De Ferran elated after 'home' win

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The low sun that shone into the eyes of the drivers as they negotiated the closing laps was the ultimate irony. After three days of rising damp and deepening frustration, Rockingham was beaten by the clock and the show had to be cut short.

However, organisers, drivers, teams and above all a crowd of 40,000 were grateful that this much trumpeted CART debut eventually materialised and produced a finale to remember.

Brazil's Gil de Ferran, the defending champion, seemingly surrendered his first victory of the season to the current series leader, Kenny Brack of Sweden, as, at the last turn, De Ferran retaliated and pulled off the decisive manoeuvre in his Penske Honda Reynard.

The spectacle and De Ferran's countenance contrasted sharply with much that had gone before, and even as the Brazilian savoured his win, the critical analysis of Rockingham and its race was underway.

Britain's representative in CART, Dario Franchitti, concluded that the one-and-a-half mile oval, built on industrial wasteland in Northamptonshire at a cost of £50 million, provided too few overtaking manoeuvres to present this category of racing at its best.

Franchitti spoke from irritating experience. He had been running a strong third until two uncertain pit stops by the Team Green crew served to demote him to ninth and he could find no way back. "There was confusion over the race distance and that cost us vital seconds in the pits," Franchitti said. "After that I was looking for guys in front of me to have problems and lose momentum but it just wasn't happening. I couldn't overtake and it was an opportunity lost.

"The circuit needs longer straights and another half mile added to its length. Whoever advised them on the layout advised them wrongly. It's quite bad because you can't get a clear-cut run, side by side with another car, which makes it difficult to pull off the kind of move that you need."

This result effectively extinguishes Franchitti's already faint hopes of winning the championship. The contest is shaping into a fight between de Ferran and Brack, whose advantage has been reduced to six points with four rounds remaining.

De Ferran, the 1992 British Formula Three champion, was inevitably more positive than Franchitti. The manner in which he achieved victory and his links with this country were palpably worth more than the 20 points added to his season's tally. He said: "I have strong attachments with Britain. My wife is British and I've lived in this country for many years. To win the first CART race here is very special.

"We are still under a cloud because of what happened in the US and Alex Zanardi's terrible accident in Germany, but the guys were desperate to race here and return to some sort of normality.

"It was exciting at the finish – too exciting! It was a hard fight with Kenny but at no time did I think it would end in tears. The circuit is very fast and coming to Germany and here has been largely a success. But if I have any advice for Rockingham, it would be – don't run the race in September next time!"

That advice was scarcely necessary. The organisers, who had a work force of 100 overnight to dry the track, are already planning to switch to high summer. They also intend to reduce ticket prices, which, at £150, were out of the financial range of many potential customers.

David Grace, chief executive of Rockingham, said: "I was relieved and ecstatic that after all the problems we had the race eventually went so well. But we were aware even before this week that we had a lot of lessons to learn and we shall be better in future for the experience."