The sand in the hourglass of the 2003 Champ Car World Series is nearly gone and the title contenders have dwindled to a hardy trio, each looking to steal away with the Vanderbilt Cup as the series heads to Surfer's Paradise for the Lexmark Indy 300.

The Gold Coast street race has been one of the jewels on the Champ Car calendar since its debut in 1991, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 300,000 for the weekend, as Australians come from across the country to see the CART circus team up with the national V8 Supercar series. The track provides a challenge for the drivers that few can claim to have mastered, especially as there has never been a repeat winner in the twelve years of competition on the Gold Coast and only three drivers have ever taken the pole more than once.

Paul Tracy is the man that everyone is chasing with just two races remaining in the campaign, extending his lead with a dominating victory in Mexico City as a series-record race-day crowd of 221,011 saw him widen his advantage to 29 points with a maximum of 45 left to be claimed. Tracy earned his seventh victory of the year and the 26th of his career at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, leading 64 laps to win from the pole, and leaving Bruno Junqueira and Michel Jourdain Jr needing to perform well in the last two races to have a shot at the title.

Tracy's Mexico City victory means that the Canadian needs only to finish first or second in Australia to clinch the first championship of his long and distinguished career, but he will have to deal with the tricky Surfer's Paradise street course in order to hoist the Cup.

Tracy has had great success on the 2.795-mile track, including a 1995 win that saw him come from ninth to taste the champagne. The Forsythe Racing driver has qualified in the top five in each of the last seven races in Surfer's, but has yet to carry that success to race day, as he has only finished in the points in two of those seven races, including a third-place in last year's rain-plagued event.

The rains came early and often last season, soaking the circuit, causing a massive nine-car accident at the start, and eventually dooming the field to run 34 of 40 laps behind the pace car before Mario Dominguez emerged with his first - if somewhat controversial - Champ Car win.

Dominguez has made great strides since getting that victory, and is now a legitimate podium threat every weekend. The Mexican thrilled the hometown fans two weeks ago with a stirring run from eleventh to place third in the Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante, and has earned four podium finishes this season - including a win in Miami - to put himself sixth in the season standings.

But while the fans celebrated the feat accomplished by Dominguez in Mexico City, Junqueira and Jourdain began plotting their strategies for staying in the title hunt.

Junqueira finished seventh on the day, but showed his fortitude in achieving that result as he had been struck by a nasty stomach virus early on race day, causing an illness that would keep him down for several days afterwards. The two-time 2003 race winner must outscore Tracy by eight points in Australia in order to keep the title hunt going to California, and showed last year that he knows the quick way around the Australian circuit, qualifying second.

Jourdain has a bank of Surfer's Paradise experience to draw on as he tries to stay in the chase, having made six previous starts on the street course with best efforts of seventh coming in 2000 and 2001. He needs a win to stay in the championship chase, but is still well on his way to a career-best season as he sits in third spot in the season standings with a pair of wins under his belt.

Of the three drivers with more experience in Australia than Jourdain, each has a Surfer's win on his resume, including the aforementioned '95 victory by Tracy. Jimmy Vasser made the first of his 202 Champ Car starts on the Surfer's street course in 1992, and led 60 laps en route to a win from the pole in 1996, a win that helped him capture the series title.

Adrian Fernandez is the other driver to have carried the victory hardware back across the Pacific Ocean after a Surfer's win, taking the chequered flag in 2000 on his way to a career-best season. The Mexican has a pair of podium finishes in his eight Surfer's starts, placing third in 1999 prior to his 2000 win, but will look to have a better time in Australia this year than he did twelve months ago, when he was injured in the big nine-car startline melee and was forced to miss the last three races of the season.

However, experience may not be all that it is cracked up to be as the Champ Car World Series season winds to a close. Many of the rookies that have spent the season learning the ropes are now starting to deliver on the promise that earned them their rides, threatening to deliver series fans their eighth different winner of the season.

Mika Salo has been a pleasant surprise since taking over from Max Papis at PK Racing in Denver, giving the rookie squad its first podium with a third-place run in Miami and then following that up with a strong fifth-place effort in Mexico City. Salo, a veteran of 110 Formula One starts before coming to Champ Cars, has already past eight drivers in the point standings, despite having run just three races.

Tiago Monteiro enjoyed his breakout weekend in Mexico City, taking a front row start for the rookie team that is co-owned by racing legend Emerson Fittipaldi. Monteiro led Saturday qualifying and started on the front row for the first time in his career, before making some daring passes to stay in the top five for most of the day. He would end his day with a career-best sixth-place finish and has moved into the top-five in the series rookie standings.

The chase for the CART Rookie of the Year award ended in Mexico City as Sebastien Bourdais locked up the Jim Trueman Trophy with a second-place run. The Frenchman is currently in the midst of a record run that has seen him start in the top six in each of the last eleven events, and is second only to Tracy this year in terms wins - with three - and poles (four).

Roberto Moreno returns to the fold after taking a one-race sponsor-enforced break immediately after his best run of the season in Miami. The Brazilian veteran will be strapping back into the second Herdez Competition machine after yielding to Roberto Gonzalez in Mexico City. Moreno has three Australian starts under his belt, including a pole position in 2001, but is still searching for success on race day, with just a twelfth-place run in 1996 representing his points-paying efforts.

Patrick Carpentier comes off a runners-up finish in last year's Surfer's Paradise event, and has scored a pair of top fives in his six previous trips to the continent. The Canadian is still holding on to the fifth spot in the season standings and is looking for his second consecutive top-five season finish.

His fellow countryman, Alex Tagliani, has not had as much track time in Australia as Carpentier, but has put what time he has had to good use, finishing on the podium in 2001 and placing sixth a year ago.

Of the rest of the field, the only other driver with any experience on the street circuit is Gualter Salles, who finished tenth in 1999 and also made a start in 1997, where he placed 24th. Salles is in the top 20 in laps completed this season, despite joining the Dale Coyne Racing squad late in the season, and has maintained his standings despite having to miss a pair of races due to racing commitments he had made prior to joining the CART team.

Twelve months ago, day-long downpours soured what had been a great weekend for the Champ Car World Series. Race day became 'pace day' as the majority of the 40 laps run were conducted behind the series pace car due to deluge conditions.

The race was given the green flag to start what was already a rain-plagued event, but that was short-lived as a major crash took out nine cars and left two drivers unable to take the restart.

Polesitter Cristiano da Matta led the field when 'racing' got underway again, but the pack would see just seven green-flag laps before heavier rains forced the caution flag to fly once more. The field would circulate the rest of the day under the yellow flag, before CART stewards decided to halt the race after 40 laps, giving the win to Mario Dominguez, who happened to be in front after some controversial decisions left him best-placed to benefit on pit strategy and claim both the first win of his Champ Car career as well as the first for Herdez Competition. Patrick Carpentier placed second with Paul Tracy coming home in third.

 

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