The latest instalment of my series looking at each driver who competed in the 2001 Rockingham 500.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.
Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth, with 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser in seventh. The fourth Brazilian in the field Tony Kanaan was eighth ahead of home favourite Dario Franchitti.
Spaniard Oriol Servia rounded out the top ten for Sigma Autosport, while just outside the top ten, Italian Max Papis came home eleventh. After Papis in eleventh was Townsend Bell with his Patrick Racing teammate Roberto Moreno just behind in thirteenth. After the Patrick Racing duo of Bell and Moreno was the Forsythe trio of Alex Tagliani, Bryan Herta and Patrick Carpentier.
Following the trio was Fernandez Racing’s Shinji Nakano, a lap ahead of the sole remaining Chip Ganassi Racing entry of Memo Gidley.
Behind Gidley was Bettenhausen Racing’s Michel Jourdain Jr, who was competing in his second season for the team.
Prior to his time in CART, Michel started his career in Karts before graduating to cars at the age of seventeen. A quick rise to the premier American single seater categories followed as he made his debut in both the CART and Indy Racing League Championships in 1996, ensuring he made his Indy 500 debut at the age of nineteen.
At the time, Michel was the youngest driver to compete in the Indy 500, with that years race being the first the minimum age was lowered from 21 to 18, ensuring Michel was able to race.
Michel contested the race for Team Scandia, who bought the team from Dick Simon Racing. The 1996 Indy 500 was a unique race in which Team Scandia fielded a record seven cars, with new teams bolstering the grid as the IRL hosted the 500 for the first time following American single seater split. It was an ugly split which saw the CART teams boycott the race as they felt they were deliberately locked out of it, ensuring it was the most inexperienced grid since 1932.
Come qualifying Michel had an impressive result, starting on the third row of the grid in eighth, having qualified tenth, the second highest rookie behind Tony Stewart. Come race day Michel struggled with reliability, eventually finishing the race 23 slaps down in thirteenth, the last of the finishers.
Michel’s Indy 500 would be his last event in the IRL that year however he retuned to the cockpit later that year for Dick Simon Racing’s CART team, contesting five rounds throughout the year with a best result of sixteenth around the streets of Vancouver.
He returned to the CART series in 1997, racing for Payton Coyne Racing in a part time entry in which he achieved a best result of thirteenth. He remained with the team into 1998 however now as a full time entry, a sole top ten finish being his return. His final season with Payton Coyne Racing was a similar affair as he finished the year with a single top ten finish, before moving to Bettenhausen Racing for 2000.
Michel’s results improved slightly as he finished in the points on multiple occasions, ending the year on 18 points in a single entry. His second season for Bettenhausen Racing was a much more promising as he achieved his first podium in the series, taking a third at the Michigan 500, the race signed to replace the Indy 500.
Michel’s points tally was a then career high of 45, ensuring he switched to Team Rahal for 2002, with many premier drivers and teams switching to the IRL as the series proved more and more popular. 2002 was Michel’s first season in the top ten as he ended the year tenth, consistently finished in the points, only failing twice all year at the final two rounds of the season, as teammate, 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser, finished seventh.
Team Rahal returned with a single entry for 2003 with Michel keeping his seat, as more and more teams switched their focus to the IRL. It was however, Michel’s most successful season in the series, winning twice, his first two victories, on his way to third in the standings.
His final points tally saw the Michel narrowly miss out on second that year.
2003 was Michel’s final year with Team Rahal, as his last year in the Champ Car series was with RuSpot, ending his career in twelfth.
After eight years in premier American single seater machinery, Michel switched open wheels for stock cars as he moved to the NASCAR Busch Series for 2005, contested 20 races for ppc Racing, ending the year with a single top ten finish.
Michel remained in American for 2006, competing in selected rounds of the NASCAR Truck Series, Busch Series and Grand American Rolex Series for Roush Racing, ppc Racing and Doran Racing respectively, although none of these saw him race in more than ten rounds of the season.
His first full time season since 2004 came in 2007, when he joined Seat for their 2007 World Touring Car Championship campaign racing alongside touring car legends such as Yvan Muller and Gabriele Tarquini. Sadly, Michel struggled in the drastically different machinery ending the year eighteenth with a single championship points finish.
2007 would prove to be Michel’s final full time season in motorsport for seven years, taking the time to compete in classic rally events, although he contested one last Indy 500 in 2011 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, finishing nineteenth.
2011 was also Michel’s best result at Rally Mexico in the WRC, finishing fourteenth, in which he contested eight rallies over two seasons.
Michel’s return to full-time competition came in 2014 when he made his debut in the Mexican Touring Car Championship, winning three times on his way to second in the standings only just being pipped to the title by Columbian Nelson Canache.
It was his only full time season in the series and has since raced in various Mexican championships, however 2020 has seen Michel take a sabbatical.
It is amazing how rapid his rise to the top was, being helped along the way by Mexican sponsors however you still have to make sure you can find the seats once you make it. It will be interesting to see how his career continues now at the age of 44.
Pictures: www.motorsportimages.com, www.motor1.com