De Ferran looking for better Long Beach luck

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The Independent Online

If ever a race owed a driver a victory, it's the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and Gil de Ferran.

The Brazilian outduelled former CART FedEx Series champions Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya on Saturday in California to earn his third pole in six years of racing on the temporary street course.

But de Ferran has never finished better than fifth on the downtown circuit, thanks to some horrendous luck.

In 1996, he started from the front of the field and led 100 of 105 laps before being victimised by a disconnected turbocharger hose that ended his day and gave the win to Vasser.

Asked what kind of a race he expected Sunday, de Ferran joked, "Hopefully, I'm going to disappear into the lead and make this the most boring race in the history of Long Beach."

Vasser, sitting alongside, interrupted, saying, "Yeah, just like in '96."

De Ferran winced and replied, "Don't remind me. It took me two years to forget that."

In 1998, de Ferran led a race-high 51 laps, but went out while leading with 11 laps remaining due to a transmission failure.

The 32-year-old driver is hoping that a change of teams over the winter - moving from Walker Racing to Marlboro Team Penske - also will change his Long Beach luck.

Although the Penske team has fallen on hard times the past few seasons, Roger Penske's drivers have won this race four times - Danny Sullivan (1992), Paul Tracy (1993) and Al Unser Jr (1994-95).

A victory by de Ferran would end Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's string of four straight Long Beach wins - Vasser (1995), Alex Zanardi (1996-97) and Montoya (1999).

In fact, it would give end a victory drought dating to September of 1996 for Penske, whose team is still seeking its 100th CART win.

If qualifying is any indication that things are turning around, Penske could be back in victory lane Sunday.

De Ferran's fast lap, in a time of 67.494 seconds, was good enough to give him his second pole in three tries this season and the eighth of his career. After finishing sixth in the season-opener in Homestead, Fla., de Ferran also qualified fifth last Saturday for the snow-postponed race in Nazareth, Pa.

"The team is really pumped up," de Ferran said. "It's obviously been a tough couple of seasons. Every since I signed up, I could tell they are really committed, really focused."

Although teammates Zanardi and Montoya raced to championships each of the past two seasons, Vasser also has struggled in recent seasons and is off to a solid start this year.

After taking the second spot in the 25-car field on Saturday with a lap in 67.703 seconds, Vasser said, "I never thought I was out of the saddle the last couple of years. My side of the team was just missing some things, just down a little on engineering."

He has the same engineer, Julian Robertson, but the difference is that Robertson now has the help of four newly hired engineers.

"Morris Nunn was our chief engineer last year and he would fly to his resort home on the golf course in Florida every week and leave Julian in charge of everything," Vasser said. "He was just spread too thin.

"Don't get me wrong. I love Morris. He's a great friend and sorely missed. But now Julian is able to spend more time on the car and less worrying about everything else. It's made a big difference."

Montoya, whose victory here last year was the first of seven wins that carried the 24-year-old Colombian to the title in his rookie year, was third in a time of 67.984 seconds.

Asked what kind of race he expects on Sunday on the tight, demanding 1.968-mile, 11-turn circuit, Montoya said, "Same as last year. Save on fuel and when someone makes a mistake, you go for it."

Adrian Fernandez, who won the provisional pole Friday was fourth with a time of 68.007 seconds. He was followed by Bryan Herta in 68.102 seconds, Homestead winner Max Papis at 68.086 seconds and his Team Rahal teammate Kenny Brack in 68.291 seconds.

The lineup for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, California with driver, nationality, type of car, time in seconds, and pole winner's average speed on the 3.167-kilometre (1.968-mile) temporary street circuit after Saturday's final qualifying:

1, Gil de Ferran, Brazil, Honda Reynard, 1 minute, 7.494 seconds, 104.969 mph (169.985 kph). 2, Jimmy Vasser, United States, Toyota Lola, 1:07.703. 3, Juan Montoya, Colombia, Toyota Lola, 1:07.984. 4, Adrian Fernandez, Mexico, Ford Reynard, 1:08.007. 5, Bryan Herta, United States Honda Reynard, 1:08.102. 6, Max Papis, Italy, Ford Reynard, 1:08.086. 7, Kenny Brack, Sweden, Ford Reynard, 1:08.291. 8, Roberto Moreno, Brazil, Ford Reynard, 1:08.317. 9, Helio Castro-Neves, Brazil, Honda Reynard, 1:08.416. 10, Memo Gidley, United States, Ford Reynard, 1:08.523. 11, Alex Tagliani, , Cristiano da Matta, Brazil, Toyota Reynard, 1:08.566. 13, Christian Fittipaldi, Brazil, Ford Lola, 1:08.591. 14, Michael Andretti, United States, Ford Lola, 1:08.604. 15, Tony Kanaan, Brazil, Mercedes Reynard, 1:08.679. 16, Mauricio Gugelmin, Brazil, Mercedes Reynard, 1:08.821. 17, Paul Tracy, Canada, Honda Reynard, 1:08.839. 18, Noberto Fontana, Argentina, Toyota Reynard, 1:08.948. 19, Dario Franchitti, Scotland, Honda Reynard, 1:08.009. 20, Mark Blundell, England, Mercedes Reynard, 1:09.218. 21, Oriol Servia, Spain, Toyota Reynard, 1:09.318. 22, Michel Jourdain Jr., Mexico, Mercedes Lola, 1:08.861. 23, Takuya Kurosawa, Japan, Ford Lola, 1:09.940. 24, Gualter Salles, Brazil, Ford Lola, 1:10.190. 25, Luiz Garcia Jr., Brazil, Mercedes Reynard, 1:13.076. 26, Tarso Marques, Brazil, TBA Swift, no time.