Hot weather, large crowd on tap

The Champ Car World Series action will heat up this weekend in Mexico, and not just because Sunday's Tecate/Telmex Grand Prix of Monterrey marks the start of the season in earnest. Five weeks after defending series champion Paul Tracy scored a commanding victory to kick off the 2004 season in Long Beach, the Monterrey event is the first of 10 Champ Car races in 17 weeks.

The weather in Monterrey is expected to be hot, with a forecasted race day high temperature of 107 F. The 18 drivers and expected crowd of more than 100,000 will no doubt be happy with Champ Car's decision to run shorter races this year, given that Sunday's contest will be one of the hottest on record. In the Monterrey race's three prior runnings, it was scheduled in March rather than May.

While the expected heat may take a toll on people, it shouldn't be a factor as far as the Ford-Cosworth turbo engines and Bridgestone tires are concerned. In fact, the hot weather could actually prove to be a benefit on a track that is notoriously slick and dusty.

"We're bringing our softest road course tire to Monterrey this year after trying a street course construction tire in 2003," said Al Speyer, Bridgestone/Firestone Motorsport Director. "There will not be an option tire."

Speyer confirmed that the experimental option tire that was mandatory for one stint at Long Beach has been shelved indefinitely and probably won't make another appearance until Portland. "It's difficult to create two tires with enough of a difference to designate one as an option," Speyer said. "The teams gave the option tire plan a mixed response at Long Beach and Champ Car is putting some more thought into how to continue that program."

The Monterrey weekend's big twist is the introduction of a confusing one-off qualifying system that will split the field into two groups on Friday with the fastest drivers in each group advancing to a shootout for the championship point on offer. The Friday leader won't get a guaranteed front row starting spot, but he will be one of the drivers in the ultimate Saturday pole shootout.

Tracy was victorious in Monterrey last year, but only after turning back a stern challenge from then-rookie Sebastien Bourdais. Newman/Haas Racing's Cristiano da Matta won in Monterrey in 2001 and '02, so Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira will be among the favorites this weekend.

"For sure the race in Monterrey is one of the biggest races of the year," said Junqueira. "I think it looks like a soccer game on race day with the people getting really excited. The current Mexican drivers and teams are stronger than ever and they have a good chance to do well there. They love Michel Jourdain, Mario Dominguez and Rodolfo Lavin and the place will go crazy if a Mexican driver wins. But they supported Cristiano when he won in 2001 and 2002 so I hope they will support me if I win this year."

"I think we have a very good baseline to start with so I'm pretty confident," Bourdais added. "I'm looking forward to returning."

Tracy, teammate Patrick Carpentier and the Forsythe Championship Racing team will also be strong, but all eyes will be on the above-mentioned trio of Mexicans along with Roberto Gonzalez in the PKV Racing entry. Jourdain finished on the podium in Monterrey in 2003 but his season with the RuSPORT team has gotten off to a slow start. As such, the strongest threat of a Mexican triumph on home soil is probably Dominguez, who has matured rapidly along with the Herdez Competition Team.

"For sure, it's very special to run in front of the Mexican fans," Dominguez said. "Standing on the podium last year at Mexico City was as special to me as my two wins in the Champ Car series."

Interstingly, three of the four Mexicans in the series have American teammates -- rookie A.J. Allmendinger at RuSPORT, Ryan Hunter-Reay at Herdez, and '96 Champ Car series champion Jimmy Vasser at PKV Racing. Vasser was eliminated early at Long Beach and is looking to get his season on track.

"We're looking to build momentum after the start we had in Long Beach," Vasser said. "This is a big race for us, with Roberto driving in front of his hometown fans and Nextel International's presence at the track. Fundidora Park is an awesome track, really wide and flat, which makes for a lot of fun and the fans around here have so much energy that it makes us look forward to this race each season."

Another top contender this weekend should include Alex Tagliani at Rocketsports Racing, while Mi-Jack Conquest Racing's Justin Wilson outclassed the rookie class at Long Beach and is looking to improve on a sixth place finish.

Pundits and analysts will be trying to determine whether national hero Adrian Fernandez' defection to the Indy racing League will have an adverse impact on Champ Car's status in Mexico. However, the race promoter reports that ticket sales have exceeded projections heading into the race weekend.

Several small modifications have been made to the Fundidora Park circuit, including opening the tight chicane. Several grandstands have been relocated in an effort to bring fans closer to the action.

John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.