidora Park in Mexico.
Rahal Jr led all 32 laps of the Tecate Grand Prix Atlantic race to earn his first victory in the championship, taking advantage of starting from pole in just his third race to end German Andreas Wirth's 100 per cent record.
Fighting off challenges from his pursuers, Rahal made a strong start at the green flag and maintained his position through a tight first lap. After that, he ran a strong race and never really left an opportunity for his 23 rivals to catch him. Posting the fastest lap of 1min 23.206secs - a new Atlantic record for the Monterrey circuit - just three laps from the finish, Rahal got stronger as the race wore on, eventually taking the chequered flag to wash away the bad memory of his second round 'experience' in Houston last weekend.
On that occasion, the rookie was battling Raphael Matos for the lead when the two drivers made contact with five laps remaining. Both fell back down the order, opening the door for series leader Wirth to claim his second victory of the season. After finishing 15th last week, Rahal reclaimed some ground in Mexico, jumping from seventh in the standings to third, and now trails Wirth by 23 points.
"It was a perfect weekend," the American smiled, "We came out strong, quickest by half a second, and never really looked back. The car was balanced all race and I kept in the 23-second bracket and eventually pulled out a big lead.
"The start went well, and I kept telling myself not to make any mistakes. I did make one mistake and lost half a second - going into turn eight, I braked a bit too late, the
rear locked up a little bit and I almost went off - but, from then on, I felt I was driving pretty well. When you do something like that, you lose some time, but, after that, I said that would
be my one and only mistake. I just kept my head down and drove."
Rahal's landmark weekend overshadowed a great effort by rookie Simon Pagenaud. The fast Frenchman earned a second-place starting position and chased the leader hard throughout before settling for his second series podium in as many races. Pagenaud has now finished among the top four in each of his three Atlantic events, and gained ground on Wirth in pursuit of the title, now trailing the German by just five points as the series takes a break before the Grand Prix of Portland on 18 June.
"Everything went pretty well, but I missed the start," The Team Australia driver admitted, "David [Martinez] was inside in the first corner and needed some room to avoid a crash. I
tried to brake a bit later in the second turn and kept my second place. After that, I tried to catch Graham as my car was really well-balanced. I think I had the best car today, although there were some gearbox problems.
"It was hard to figure out because I was making mistakes when I was braking late. I had the same problem during warm-up, and we tried to solve the problem between then and the race. In the first part of the race, everything was okay, but it started going wrong during the second half. Still, it's a good result for me."
The feel-good story of weekend, however, belonged to Monterrey native Martinez who, after struggling with his results over the first two rounds, elevated his game in front of his hometown fans and fought to a third-place finish and his sixth career Atlantic podium. Martinez also finished third in Monterrey last season and hopes Sunday's result will be a turning point for his US RaceTronics team.
"I'm very happy to finish third," he insisted, "It was hot race with no yellows, but we had a great car. We really needed this podium for the team and for the sponsors, and the points for the championship. It's a great finish and I'm very happy."
Jonathan Bomarito brought home his second consecutive top-five finish in Monterrey. After starting fifth, the native of sound-alike Monterey in California made a nice pass early to claim fourth place and threatened Martinez late on before settling for fourth. South African Stephen Simpson took fifth place for his top Atlantic result and, after failing to complete his first two races due to on-track incidents, the Gelles Racing rookie performed admirably despite starting fourth.
Wirth emerged with a sixth-place finish for Forsythe Championship Racing after starting tenth, the young German's worst result since an eighth place in Monterrey last season. He failed in his bid to become the first driver in 16 years to win the first three events of an Atlantic season, but was able to maintain his lead in the championship.
American Alan Sciuto claimed seventh place for his third top ten of 2006, while Polestar Racing Group team-mate Alex Barron - the 1997 Atlantic champion - equalled his season-best result in eighth place. Newman Wachs Racing's Joe d'Agostino finished ninth, with Leonardo Maia rounding out the top ten.