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Mont-Tremblant 2007: Doornbos rains on NHLR parade
1 July 2007
Robert Doornbos presented Minardi Team USA co-owner Keith Wiggins with the perfect birthday present as he took victory in an unpredictable Champ Car Mont-Tremblant, but the win left Sebastien Bourdais seething as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's 400th race went unrewarded.
The Frenchman had led early on after chaos at the series' third standing start, but had to give best to his Dutch rival as the weather played havoc with track conditions and strategy. The real bone of contention, however, was Bourdais' claim that Doornbos had illegally blocked him while they were dicing - a suggestion that was roundly condemned by the Canadian crowd...
The talking points got underway even before the field had been given the green light, as PKV polesitter Tristan Gommendy was wheeled off the grid when his car refused to fire. With the French rookie out of the way, Bourdais had a clear run at second-place qualifier Will Power into turn one, but was helped in his quest to take an early lead when the Australian stalled - along with Team Australia colleague Simon Pagenaud and Conquest's Jan Heylen.
Even with the advantage he was handed, Bourdais' start also appeared to be a little iffy, the McDonalds car seeming to creep before the signal to go was given. The stewards deliberated the matter for some time, before eventually deciding to give the three-time champion the benefit of the doubt.
That left Bourdais in an early lead from Doornbos - already up from fifth on the grid - Justin Wilson, Neel Jani and Dan Clarke as the field used the chicane on the opening lap - something that had only been decided in the run-up to the race. Heylen's stranded car, however, prevented the Frenchman from making good his escape, instead bringing out the safety car and bunching the pack together.
That was good news for the two Team Australia drivers, who were able to race around and catch up to the tail, while Paul Tracy, who had thrown away eleventh on the grid by crash his primary car in morning practice, had already gained six positions from the back of the field in the back-up.
By the time the green was given on lap three, Gommendy too was back in the fray, albeit two laps down. It was a deficit the Frenchman would be unable to make up in the course of the hour-and-three-quarter event, although he was up to twelfth, and last classified runner, by the chequer to add ten points to his tally from the weekend.
Bruno Junqueira became the race's first retirement as Dale Coyne Racing's weekend refused to improve, the Brazilian pitting with suspected engine problem after just six laps, having risen to tenth off the line.
Junqueira's retirement aside, however, the opening few laps provided little incident save for a spin by Paul Tracy, after the Canadian was tapped by the ambitious Power on lap 15. Tracy was always intending to run alternative strategies in an effort to move himself up the field, and was the next to pit, fitting another set of slicks just as the first of the afternoon's rain arrived.
As had been the case in final qualifying, the precipitation fell on only half of the track, causing umbrellas to go up in the vicinity of the pits but leaving the rest of the circuit unaffected. Almost immediately, the unpredictable conditions began to catch drivers out and, while local favourite Alex Tagliani escaped from a quick rotation after catching a damp kerb, the charging Heylen was not so lucky, clouting the wall and damaging the right rear corner of the Conquest entry.
Recovery of the #34 machine brought out the second safety car of the race, prompting Tracy to dive in for another splash of fuel. The majority of the field opted to stay out, however, figuring it wouldn't be long before the race went green and that they still had some laps in the banks thanks to the two reduced pace periods.
The conditions, though, remained tricky and, with the safety car still on track, Bourdais dropped the ball. Typically, the Frenchman was able to get off lightly, the #1 car bouncing through the gravel trap at the final corner before rejoining down in eleventh place, Doornbos now promoted to the lead. At the same time, however, Tracy's car quit under him, the engine smoking visibly, and the full course caution was extended, with Bourdais taking the opportunity to pit for the first time.
Europeans dominated the front of the pack when the race returned to green, with Doornbos heading Wilson, Clarke and Jani before Graham Rahal upheld home-grown honours, but the overseas contingent was to be reduced by one within five laps of the restart as Clarke slowed dramatically. The Briton wasn't even able to get his car back to the Minardi Team USA pit, pulling off at turn six to lick his wounds after another unfortunate exit while well placed.
Ironically, it was only another lap or so before the pace was reduced again, this time for the first of three on-course stoppages for Alex Figge. The field circulated in one long line while the rookie was towed to pit-lane, giving the leaders chance to make a dive for fuel and tyres, promoting Rahal to the lead.
With the sun making a welcome re-appearance overhead, slicks were again the order of the day, but the weather gods continued to play tricks, with the next shower just a couple of laps away. This time, Power was the one to be caught out, spinning at turn five, but the conditions also provided some close racing for the enthusiastic crowd as Pagenaud dived down the inside of Wilson, only to see the Briton fight back further around the lap. Indeed, Wilson was suddenly inspired, also passing Bourdais for second, with Pagenaud attempting to find a way around his friend and countryman.
As the competition intensified, so did the rain and, when Rahal made his next stop, it was to take on wets. Sadly for the 18-year old NHLR rookie, his haste to rejoin caused him to stall, and the time taken to restart the Medi Zone car was enough to cost him any hope of victory.
Rahal's stop promoted Wilson to the lead, and the Briton appeared comfortable in the changing conditions before being caught out and running wide, dropping to sixth in a trice. Pagenaud, whose move on Bourdais had been successful, then took over, and began to pull away as second-placed Jani came under pressure from both Doornbos and Bourdais, who had pitted shortly before Figge brought out his second safety car of the afternoon on lap 47.
Again, Pagenaud appeared at ease with the conditions as he maintained a decent advantage but, as the rain persisted, the Frenchman was caught out at turn 14, skating perilously close to the gravel and handing the initiative back to Doornbos with just 15 minutes remaining.
Places continued to change, with Wilson succumbing to a determined move from team-mate Tagliani around the outside of turn seven, and Power joining the list of those to pounce on Jani, the Aussie moving up to fourth. Thus when the final yellow flew - again for the hapless Figge - on lap 56, Doornbos headed Bourdais, Pagenaud, Power, Jani, Tagliani, Wilson and Rahal, with Oriol Servia, Ryan Dalziel and Katherine Legge completing the unlapped runners.
Power then made up another place at the restart, reclaiming a podium spot from his rookie team-mate, while Tagliani undid all his good work by spinning and dropping back behind Wilson and Rahal to occupy eighth.
At the front, however, things were more static, with Doornbos holding a tidy gap to Bourdais and the Frenchman doing likewise to Power. Bourdais was trying all he could to close the deficit to the leader, knowing that the fastest lap he had set when the going was good would only give him a share of the championship lead should the order remain the same.
It was at this point that the first hint of dissatisfaction began to show in the Frenchman, with radio traffic suggesting that he was unhappy with the leader's tactics but, contrary to Cleveland - where he penalised for closing the door on Rahal - Doornbos did not appear to do much wrong as the field took its various lines to cope with the conditions. The stewards agreed and left the status quo
to run its course.
Doornbos duly took the win, his first in Champ Car as he took his podium tally to five in six races, with Bourdais coming home nearly thee seconds adrift. Power completed the podium after a comeback drive from the rear of the field, while Pagenaud was rewarded with fourth after a similar performance. Wilson rounded out the top five, having dispensed with Jani in the closing stages.
It was smiles all round in the Minardi Team USA camp as the rebranded squad racked up its second win since Surfers' Paradise last season, but long faces elsewhere, with Bourdais ready to air his grievances with anyone who would listen.
Sadly for the Frenchman, the majority of those within earshot disagreed with his rant against the winner, roundly booing what they saw as sour grapes from a man who has come to take winning for granted.
With just a week before the field takes up the cudgels for a seventh time, Bourdais and Doornbos head to Toronto tied on points but with the psychological ball firmly in the former tennis ace's court.