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Cleveland 2007: Tracy wings it

24 June 2007

Paul Tracy took the use of wings at Burke Lakefront Airport to extremes as he finally returned to the top step of the Champ Car podium in Cleveland.

Exactly two years on from his last win in the series, the Canadian veteran overcame the setback of two front wing changes in the opening eight laps - both the result of errors on his part - to claim an unlikely victory ahead of rookies Robert Doornbos and Neel Jani.

Starting from seventh on the grid, Tracy was naturally keen to make up as much ground as possible in the early laps on the wide open spaces of the Cleveland's airport, but his haste led to clashes with, first, Graham Rahal, that saw both cars spinning and the first of the day's four cautions, and, then, at the restart, Bruno Junqueira, which ended the Brazilian's race and saw Tracy have to pit for a second new nose section under another yellow.

The two stops had, however, allowed the Forsythe crew to keep topping the former series champion's fuel off and this, allied with some canny strategy, saw the Canadian working his way to the front as the race wore on, running out of sequence and catching the remaining cautions at just the right time.

Tracy's success also relied on misadventure and misfortune elsewhere, and it is unlikely that he would have won had the natural frontrunners not run into problems.

Polesitter Sebastien Bourdais led for the opening 27 laps, taking the field up to its first round of pit-stops, but the Frenchman - coming to Cleveland on the back of the three straight wins - lost out to the only other man to win a race this year, Will Power, when the order settled down again. In the interim, Rahal and Tracy both took turns at the front, but it appeared that the race for victory at this stage would be between the Australian and the points leader.

Power led through to the second round of stops, but with Bourdais shadowing his every move, having closed on the Australian under yellow after a nasty-looking incident involving Jan Heylen and Tristan Gommendy.

Although the Frenchman later tried to blame his Belgian rival for the contact, replays clearly showed the PKV car cutting the second part of the final right-left chicane before spearing off right - straight into the luckless Heylen, who was trying to make his way around the errant blue-and-white machine.

The contact was hard, with both cars spinning off onto the infield, fortunately without injury to either driver, but ended a couple of promising runs for the European duo.

When Power made his second stop, it was Tracy who took over at the front, the rest of the leaders having either followed or pre-empted the Team Australia car's move. Quick work from Derrick Walker's squad, however, had Power back in position to retake the lead when Tracy pitted, again with Bourdais in his mirrors.

The sight of the red-and-yellow McDonalds machine was fleeting, however, for, on lap 68, Bourdais was out, the victim of a rare mechanical problem for the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team as his engine went sick. Once again, Cleveland proved to be an unhappy hunting ground for the reigning champion, who was left to watch as his points lead faced being whittled away.

Bourdais had barely had time to get his helmet off and begin discussing the problem with his crew when his luck received its first boost. Power, having been comfortably leading, was now motoring decidedly more slowly, initial fears for his engine giving way to the sight of a tyre trying desperately to work its way off the rim. The Australian barely made it back to the pits with rubber on all four corners, but his hopes of winning had gone, the Team Australia car dropping to an unrepresentative tenth by the flag.

With Bourdais out of the role of chief pursuer, it was once again Tracy who took over at the front, but with Rahal hot on his heels and eager to exact some measure of payback for the pair's earlier clash.

Tracy, however, was made of sterner stuff, keeping the youngster at bay with a blend of feisty defence and judicious use of the 'power to pass' button, until Rahal was made to suffer for his own out of sequence stops by requiring a splash-and-dash with just four minutes remaining on the race clock. He would eventually come home in eighth.

With the second NHLR car gone from his mirrors, Tracy may have been expecting an easy ride to the chequered flag, his only concern being his own fuel levels, but rookie sensation Robert Doornbos had other ideas.

The Dutchman closed inexorably onto the back of the Forsythe car and, with decidedly more power to pass remaining, looked the favourite should it come to a shoot-out, but again Tracy defended for all he was worth, the Minardi car never quite close enough for Doornbos to warrant using the 'magic button' in his cockpit.

The late problems for Bourdais and Power, allied to Rahal's emergency top-up, promoted those behind them a place or two, with Neel Jani quietly making his way into the final podium spot after a solid, if uneventful, race.

The Swiss rookie had half a second in hand over Justin Wilson at the end, the Briton a little more comfortable with his gap back to Simon Pagenaud, who had started on the front row and looked on course to give Team Australia more joy until a long second pit-stop.

Alex Tagliani kept up his consistent start to the year in sixth, albeit well adrift of the top five. In turn, the Canadian held a useful gap back to the second Forsythe car, Oriol Servia once again unable to match his promising start to the season. Rahal and Power then sandwiched Ryan Dalziel in ninth, the Scot having risen from 16th on the grid.

Dan Clarke completed the finishers in eleventh, although would have been expecting a lot more having run in the top four at various points. The Briton's downfall was a spin around the same time as Bourdais' engine let go, dropping him down the order and a lap off the pace.

Remarkably, the entire field had made it through the notorious opening corner unscathed - perhaps as a result of the standing start - but it wasn't long before it was reduced in number, Alex Figge's pulling out with mechanical gremlins on lap four.

Junqueira was the next to go, nerfed into retirement by the over-eager Tracy, while Dale Coyne team-mate Katherine Legge didn't last much longer, the Briton succumbing to a sick handling car. Heylen, Gommendy and Bourdais completed the retirement list.

All of which left Tracy fending off Doornbos around the last lap, the Dutchman not finding the right moment to use his last batch of boost, although Tracy was down to two seconds having ramped up his power to hold off the Minardi Team USA car at the start of the lap.

It is exactly two years since the Canadian last won, triumphing over future team-mates AJ Allmendinger and Servia at the 2005 Grand Prix of Cleveland. Win number 31 - moving him into a tie with Al Unser Jr on the all-time list - did not come quite the way Tracy wanted, but he will certainly hope that it signals lift off for his hopes of catching old nemesis Bourdais.

For the record, the Frenchman held on to his championship lead, but now has a scant three-point advantage over Doornbos, with Power having dropped to third, a further nine adrift. Tracy, meanwhile, eases himself back into the top ten....


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