Gil de Ferran has already won a $1-million prize by repeating as champion of the Championship Auto Racing Teams’ 20-race season. He took care of that when he finished fourth last week at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
But the soft-spoken, Paris-born Brazilian is greedy.
He wants a second $1-million prize, which will be up for grabs today in Fontana, where the Marlboro 500 will be contested at California Speedway.
“With the championship wrapped up, our focus now is on winning Sunday’s race,” de Ferran said after qualifying 16th Saturday at 225.173 mph. “Two million would be nice.”
If he is to win the race, driving one of Roger Penske’s two red-and-white, Honda-powered Reynards sponsored by Marlboro, he will have to come from farther back in the field than any of the previous four season-ending 500 winners. Adrian Fernandez came from 13th to win in 1999.
It was not a good day for Penske’s Marlboro team, which may be making its final appearance in a CART race because the sponsor is expected to move to the Indy Racing League next year so its cars can enter the Indianapolis 500. Helio Castroneves, de Ferran’s teammate and the Indy 500 winner last May, qualified 24th in the 26-car starting lineup.
Alex Tagliani, in a Player’s Forsythe Reynard, won the pole with a lap of 228.727 mph. Starting on the front row with the Canadian driver will be Brazilian Cristiano da Matta, winner of last week’s race in Australia. He reached 228.198 in a Toyota Lola.
“The car is very fast, the team was very quick earlier this year at Michigan and we’re looking good right now,” said Tagliani. “We didn’t expect to qualify that fast actually, but the car was free and it was great. I think we have a good shot to stay up front with that time.”
Speeds were substantially lower because temperatures were higher than last year, when de Ferran set a world closed course record of 241.428 mph in qualifying onCalifornia Speedway’s two-mileD-shaped circuit. CART rules makers mandated a new aero package designed to reduce speeds by at least two or three miles per hour.
It will be da Matta’s third front-row start this season. His two victories have come from second in Monterrey, Mexico, and third in Australia.
Last year, when de Ferran came to Fontana with the championship still undecided, he finished third behind Christian Fittipaldi and Roberto Moreno, filling out an all-Brazilian podium.
“The big difference [between last year and today] is that last year our strategy was biased to win the championship versus the race,” de Ferran said. “This year we can play our cards to win the race, since we already have the championship.
“It’s always an unpredictable race and it’s not going to be easy by any means. I think if we get to the end there is a good chance we’ll be fighting for the win.”
Unpredictable is right. In last year’s rain-delayed 500, there were 59 lead changes among 12 drivers.
Kenny Brack, whose bid for a CART championship to go with his 1998 IRL title fell short, has clinched the series runner-up position, but the Swede would like to go out a winner as a going away present to his car owner, Bobby Rahal. Brack has signed with Chip Ganassi for the 2002 season.
“I think Sunday’s race will be very similar to Michigan this year,” said Brack, who has four victories this season. “There will be more lead changes in this race than in last year’s. It’s going to be a real crapshoot to the line. I’d just like to get there first.”
At Michigan, there were 31 lead changes among 10 drivers.
Jimmy Vasser, racing today for the last time with Ganassi, will drive Brack’s Shell-sponsored car next year. Max Papis, Rahal’s other driver, won Laguna Seca after being informed that he would not be retained. Rahal has not selected a driver for his Miller-sponsored car, although the beer company announced Saturday that it will be with Rahal in 2002.
“I wanted to put the car on pole position for my last race with Team Rahal, but we’ll try to win the race instead,” said Papis.
Although first and second are secured, the battle for third in the championship standings may steal the show. Castroneves and Michael Andretti are deadlocked for third with 141 points, closely followed by da Matta with 120 and Dario Franchitti with 105.
“I was flat out all the way around,” said Andretti after he qualified 13th at 225.465 mph, “but keep in mind, qualifying is one thing and the race is another.
“We will definitely be going for the million dollars and hopefully we can finish ahead of Helio and capture third in the championship as well.”
Fittipaldi, trying to become the first repeat Fontana winner, earned his highest qualifying position of the year with a fifth-place showing.
Fernandez’s hopes of repeating his 1999 win were dealt a blow when the Mexican driver’s car blew an engine and he did not get a qualifying speed. He will start last.
“There’s not much to say, that’s two engines we’ve lost,” said Fernandez, the only owner-driver in the CART series he said.
“I don’t know why we are blowing so many engines. We didn’t go out in the spare car. It’s not worth it. This is a good car and at Fontana it doesn’t really matter where you start.”