Sunday's Lexmark Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise may have been a chaotic affair but nobody could argue that Darren Manning didn't deserve his second place finish after a season spent continually exceeding almost everyone's expectations in Derrick Walker's difficult and undeveloped Reynard.

Although Manning and Walker will undoubtedly look back at Sunday's rain-shortened 47-lap race as the high point of their first year together (barring a victory in Fontana), the fact remains that the entire 2003 Champ Car World Series season has been a high point.

Without regular access to a spare chassis for most of the season, Manning and Walker have excelled on meagre resources and the chirpy Englishman's almost instant ability to attract new fans has certainly helped attain several vital associate sponsorship deals with Air China, NTN Bearings, the U.S. Air Force and Sportsbook.com to bolster the modest backing he has received from the R.A.C.

Somewhat ironically, last Sunday's Australian race did not appear to be one where Manning, a noted street circuit expert, would be able to challenge the leaders after suffering chronic understeer problems throughout practice and qualifying. In fact his 14th place on the grid equalled a season low for the South Yorkshireman, whose mood was unusually stern prior to the start.

However nobody could have predicted the kind of chaos that would follow.

Manning worked his way to eleventh by lap three. On Lap 13, he made his first pit stop of the day for wet tyres under yellow flag conditions and emerged in eighth. Then just as hope was improving, Manning found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Roberto Moreno, Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani got tangled up in turn four.

After gently nosing into the rear end of Tracy's PF Racing Lola-Ford, the Canadian Championship points leader then did his best to join Manning in the cockpit of the #15 Reynard-Ford as he hastily reversed his way back into the fray. Unfortunately Tracy's haste was to cost him dearly as in reversing into Manning and then running over Tagliani's front wing, he damaged his right rear suspension and lost three laps in the pits.

Manning meanwhile gathered himself together and returned to his pit for a check-up and a new set of wet weather tyres, returning to the line behind the pace car in 14th position.

When the race restarted on lap 21 with the 2.795-mile street circuit dry in some places and wet in others Manning began to show his true class as he passed Geoff Boss, Gualter Salles, teammate Rodolfo Lavin, Mika Salo, Moreno and Mario Haberfeld to move into eighth place as the race entered what turned out to be its most critical phase.

With the final pit window approaching and Manning's wet tyres now giving him virtually no grip, team boss Derrick Walker made an inspired decision to bring the Englishman in for his final service at the end of lap 29 along with fifth placed Ryan Hunter-Reay and sixth placed Jimmy Vasser.

Although this strategy would mean a couple of risky laps on cold slick tyres on a track that was still very damp in places, it turned into one of the strategies of the season for all three teams as on lap 31, just as the rest of the leaders were preparing to make their final stops, Alex Tagliani spun to a halt in the first chicane, bringing out a full course yellow and forcing CART to close the entrance to pit road.

While the leading teams fumed at the rule-makers, they had no choice but to bring their driver's in on lap 32, by which time the whole field had packed up behind the safety car. When erstwhile front-runners Michel Jourdain Jr, Bruno Junqueira and Adrian Fernandez returned to the track, Hunter-Reay, Vasser and Manning had sailed cleanly through and were now holding down the top three positions.

Manning even had teammate Lavin in fourth place acting as a buffer between him and the irate Jourdain Jr in fifth place and although the young Mexican born driver was swiftly dispatched back to eighth place, the combination of a few turns worth of breathing space and two further caution flags when Junqueira and then Fernandez crashed, gave Manning a fair crack at Vasser for the final four lap spring to the finish.

Following a tidy final restart Manning saw his opportunity when Vasser made a slight mistake coming out of turn four on lap 44. A quick slipstream and Manning tucked himself cleanly to the inside of the 1996 CART Champion to take second place away, leaving only Hunter-Reay between him and a first career Champ Car victory.

However RHR was just as eager as Manning to secure his first win in his rookie season and despite a 'balls out' final lap from the Englishman, Hunter-Reay hung tough for the win.

"The RAC Walker Racing crew has had this result coming to us all year. It feels fantastic!" beamed Manning in the pits shortly afterwards. "We struggled for pace all weekend and knew going into the race today that we'd have to do something special with our pit stop strategy, and we did. As always, the boys gave me just amazing stops!

"I've been quick in the rain all year, so I was confident we'd do well. I am from England after all. We made the call to stop early for slicks. I had no grip left on those wet tires, so I thought I might as well have no grip on slicks and start getting temperature in them for when it was dry. It's a pretty amazing day when you go to last on the grid with an incident to finishing second!"

As with almost every one of the 19 starters in Sunday's race, Manning had a few stories to tell afterwards and perhaps his most dramatic moment of the day came when Tracy tried to reverse into his cockpit.

"Well, it's a long story this one," he regaled to the media in the post race press conference. "PT - it was pandemonium on the restart, we all had cold tires. PT was on a bit of a charge as he always is. He got on the inside of Moreno, and they both basically ended up colliding and I think Moreno maybe even touched Tag or something like that. Anyway Tag and Moreno basically spun and PT had nowhere to go and I was trying to go inside of them and they just all stopped and I ended upright in the back of PT, stalling, and then I couldn't get reverse, ended up stalling.

"Then PT just lobbed it in reverse and hit full gas. I thought he was coming right at the top of my head, he was on a mission and then he did a big burnout and wiped his rear corner out on Tag, so at least it put him a lot down so I got him anyway. Then he nearly, you know, then I nearly went a lap down, the guys were a bit too eager to try and get me bump started. It was very wet. My gloves were wet, so we had two attempts to bump-start it. No problem."

Manning's finish not only moved him up one place in the 2003 Champ Car World Series points standings to ninth, it also gives him a shot at sixth place in the final standings depending on his result in Fontana. He also gave Derrick Walker his first podium finish since Gil de Ferran finished second in Cleveland in 1999 and could give the veteran team boss his best overall points finish since de Ferran was the series runner-up in 1997.

It was a good day all round for the team as Lavin overcame a mid-race puncture courtesy of an over-zealous passing attempt by Mika Salo to equal his career best finish with an eighth place run. The result was especially creditable given the treacherous conditions and the fact that the Surfers Paradise rookie missed virtually the whole of Friday with gearbox problems.

"It's a great day for the Walker Racing team with Darren finishing second and me matching my season-best finish," added Lavin, who now has 17 points on the season. "It's been a difficult weekend, but the Corona Walker Racing crew gave me a good pit strategy that helped me work my way to an eighth place finish. It was hard to stay ahead of the changing track conditions, but we were able to run the consistent, clean race that we wanted and got a good result out of it. It's a great way to go into the season-finale next weekend."

 

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