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Friday, April 6, 2007
New chassis keeps qualifying tight in Las Vegas

Associated Press

LAS VEGAS -- All new cars, new faces and even a new venue have given hope to at least some in the Champ Car World Series paddock that they can end Sebastien Bourdais' three-year championship reign.

"I do believe this is a level playing field this year, at least for the first three races," said Paul Stoddart, a former Formula one team owner and a newcomer to the Champ Car series as co-owner of the new Team Minardi USA, formerly CTE Racing HVM.

Friday, the first round of qualifying for the season-opening Vegas Grand Prix on a new downtown street circuit appeared to back up his opinion.

Paul Tracy, the 2003 series champion and the oldest driver in the field at 38, won the provisional pole for Sunday's race with a time of 1 minute, 19.784 seconds (110.097 mph), followed by 22-year-old rookie Simon Pagenaud at 1:19.998 (109.803), Bourdais at 1:20.197 (108.530), 2006 series runner-up Justin Wilson at 1:20.310 (109.376) and Alex Tagliani at 1:20.437 (109.203).

While Pagenaud, one of eight rookies in the lineup and the 2006 Atlantic Series champion, lived up to his advance billing Friday, 18-year-old Graham Rahal, who finished just behind the Frenchman in the Atlantics last year, had a disappointing start. The son of longtime racing star Bobby Rahal and Bourdais' teammate was 15th, far off the pace at 1:24.037 (105.441).

All of the top drivers were bunched at the top of the speed chart, thanks at least in part to the new Panoz DP01 chassis that is being used by everyone in the series and the twisting 2.44-mile Vegas course that everyone is still learning.

But there's little reason to believe that anyway can really slow the 28-year-old Frenchman once he and his Newman/Haas/Lanigan Race team get a handle on his new car.

In his first four season with what was Newman/Haas Racing until this season, Bourdais has won 23 times in 59 starts.

He has also been able to adapt to new tracks more quickly than anyone else, winning the last five inaugural races on the Champ Car schedule and definitely heading into Sunday as the favorite, wherever he starts on the 17-car grid.

"Everyone has the same equipment and you really can't change much on the car, so for a team that likes to develop the car and experiment, this is a disadvantage," Bourdais said. "There are a lot of new venues [this season] where we don't have the advantage of experience and there hasn't been much testing, so we start the season with a fairly unknown car and we won't be allowed a ton of tests during the season.

"We can only run 600 miles, that's it. In the end, we hope that consistency will once again be our strength, and after four years in the series, I hope to be able to lean on my experience."

But Stoddart, whose team fields cars for second-year driver Dan Clarke and rookie Robert Doornbos -- 10th and sixth in Friday's qualifying -- figures now is the time for other teams and drivers to pounce.

"I think there are at least two or three drivers out there who can beat Sebastien," he said. "With a whole new chassis for everyone, his team's advantage has been somewhat leveled.

"The old car was so developed, and Newman/Haas knew it better than anyone else. This is the real test to see if Sebastien is as good as people say he is.

"I'm not saying he isn't but, now, he'll have to do it with skill, working with his engineer and with team strategy."

Knowing how deep Bourdais' team is, Stoddart said the window is only open so much to get the jump on them as Champ Car starts the season by racing on three consecutive weekends.

"It's a good opportunity for somebody to come out trumps in the first three races and be hard to catch the rest of the way," he said.