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.