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New chassis keeps qualifying tight in Las Vegas

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.