QUEENSLAND, Australia -- Nineteen drivers will start the 14h annual Lexmark Indy 300 on Australia's Gold Coast, but most of the attention will be focused on just two.
Newman/Haas Racing teammates Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira are the only drivers still in contention for the Champ Car World Series title, and Bourdais could leave Surfers Paradise with the 2004 crown if he adds eight more points to his current 27-point lead.
In truth, Bourdais has dominated the 2004 season, with six wins and seven poles. But Champ Car's revised scoring system and six second place finishes have allowed Junqueira (one win, one pole) to remain within striking distance.
Now the battle between the teammates heads to one of the most notoriously unpredictable events on the Champ Car schedule. There has never been a repeat winner on Surfers' 2.794-mile street course, which is renowned as one of the best in the world. Despite Australia's reputation for perfect weather, rain has affected the race the last two years, resulting in surprise first victories for Mario Dominguez (2002) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2003).
Junqueira and Bourdais both led last year's Gold Coast race and both crashed out. But in general, Bourdais has stepped it up in his sophomore Champ Car campaign and he has to be considered the favorite heading into the weekend. Taking potential bonus points out of the equation, the 25-year old Frenchman basically needs to finish three places ahead of his teammate to make Monday's long flight home to America a lot more enjoyable.
"It's going to be a fight until the end," Bourdais said. "For sure, it would be really nice to be able to wrap this up in Australia, especially because the gap is going to be pretty wide over there. But what can I say? It's not the main target. Obviously, it would be really cool. But if we have to wait until the very last lap of the last race, it will still be as good as ever."
While Bourdais knows that he doesn't have to risk everything to win Sunday, Junqueira is almost at that point. It would mark the third consecutive season that the 28-year-old Brazilian has finished second in the Champ Car title sweepstakes.
"I like a lot the racetrack in Surfers Paradise and I have done very well in the past two years," Junqueira said. "I was leading both races but for some reason I was taken out and didn't finish well. I hope this year I can break away and lead again until the end of the race."
Patrick Carpentier comes to Australia third in the championship chase with a mathematical chance at the title, but he will be eliminated from contention when Bourdais starts Sunday's race. With his future still undecided, the French-Canadian wants to build on three consecutive podiums, including a victory at Laguna Seca.
Carpentier's Forsythe Championship Racing teammate Paul Tracy is a former winner at Surfers Paradise, having claimed the 1995 race during his year at Newman/Haas. Other former winners in the field include Hunter-Reay and Dominguez as well as 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser.
A.J. Allmendinger has a comfortable lead over Justin Wilson in the competition for Rookie of the Year honors, and Allmendinger is seventh overall in the series standings.
While the weather has been a big contributor, it's not the only reason the Surfers Paradise race is so unpredictable. As far as street circuits go, Surfers is long and fast, a series of long straights punctuated by unique and challenging chicanes.
"You need to have a really good brake package and a car that can ride the curbs and chicanes," Junqueira said. "The fast way around the track is to jump the curbs and it's hard on the car, the brakes and the engines."
Added Bourdais: "I think it's probably one of those places where the 'push to pass' is going to be really powerful because you don't slow down that much for the chicanes, so you don't really lose downforce, and you can stay pretty close to the guy in front of you. So you might have a shot every time you press this button.
"Definitely this is a point that I think has been the biggest improvement in the series this year, to generate some passing and to make a race even more exciting," he added. "Personally, the Denver recovery would have been impossible for the McDonald's car if it was not because of the 'push to pass.'"
Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven calls Surfers Paradise the "crown jewel" of the series and while Long Beach may take exception, he's right. This is an event that the Australians got right back in 1991 and it has only improved in the ensuing years. Now twinned with the popular V-8 Supercar Series, more than 300,000 fans are expected to line the track over the course of the four-day weekend.
The Aussies will have a local driver to root for because Gold Coast resident (and V-8 Supercar regular) David Besnard will make his Champ Car debut in a one-off appearance. Besnard will drive a Reynard/Ford-Cosworth for Walker Racing before Canadian Michael Valiante takes over the car for the Nov. 7 season finale at Mexico City.
Besnard, who raced Formula Fords in America, said his goal is a top 10 finish. He tested the car at Sebring International Raceway in early October.
"I went there not having driven an open-wheel car for 4 1/2 years, so I was a bit nervous," he admitted. "But once I got going it was just another race car. We'll do the best we can but you've got to be realistic."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.