Adrian Fernandez was one of the many drivers who had a sniff of victory in Sunday's Lexmark Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise but, on a day where mistakes and moments of madness were prevalent, a spin dropped the Mexican veteran to 12th at the finish.

The end result for Fernandez was especially disappointing considering his strong start to the Australian weekend that saw him lead Friday practice and qualify a handy fifth in final qualifying on Saturday.

The 2000 Surfers Paradise winner managed to keep his cool through one false start, a collision ahead of him at the second start and a torrential downpour and hailstorm that stopped the race for more than half an hour after just 14 laps of the scheduled 65 had been completed. In fact the 38 year-old was on course for a decent top five finish until just seven laps from home in what actually turned out to be a caution-riddled 47 lap affair.

Trying to become the first two-time Surfers Paradise winner in the 13 year history of the event, Fernandez rose as high as second behind Bruno Junqueira before he, Junqueira and new mid-race leader Michel Jourdain Jr all got caught out by a lap 31 caution for Alex Tagliani's spin, a situation that effectively ended any hopes the only owner/driver on the current CART grid had of taking his second win of the season.

Despite being at the very end of their second and final mandatory pit window, CART chose to keep the pit lane closed to the leaders until the field had packed up behind the safety car. While previous midfield contenders Ryan Hunter-Reay, Darren Manning and Jimmy Vasser had all managed to scramble in for their final stops in the seconds before Tagliani spun, Fernandez and the rest of the leaders all had to wait.

That situation meant that while the rest of the leaders made their delayed final stop on lap 32, Hunter-Reay, Manning and Vasser all sailed smoothly past into the top three positions with less than 15 laps remaining. Fernandez emerged from the pits in sixth place and his progress towards the front was hindered first by a caution for Junqueira's championship ending crash on lap 36 and then Mario Haberfeld's spin three laps later.

After managing to get by Rodolfo Lavin for fifth spot, Fernandez then looked set to take the fight to Jourdain Jr for fourth until, just three corners after the lap 40 restart Fernandez spun the rear wheels of his #51 Tecate/Telmex/Quaker State Lola-Ford a little too hard and ended up nose first into the inside wall.

A pull start from the CART safety team was enough to get Fernandez under power again although one lap was lost to the leaders while the Fernandez Racing crew put a new nose on the #51 machine. With only three laps remaining after the restart there was no chance for Fernandez to improve his position and he crossed the finish line in a disgruntled twelfth place to claim the final championship point.

"It was unfortunate today because we had a really good car," said Fernandez. "I think we had a car to win. The start of the race was bad. Sebastien [Bourdais] was slowing down everyone way too much and it was too dangerous on this type of track. I wasn't very impressed. After that, it was a roller coaster of disasters. First the rain with the hail. It was very hard to keep the car on the track under those conditions.

"After the race was restarted, my car was very fast in the dry and I was pushing hard. Unfortunately the inside line was still wet so it was very risky to take a chance and, with all the yellows, it was very hard to get into a rhythm.

"When I spun on the restart [Lap 40], I was trying to get close to Michel [Jourdain] to try to pass him. Coming into the corner, I must have touched a wet spot and that spun me around. It wasn't a mistake in terms of braking late or anything.

"Unfortunately this has been our year - up and down. We had a fast car here; we had a fast car in Miami and we couldn't win it. It's unfortunate because we have had fast cars. We still don't have the consistency but we have the ingredients. Today was my mistake. It has just been an up and down year in that respect."

Early pitters Hunter-Reay, Manning and Vasser went on to sweep the podium for chassis constructor Reynard with Hunter-Reay and Manning becoming the first rookie pairing to top the podium since Teo Fabi and Al Unser Jr finished 1-2 at Pocono in 1983. Junqueira led the most laps but was eliminated from championship contention with his lap 36 accident, handing the 2003 Champ Car World Series title to Paul Tracy.

"It was a tough end to the weekend," added team manager Gustavo del Campo. "It was good we finished the race but something was not right. We were P2 when the race was stopped for the rain. We had a very good chance and Adrian was doing a good job.

"There was an incident on track and they closed the pits when we were to [make our mandatory pit] stop. The cars out of sequence on pit stops were then ahead of us and we fell to sixth. For the last restart, we were running fifth when Adrian spun after he touched a wet spot on the track. He damaged the front wing a little bit but we were able to come back and finish the race. We made one point but it was not what we were looking for today.

"We did a good job this weekend with a strong car. For sure, it was difficult for Adrian after what happened here last year and it was important for us to finish the race."

With his singleton point haul from the penultimate weekend of the year, Fernandez heads into next Sunday's season finale eighth in the points table with 105 points. Although he can mathematically finish as high as sixth in the final standings, he goes to Fontana mindful that ninth place man Manning is now just two points adrift and tenth place man Tagliani just eight behind with a maximum of 22 left up for grabs.

The final round of the 19-race 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford will take place next Sunday with the King Taco 500 at California Speedway.

 

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