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Driver Fernandez Wins Monterrey Pole

March 9, 2002

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MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) _ The new qualifying rules worked to perfection and CART opened its season with one of the most exciting sessions in years.

Adrian Fernandez emerged from a crowd at the end of Friday’s qualifying for the Monterrey Grand Prix, taking the provisional pole with a fast lap as time expired.

The local hero had a big first-day crowd rocking with excitement as he topped the first of two rounds of time trials for Sunday’s season-opening CART race.

His lap of 1 minute, 18.929 seconds, or 95.965 mph was shy of the track record of 100.665, set in last year’s second round of qualifying by Kenny Brack _ and it wasn’t actually the fast lap of the day.

Christian Fittipaldi would have earned the season’s first point if he hadn’t spun earlier in the session, bringing out a red flag. One of the new rules penalizes a driver his best lap of the session if he causes a stoppage.

Fittipaldi turned a lap of 96.092 moments after Fernandez’ fast lap, but his speed immediately reverted to an earlier lap of 95.552 that left him fourth on the 20-car grid.

Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier were also penalized their fastest laps for causing red flags.

Thanks to Fittipaldi’s mistake, it was Fernandez who wound up celebrating.

``This couldn’t happen in a better place for me,″ said Fernandez, the beneficiary of a new rule that gives one point to the provisional pole winner and guarantees him a first-row starting position, no matter what happens in Saturday’s time trials.

Fittipaldi shrugged off his hard luck.

``The most important thing is it’s the first day and the car feels very good,″ he said. ``I’m very confident. Sure, I would like to have the pole, but it’s great knowing the car is good.″

Other changes this year include all of the drivers qualifying in a single group and a maximum of 15 laps in each session.

``You’re going to have situations where you’re going to have traffic problems, but everybody has the same opportunities now,″ Fernandez said. ``Last year, if you were in the first group, you knew you had no chance because the track was going to be so much better for the second group.

``It was a great call by CART,″ added Fernandez, the only owner-driver in the open-wheel series.

Michele Jourdain, the second of three Mexican drivers in the field, had the crowd worked into a frenzy before the wild finish as he dueled with Cristiano da Matta _ winner of last year’s inaugural race in downtown Fundidora Park _ for the top spot.

The one-hour session got started slowly, with only a handful of drivers venturing onto the slick, 2.104-mile road course as they waited, hoping other cars would clean off the racing surface some in the first 20 minutes.

Jourdain, making his first start for Team Rahal, was on top early and stayed there until da Matta jumped in front with 17 minutes remaining with a lap of 95.017.

Jourdain fired back four minutes later, turning a lap of 95.090 and regaining the lead.

He raised that to 95.484 and was still out front with 21 seconds remaining when Alex Tagliani jumped on top with at 95.587. As the clock turned :00, Fernandez, Dario Franchitti, Tagliani, and da Matta crossed the finish line in quick succession, relegating Jourdain to sixth.

``Everybody had the same sort of strategy,″ said Franchitti, whose fast lap was 95.634. ``We waited until the track got some more grip and came out after the first half of the session. It was pretty wild there at the end.″

Making the situation even more tense were three red flag stoppages, all caused by spins, which gave all the drivers less time to get their laps in and also kept bunching up the cars.

``For me, it came down to the last three corners,″ Franchitti said. ``I think it’s going to be more of the same tomorrow.″

Tagliani wound up with a fast lap of 95.587, followed by Fittipaldi’s 95.552 and da Matta’s 95.546.

Brack, last year’s series runner-up in his first race since leaving Team Rahal for Chip Ganassi Racing, was eighth at 95.286, while rookie Mario Dominguez, the third Mexican driver, was 12th at 94.701.

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