Adrian Fernandez inherited victory in the Rio 200, but only after the weekend's rookie sensation Alex Tagliani had spun away a late race lead.

Mexican Fernandez was in the right place at the right time when Tagliani overcooked it on a restart with ten laps to run, causing an accident which also involved Kenny Brack and Dario Franchitti.

The Canadian rookie seemingly had the race in his pocket for most of the afternoon, controlling the race from the start and only losing out as the pit-stops reshuffled the pack. He had raced away with Juan Montoya at the original green flag, all the time holding the Colombian back with a mixture of aggression and ability. He maintained a fuel pattern that allowed him to stay out while the others pitted for a second time, and was in the right place to re-assume control when makeshift replacement Kenny Brack stalled in the pits.

Then a wheel balance problem - caused either by a missing weight or a poor set of tyres - saw him lose it on the penultimate restart. A cloud of tyre smoke in turn one heralded a scramble not only for places, but also survival, in his wake, with Brack and Franchitti coming off worst. For Tagliani, though, it was almost the saddest end to a brilliant afternoon.

Fernandez was now best placed to benefit from the leader's misfortune, scything through the smoke and holding off the equally attentive Jimmy Vasser to assume top spot through the protracted yellow flag period.

The Mexican had climbed to seventh by the second round of stops, and made up places as his Patrick Racing crew went to work, emerging ahead of Brack in fifth spot. As the rest of the field filed in for fuel, Fernandez took up station behind Tagliani's Player's Reynard, looking good for a podium finish despite having started down in 16th position, and was in the right place to emerge from the Canadian's smokescreen in front.

Fernandez had every reason to thank his pit crew for their help in achieving his sixth career Champcar victory. They had not had to make a pit-stop yet this season, as mechanical problems had stopped the Mexican early in the previous two races, but performed faultlessly on both occasions in Brazil.

"I paid the price for not qualifying well, but I made a few passes and we had great pit stops," the victor admitted, " We didn't put on tyres at the last pit stop, and [the ones on the car] had 80 laps on them at the end. I just beat Jimmy out of the pits by a hair. That's what did it for us."

Vasser and championship leader Paul Tracy, in third place, had been in contention throughout the race, and were frustrated not to be given a proper shot at the new leader when Tagliani spun again as the yellows he had caused were withdrawn for a dash to the line.

''Team KOOL Green is three-for-three on the podium so far this season,'' Tracy said, taking some pleasure from finishing third, ''It's great to be heading to Japan leading the championship standings, especially after a difficult race like today. There was a lot of banging out there, but we were still standing at the finish. I'd be thrilled if we can keep coming out of races with big points.''

Vasser's second place further enhanced Toyota's CART record, however, improving the Japanese marque's best finish from the third spot he took in Long Beach. The Californian has now finished fourth, third and second in the three opening rounds, and must surely be looking forward to Motegi.

Cristiano da Matta was the first of the 'home team' to take the chequer, heading home Christian Fittipaldi and Roberto Moreno in fourth, fifth and sixth places.

Briton Mark Blundell came off the back row to take an eventual seventh, finishing ahead of substitute Memo Gidley, Michael Andretti and the luckless Brack at the tail of the top ten, and taking the 'Hard Charger' Award.

Dario Franchitti and Luiz Garcia Jr rounded out the point scorers as the unfortunate Tagliani spun again to ensure the race finished under yellow. The Scot had suffered almost from the start, with body damage to his car making for a hard afternoon in scorching temperatures.

''I got hit by another car in the first couple of laps that damaged the ski-ramp front-wing end-plate, which gave me lots of understeer,'' he reported, ''We could never get rid of that understeer. I could get on the power coming out of the turn, but I had to brake too early going in, costing us some speed.''

Spanish rookie Oriol Servia's day was even worse, however, as he didn't even see the first green flag, his Telefonica Reynard snapping out of control on the formation lap and smacking the wall. Elsewhere, reigning champ Montoya succumbed again to mechanical problems, this time with his gearbox, while Michael Andretti found himself a lap adrift as the rest of the field pushed for victory.

But, amid all the impressive drives and stories of misfortune, this had been Tagliani's day - right up to the point where his world turned around. The second spin only served to compound his misery, and he took time to compose himself before pouring forth with his apologies.

''I feel very, very bad for all of my guys,'' he said, ''I also feel bad for the fans and the guys on the track, because I made the race end under yellow. It was a perfect weekend before that.

''The car was running strong until the last set of tyres. It appears we lost a weight on one of the front wheels, and that made the car jump all over the place. It was very hard to keep it on the track, and on my last set I was very slow. I'm very proud of my race except for the mistake.

''On the restart, I pushed a little bit too hard to stay in front of all those guys and I lost it. I went into the marbles and the car got pretty high on the track. I tried to spin the car down, tried to bring it back with a spin, but I didn't make it. It was a pretty big mistake. My heart is broken for everyone on the Player's Forsythe team. We were so close. It's very bad, but the season is long and we're going to try hard to win another one.''

Player's Forsythe VP Neil Micklewright refused to blame his driver, however, pointing out that he was still learning his trade the hard way.

''Alex did a tremendous job for only his fourth race in the series,'' Micklewright said, ''He did everything perfectly, but he made one mistake and paid dearly for it. But he's a rookie - he's bound to make some mistakes. The person who never made any mistakes never did anything. Besides, I'd rather see him run like that and make a mistake, than trundle around at the back.''

Even in the game of Tag, losing is the hardest part.

CART Championship Standings.
Drivers' Championship.

1. Paul Tracy Green 48
2. Jimmy Vasser Ganassi 42
3. Roberto Moreno Patrick 28
4. Max Papis Rahal 20
5. Adrian Fernandez Patrick 20
6. Alex Tagliani (R) Forsythe 18
7. Gil de Ferran Penske 18
8. Helio Castro-Neves Penske 16
9. Christian Fittipaldi Newman-Haas 16
10. Cristiano da Matta PPI 13
11. Mark Blundell PacWest 11
12. Bryan Herta Walker 10
13. Patrick Carpentier Forsythe 10
14. Oriol Servia (R) PPI 8
15. Memo Gidley Forsythe 5
16. Shinji Nakano (R) Walker 5
17. Michael Andretti Newman-Haas 4
18. Dario Franchitti Green 4
19. Tony Kanaan Mo Nunn 3
20. Mauricio Gugelmin PacWest 3
21. Kenny Brack (R) Rahal 3
22. Michel Jourdain Jr. Bettenhausen 2
23. Luiz Garcia Jr. Arciero Project 2
24. Juan Montoya Ganassi 1

Nations' Cup.

1. Canada 50
2. Brazil 48
3. United States 42
4. Mexico 22
5. Italy 20
6. England 11
7. Spain 8
8. Japan 5
9. Scotland 4
10. Sweden 3

Makes' Championship.

1. Ford Cosworth XF 54
2. Honda Turbo V8 52
3. Toyota RV8E 42
4. Mercedes-Benz IC108F 14

Constructors' Championship.

1. Reynard 66
2. Lola 42