Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Let's delve into the archive and take a look at CART'S United Kingdom debut in 2001.
Reigning CART Champion Gil de Ferran took his first win of the 2001 season at the inaugural Rockingham 500, the first CART race in history to be held in the United Kingdom, after a fantastic last corner move around the outside of points leader Kenny Brack.
Brack, who jumped into the lead of the series at the last meeting at Lausitz, dueled with de Ferran for the majority of the race, with the duo eventually finishing fourteen seconds ahead of the third placed Cristiano da Matta.
The weekend did not start under the best circumstances as weather and issues with drainage ensured the first two days of the events were cancelled while the weather cleared. Like last time out at Lausitz, qualifying was abandoned due to the weather which meant the qualifying results were determined by the championship order. Kenny Brack inherited pole with de Ferran alongside and Michael Andretti in third. Gil de Ferran’s teammate Helio Castroneves joined Andretti on the second row.
The troubles with weather did not stop there however as the race had to be shortened as water seeped back up onto the surface the racetrack due to the clay the circuit sits on. It meant the race went from being a 210 lap race to 160 as the night drew nearer. The race was again shortened during the race itself due to the fading light.
The race got underway at 4:45pm local time in front of 38,000 fans who were eagerly anticipating the first full oval race in the UK since before the Second World War.
As the 26 car roared round the first lap, de Ferran lead edging past Brack before the first caution was waved as Max Papis spun out of turn four, leaving Tora Takagi and Bruno Junqueira with nowhere to go.
Papis was able to continue after a fantastic piece of driving, once rolling backwards, over the grass he let of the brakes, leaving it to roll further until he was back on the tarmac at turn 1 befogging spinning car round to face the right direction. The caution lasted eight laps will Takagi and Junqueira’s cars were recovered.
The race went green on lap 9 with de Ferran in the lead ahead of Brack, Andretti, Castroneves and local driver Dario Franchitti. Brack attacked immediately, the Team Rahal driver full of confidence after winning in Germany. Brack’s form on ovals in 2001 was incredible, at the time of the Rockingham event, 100 of his total 131 points were scored on ovals, with reporters praising his skill and declaring his time in the Indy Racing League, IRL, as a contributing factor, having won the series in 1998.
De Ferran was able to hold off Brack’s advances and slowly developed a lead of two seconds through the opening phases of the race. The two quickly encountered the back markers as they lapped at an average speed of 200mph, the gap at the front ebbing and flowing due to the traffic. Behind the leaders Andretti started to find himself under pressure from the other Penske, as Castroneves closed in on the podium places.
By lap 43 Brack had closed right back up on de Ferran with the leader mentioning on lap 41 that the read end was starting to go loose as the tyres started to fade. Traffic was also a contributing factor as Brack’s car looked superior, although the Swede was warned to preserve fuel in his Team Rahal Lola, as he was not saving enough to meet the strategy.
This did not affect Brack too much as he closed further on de Ferran, on the rear wing of the Penske driver, before making his move for the lead on lap 46 into turn one, sliding up the inside in a nice clean move, the first lead change of the evening.
Brack immediately pushed and developed gap before the second caution of the day was waved after Michel Jourdain Jr spun spectacularly on lap 50 coming out of turn four, narrowly missing Andretti, Castroneves and rookie Scott Dixon. This started a flurry of pitlane activity however it was the end of the day for Christian Fittipaldi who retired with a drive shaft issue under caution on lap 52.
The green flag was waved on lap 58 with Brack leading de Ferran in second however this big winner during the stops was Cristiano da Matta who leaped four places to third ahead of Andretti and Franchitti, competing the top five.
Brack continued to lead and stretched out his advantage over the field, battling a slightly lose car, although this did not seem to phase him as he lapped those at the tail end of the field. It ensured that by lap 71 he was comfortably in the lead ahead of de Ferran and da Matta in third, the top ten remaining the same following the restart on lap 58.
It was a race which traffic and how to get through backmarkers proved decisive. Brack sometimes struggled and because of this de Ferran was able to close and by lap 93, the Penske driver was right on the rear of Brack.
However the third caution of the day came out on lap 94 as Adrian Fernandez’s engine blew coming out of turn 1, resulting in the field being bunched up once more. It was at this point it was confirmed the race would be reduced to 140 laps to ensure the race finished within the light restrictions.
It ensured the final stops of the race were all done under caution on lap 101 with the entire field stopping for fuel and tyres. The stops mixed the field up, with the biggest shift being at the front as de Ferran retook the lead from Brack, the Swede behind in second. Castroneves was another big winner as he took the restart third, gaining five places through the stops.
The green flag was waved to restart the race on lap 105 the top two immediately pulling away with only thirty five laps to go. With fuel economy no longer an issue, it was a straight sprint to the line between the top two in the championship.
Sadly for Dixon however he failed to see the chequered flag as during the restart he was hit resulting in damage. Although he managed to get back to the pits, there was too much damage to continue, a fact which left the Australian noticeably frustrated with those behind him.
At the front, de Ferran and Brack remained at the front, the duo leading all the laps between them, as they started to encounter traffic with seventeen laps to go. Amazingly, they were still lapping at an average speed of over 200mph, despite being compromised by traffic.
The gap however remained the same as the race entered the final ten laps of the race, de Ferran controlling in the lead, responding each time Brack pushed, the two lapping sometimes up to two seconds faster than anyone else in the field. However everything changed with five to go as the leaders hit a large group of traffic, allowing Brack to close right up.
De Ferran had to be decisive, however he lost momentum as he was cut up by backmarkers. Brack moved to the inside, de Ferran defended, but Brack had the speed and swooped round the outside of turn 1 with only two laps to go. The race looked run, Brack pushed as the white flag flew.
Brack had to defend, de Ferran closed round turns two and three, forcing Brack to go to the inside into 4. The two were inches apart as de Ferran went high, pushing down the track pinching Brack to relinquish the lead in a brilliant piece of offensive driving.
It was amazing race which saw de Ferran take his first victory of 2001, and put his title defense back on track. He also got a bonus point for leading the most laps of the race, a point which could prove vital. It ensured that de Ferran cut the gap at the top to six points with four races remaining.
Behind the dominant top two Cristiano da Matta rounded out the podium places, being promoted to third after Helio Castroneves was deemed to have overtaken under caution and demoted to fourth. Michael Andretti rounded out the top five ahead of Canadian Paul Tracey with Jimmy Vasser seventh.
Tony Kanaan, local hero Dario Franchitti and Oriol Servia completed the top ten.
It must surely go down as one of the fastest and most incredible moments in UK motorsport history, with the two lapping the fastest they had all race in the final two laps of the race.
It was a fantastic event which saw the circuit received huge amounts of praise from commentators, journalists and drivers alike, with drivers enjoying the sheer speed of the circuit, with the vast majority of the circuit being flat out, each bend producing forces of over four times the force of gravity.
It was also fantastic for many UK fans that previously had not seen cars race at such high speeds for long sustained periods, the event seeing many UK speed records beaten throughout the weekend. Other aspects which enthused the UK crowds were the smell of methanol as well as LED advertising within the wheels of some of the cars with many praising the amount of access the fans had to the drivers and cars in comparison to other major championships around the world.
The praise was reflected by the US as commentators and crews praised the UK crowd’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport, despite it being the first time the series had been to the UK. Rockingham’s facilities also received positive comments as well as the views the fans had of the circuit from the grandstands which lined the circuit from turns 4 to 1.
It will be fantastic to see the CART series return once more next season in 2002.