Rewind: 2003 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By: Spencer Neff
March 2, 2023

This weekend, St. Petersburg, Florida will host an INDYCAR event for the 20th time. On Sunday, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES kicks off its 2023 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For the first edition of Rewind for the new season, we’ll look back at the inaugural race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course: 2003’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Tracy dominates season opener

The 2003 CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) season represented a new era as the open-wheel series underwent a myriad of changes.

Now known as Bridgestone Presents the ChampCar World Series By Ford, the American manufacturer badged Cosworth engines for the 19-car field with a mix of Lola and Reynard chassis.

Chip Ganassi Racing would leave the series after 2002 to focus their efforts on the Indy Racing League. Remaining in ChampCar were the likes of Forsythe Racing, Newman-Haas and Team Rahal.

Following the departures of 2002 Series Champion Cristiano da Matta and long-time driver Christian Fittipaldi, Newman-Haas entered the season with a new lineup of Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais.

Stunning the paddock and Florida crowd, rookie Bourdais clocked a best lap of 1m00.928 (106.710 mph) to win the pole. The Le Mans, France native became just the third driver since 1946 to win pole in his debut race.

Bourdais’ pole came 10 years after Formula 1 Champion Nigel Mansell won from the pole in his first start at Surfers Paradise in Australia. Mansell, who won the 1993 Championship with Newman-Haas, was in attendance for the race.

Bourdais and Newman-Haas celebrate the rookie’s historic pole. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).

Recap

Bourdais outmaneuvered the notoriously aggressive Tracy to hold the lead going into Turn 1. Further back, aggressive defending of Bourdais’ teammate Bruno Junqueira resulted in a warning for Mario Haberfield, a rookie making his debut for longtime driver Eric Bachelart.

In Turn 10, Alex Tagliani drove nose-first into the Turn 10 tire barrier, prompting the first caution of the afternoon on Lap 5.

The Rocketsports Racing driver would not be able to continue following the contact. Four laps after going back to green on Lap 8, more trouble found drivers further back in the field as Walker Racing’s Rodolfo Lavin spun in Turn 10.

Following the skirmish with Haberfield, Junqueira’s frustrations continued on pit road. During a Lap 17 pit stop following a caution for the stalled car of Patrick Lemarie, the No.1 team’s air hose fell out of the gun while the right-rear tire was being changed, costing precious time as the Brazilian fell to the back of the pack.

Junqueira battled through early misfortunes to finish on the podium. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).

While his teammate worked past troubles, Bourdais opted to stay out, a decision his Race Engineer Craig Hampson openly lamented as the field would pit in near unison behind his driver.

During his first pit stop, Bourdais lost time on pit road. Tracy was able to march past. After Fittipaldi Dingman Racing rookie Tiago Monterro led for four laps, the Forsythe Racing veteran took the lead and never looked back.

Bourdais’ luck would continue to falter. He would pit soon after for a flat left-rear tire and suspension damage. The No. 2 Newman-Haas entry continued but would finish six laps down in 11th.

Tracy during the 105-lap race. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).

Up front, the race would be slowed for cautions just twice during the last 88 laps of the 105 laps race.

At the end, Tracy held on for his first win since Milwaukee in 2002. Finishing 12.136 seconds back, Michel Jourdain Jr earned a career-best finish of second.

Following an infuriating sequence of events during the early stages of the race, Junqueira recovered and finished third.

Analysis

2003 would be Tracy’s best season, winning a series-best seven times en route to his first championship. Jourdain earned his only two career victories at Milwaukee and Montreal. Junqueira would prove to be the biggest threat for Tracy’s championship, winning twice and ending the season 27 points back of the West Hill, Ontario, Canada native.

(left to right) Jourdain, Tracy and Junqueira celebrate on the podium (INDYCAR)

Bourdais would earn his first win on the historic Brands Hatch circuit when the series traveled overseas to England. on May 5. The Frenchman won twice more en route to Rookie of the Year honors. In the four years after, he and Newman-Haas dominated the series, winning four consecutive championships.

In 2017, the St. Petersburg resident won the first of two consecutive races at his adopted home track, driving for Dale Coyne Racing.

The second of those wins featured an interesting parallel. Arrow Schmidt Peterson rookie Robert Wickens started his first race from the pole and was in position to win before late-race contact with Alexander Rossi allowed Bourdais to sneak past for the win under the caution.

Aside from Bourdais, Mansell and Wickens, only Jud Larson has won pole on debut since 1946 (Indiana State Fairgrounds).

On Sunday, St. Petersburg will host its 20th race and 19th in a row. Following a 2004 hiatus, the track has played his to INDYCAR since 2005.

Header Image By Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s