BRUNO BITES BACK
Since the start of the 19-race 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, there have been two guys clearly in the spotlight.
One is Paul Tracy, currently in his 13th year on the CART circuit and still seeking his first title; the other is Bruno Junqueira, who moved to Newman/Haas Racing this year after two campaigns with Chip Ganassi's Team Target.
When you look at these two guys, the immediate reaction is to glance at the "W" column and Tracy's got that one covered with five victories thus far.
However, nobody in American open wheel racing has the consistency of Junqueira, who has finished out of the top five only once in 12 races held to dateat the Milwaukee Mile in Mayand finally notched his first win of the year in the Mario Andretti Grand Prix at Road America this past Sunday. You could almost hear the Brazilian exhale.
It's easy to have an opinion about Paul Tracy. You either love or hate the guy, a brash Canadian both on and off the track. Paulie's never met a microphone he couldn't [bleep] and controversies that surround the Thrill from West Hill are, pretty much of his own making and building.
Bruno has become resigned to toiling in others' shadows, a position he doesn't relish. Junqueira hails from Belo Horizonte, the same city that bred last year's Champ Car titleholder Cristiano da Matta.
Junqueira arrived at Team Target in 2001 (as F3000 champ), replacing Juan Pablo Montoya and promptly announced that he was as good or better than his predecessor.
Raising eyebrows with comments like that, it wasn't until Road America that "Junky" notched his first 2001 victoryof only four in his 2-1/2 seasons.
Junqueira finished second in last year's title chase to townmate da Matta and doesn't want to do so againto Canadian Tracy or Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr, the latter a strong third in the standings. Working with last year's championship team, Bruno has developed a good working relationship with his team and, finally, his keen sense of humor in Englishand is getting comfortable with his highly motivated crew.
In a show of comfort, he never removed the Wisconsin cheese-head hat from his head until after the press conference was finished at Road America, pretending to eat the "cheese" on the podium. "In my home state in Brazil, we are famous with cheese as well," he explained. "I think here is my home in the US. So I got my win at home. But I also consider Mid-Ohio my home. And Denver and California as well," he laughed.
It hadn't been an easy month of July for Junky. Two races in Canada were difficult for the "Boy from Belo", who had to give up a lead in Vancouver after CART's officials rightfully judged he jumped the start. They needed a full 21 laps to enforce that judgment, though, and it took a lot of the wind out of Bruno's sails.
"When I have a difficult moment, I get some inspiration inside of me that I became stronger than before. And I think that's what happen," he said. "I think after Vancouver, something happen to me. I was a little bit shaken for everything that's happen. I said, 'I'm going to be strong'."
And strong he was at Road America. Winning provisional and final pole positions, leading every lap of the truncated, wet race and gaining victoryand a maximum 23 pointson "my favorite racetrack." With Tracy's retirement after a self-imposed shunt on the first green flag lap, Junqueira took over the championship lead by three points, 164-161. "It was a perfect day to end a perfect weekend."
While Bruno has been knocking back the big points this spring and summer, competitor Tracy has had an up-and-down spring. A string of three races (two European rounds and Milwaukee) where he gained only three points, along with last weekend's debacle, could shelve the Canadian's title hopes. The pressure of trying to win for Team Player's in his sponsor's final year of competition could be tough on Paul. He's got a lot on his shoulders.
Bruno knows that greatness lies in front of him and is achievable. He has the tools in Newman/Haas Racing; he has a teammate who can push him to the top level in Sebastien Bourdais, who already has three victories of his own to go with four pole positions. Of the Mario Andretti Grand Prix at Road America, Bourdais noted, "It was a great day for Newman/Haas Racing. It was really special for us going one-two here. What can I say?
"We have Bruno leading the points now and I'm gaining spots and moving up in the championship as well. For sure this is the best racing circuit in the U.S.," Bourdais stated. He, too, sees the significance of his teammate's victory and the team's success on both sides of the trailer.
Can Junqueira hold off Tracy's freight train and gain the Vanderbilt Cup that signifies CART's 2003 championship? At the rate he's going, Junqueira is causing fear and loathing in Canada. And I think he likes it that way.