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Champ driver Bourdais aims for third Grand Prix crown



Published: Fri, June 24, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The defending champion won his first race at Burke Lakefront Airport.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Standing near the goal line in empty Cleveland Browns Stadium, driver Sebastien Bourdais was shown the proper way to place his fingers on the laces of a regulation NFL football.

Confident in his grip, Bourdais cocked his left arm back and sent a 20-yard pass in the direction of fellow Champ Car racer Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Judging by the ball's wobbly, short flight, Bourdais picked the right sport to pursue professionally.

"No, I never played football," he said, smiling.

Today, Bourdais will go back to passing other cars.

The defending series champion, Bourdais will attempt to win an unprecedented third straight Grand Prix of Cleveland. It's the race that launched his brief Champ Car career, which has soared much higher and straighter than any pass intended for Hunter-Reay.

His signature series

Bourdais, who finished a distant second last week to Cristiano da Matta at the Grand Prix of Portland, got his first Champ Car victory at Cleveland as a rookie in 2003. He started from the pole and ran away from the field in the event's first night race.

Starting third on the grid last year, Bourdais avoided a crash at the notorious turn 1 at Burke Lakefront Airport and led 88 of 97 laps before winning by 15 seconds over Bruno Junqueira.

Bourdais enters the series' fifth event as the racer to beat, which is nothing new to the confident 26-year-old Frenchman. In two seasons, he has gone from being the top rookie in the series to its champion, winning 11 times and recording 18 podium finishes in 35 starts -- an unmatched feat in Champ Car history.

After winning seven times in 14 events last season, however, Bourdais is just 1-for-4 in 2005, when there have been different winners and polesitters at stops in Long Beach, Calif., Monterrey, Mexico; Milwaukee and Portland, Ore.

"There is a lot of depth in the field," Bourdais said. "There always is. But because you have some of the same teams racing against each other every year, everybody is using the same equipment and everybody knows what the other guy is doing with their setups. It makes it much harder."

A lucky break

A year ago, Bourdais was fortunate to escape trouble at the infamous turn 1, a hairpin where at least one car has been knocked out of the race on lap 1 in four of the past five years. A bold -- some called it reckless -- inside move by Alex Tagliani caused a collision between polesitter Paul Tracy and Justin Wilson.

Both Wilson and Tracy sustained too much damage to continue. Bourdais came away without a scratch and sped off to victory.

Bourdais said drivers are aware of what can transpire just seconds after the start. Despite warnings and prerace meetings aimed at reducing the risks at turn 1, however, once racing is under way, a driver's competitive juices take over.

"The leader has a huge influence on how turn 1 is going to go," Bourdais said. "In 2003, I was the polesitter and I locked down on the right side, and Tracy went all the way outside and beat everybody.

"The wider the race track, the more tempting it is for drivers. You can have six, seven and eight guys going for one spot."

His win at Portland last week was da Matta's first in three years. After winning seven races and the series title in 2002, the Brazilian left to race in Formula One for two winless seasons.




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