Junqueira drive his best yet

SURFERS PARADISE, Australia -- Bruno Junqueira may not end up winning the 2004 Champ Car World Series title. But he might look back on the Surfers Paradise weekend as the point where he came of age as a complete driver.

Junqueira turned in the most polished drive of his career, using speed and savvy to beat his Newman/Haas Racing teammate (and championship rival) Sebastien Bourdais in a straight fight. The 28-year-old Brazilian honed this gem out of a hunk of coal, having started the weekend with a miserable Friday that saw him 16th on the grid at the end of the day.

Bruno sometimes takes some heat for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and Friday's dramas gave him a perfect opportunity to moan, whine and complain. But he didn't. At dinner that night, he reflected on a season that had produced only one win to date, yet left him as the only man who could still overhaul Bourdais for the title despite the Frenchman's six wins.

"Last year, I lost the championship," Junqueira said. "This year, if I lose, it will be because I got beat. I think I have driven better than ever this year and with some breaks in two or three races I would be right there with Sebastien."

Maybe the relaxed Aussie atmosphere wore off on Junqueira because he went into Saturday's final qualifying session in a positive frame of mind and despite his lack of track time, he planted his Lola third on the grid after turning a lap less than two tenths slower than pole winner Tracy.

"That was a good recovery," Junqueira said. "I qualified third and I was just starting to feel what the car needed."

Then on Sunday, Bruno overcame his own mistake -- he made up a five-second deficit he created for himself by not paying attention on a Lap 33 restart -- and tapped into reserves of speed when he needed them.

"My engineer came on the radio and told me that we were going to be one lap short on fuel," Junqueira said. "When he told me to drive as fast as I could go, I got excited. There is no better feeling than to push hard every lap in the car. I started driving qualifying laps every lap."

Bourdais, who has had the measure of his teammate on most occasions in 2004, was unable to respond. "I guess it's a pretty good result, but not the one we wanted," he said. "When it came time to push hard, I couldn't keep up with Bruno and that was it."

That's why Junqueira derived particular satisfaction from his seventh career Champ Car victory. It pulled him to within 22 points of Bourdais, a reduction of five from when he arrived in Australia. Granted, the championship is still a tall task -- all Bourdais needs to do is finish ninth in the season finale at Mexico City no matter what Junqueira does. But at least the fight has been carried to another day.

"I think it was one of my best races," Bruno said. "When I had to, I was able to pull away from Sebastien and I got the fastest race lap. Every point counts, so I'm really happy about that. There's still a chance for the championship and I'll be trying very hard in Mexico City, though I realize that it's not all on myself."

For his part, Bourdais drove with remarkable poise and constraint on a circuit that breeds disaster. The Frenchman was lucky that a nudge from behind from A.J. Allmendinger at the start didn't lead to a spin, and he fought it out wheel to wheel with Tracy early in the race before wisely allowing the Canadian to keep the lead.

"Tracy is Tracy," he shrugged. "Plus, I was happy just to survive the start. I don't know what some people are thinking. Overall we didn't get the result we wanted today, but a podium is still good."

It was another banner weekend for Champ Car on Australia's Gold Coast, with an announced four day attendance of 309,583. The presence of local driver David Besnard, a regular in the V8 Supercar Series that shared the bill with the Champ Cars, was credited for swelling the attendance to record levels.

For the first time in three years, the Champ Cars actually staged a race on the Gold Coast, the last two years having been trivialized by inclement weather. This year's event was one of the better Champ Car street races in recent memory, with plenty of passing and a clean four-car battle for the lead throughout the 57 laps. A spectacular late-race crash left Patrick Carpentier overnight in the hospital for observation but without significant injuries.

Mexico City is likely to produce another private battle between the Newman/Haas drivers for both the championship and the race itself. If the competition is as close as it was in Australia, it should be worth watching.

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