12 March 2001
Opening round joy for Cristiano.
Ninth before the final round of stops began, Franchitti left the pits in third place and was within striking distance of Da Matta and De Ferran when news filtered through that the Scot had incurred a pit-lane speeding penalty and had to serve a drive-through penalty. The resulting 'slow' lap dropped a disconsolate Franchitti back to ninth, right where he was before the stops.
Up at the front, Da Matta looked very much in control and was able to keep De Ferran at least two seconds back as Tracy snatched third from Brack and began to close down the Number One machine. Brack also lost fourth place to Andretti when he ran wide at Turn One on lap 64, the Swedish driver battling an understeering car as well as badly graining Firestone tyres.
Any thoughts Da Matta may have had of an easy run to the flag came to an end on lap 67 when Fittipaldi brushed the wall, ending a miserable race for the Brazilian who was running way down in 17th at the time. The resulting caution period may have brought the entire field back together but it also reduced the amount of racing time remaining as CART's two-hour rule came into play.
Originally scheduled for 80 laps, the green flag fell for the final time on lap 73 with enough time left for five racing laps and, sensing the potential danger from behind, Da Matta quickly pulled out a one-second advantage over De Ferran on the first green flag lap. The gap back to second grew to two seconds the next lap as De Ferran fought off the attentions of Tracy and although the Canadian challenge was finally broken, the initial delay proved too much for De Ferran to recover and he crossed the line 1.982 seconds behind his countryman. A podium finish for the defending Champion was more than welcome after a winter in which he suffered two bad accidents and a weekend in which he managed to contract food-poisoning.
Tracy was more than pleased with his run through the field on a day where over-taking was risky at the best of times and he finished less than a second behind De Ferran and more than two second ahead of Andretti who ran a solid race from fifth place on the grid.
Brack felt he could have done more than his final fifth position, especially as Bobby Rahal had flown out to the track especially for the event while Jimmy Vasser battled inside the top ten all day and headed home a gaggle of cars in sixth place for the Patrick Racing team. Both Vasser and Tony Kanaan who came home seventh, were able to pass the ailing Castroneves in the closing stage after the Team Penske driver lost fourth gear and gradually began to eat into his clutch, eighth place at the flag not just reward for a competitive weekend.
Franchitti was ninth but in no mood to celebrate after a stupid mistake cost him a potential race win, Dario made too many of them last year and he must completely eradicate them if he is to sustain a Championship challenge as he did in 1999, this time over 21 rounds.
First rookie home in tenth position was Tora Takagi in Derrick Walker's Reynard-Toyota, the Japanese driver staying on the circuit throughout the race and deservedly heading home a rather lacklustre Nicolas Minassian in the best placed of the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Lola-Toyota's. In fact, Minassian was very lucky to score points at all after several drivers hit trouble in the closing laps but his race was tame compared to that of his team-mate Bruno Junqueira.
The 24-year old reigning Formula 3000 Champion had been one of the more frequent spinners this weekend prior to the race and his resulting 20th starting position reflected his over-exuberance. However he was not at fault for his first lap rotation which really set the ball rolling as he was tapped in the rear by an impatient Alex Zanardi in Turn Seven, the CART rescue team taking two laps to restart the Brazilian who then got the safety tow rope caught in his left rear wheel and had to make a precautionary pit-stop to check for damage. He returned to the track in almost the exact same place he had first left it only stone last and well out of contention.
A further spin and some brief contact with Minassian of all people ensued as he fought to get back into contention but a nightmarish CART debut was brought to a premature end on lap 57 when mechanical problems caused his retirement.
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