After his trip to Western Canada ended in heartbreak last year, Justin Wilson couldn't help feeling anxious when he found himself leading late in the West Edmonton Mall Grand Prix yesterday as the race headed for a restart.
But after spinning out of the lead in an identical situation in Edmonton last year, the RuSport driver redeemed himself yesterday by pulling away from the pack when the green flag flew to take his first win of the Champ Car World Series season.
"I was pretty nervous and just didn't want to make a mistake," the Englishman said. "I knew we had a pretty quick car and we could make this one happen. It was all a case of not throwing it away like we did a year ago. It feels really good to come out and get the win and try and make up for the mistake last year."
After starting third on the grid, Wilson stayed in touch with the leaders until the first round of pit stops. He got past second-place Paul Tracy of Forsythe Championship Racing in the pit lane before speeding after Sébastien Bourdais of Newman/Haas Racing.
Wilson then erased a six-second gap and watched the defending champion run wide in turn 9 with 31 laps to go and hand him the lead.
"That middle stint was like qualifying every lap, flat out," Wilson said. "Once we got ahead, it was a case of trying to pull away and open up the gap. My car was working really well. You know, we just got quicker and quicker as laps went on. What else can I say? It was a fantastic day."
It was also a good day for the promoters, who saw 63,921 attend the race. The three-day total of 171,391 made it the third largest attendance in Canadian Champ Car history. While the inaugural event attracted a record of 200,052, the organizers had expected the number to dip about 15 per cent this year.
Wilson finished the 85 laps of the 3.153-kilometre airport circuit in 1 hour 40 minutes 30.635 seconds, taking the checkered flag 5.319 seconds ahead of Bourdais. The win moved Wilson into second place in the drivers standings with 198 points, 23 behind Bourdais and five ahead of Forsythe's A.J. Allmendinger, who finished third.
While Team Australia's Alex Tagliani ended the day in 12th place and seven laps down on the leaders, the Canadian played a critical role in the outcome of the race.
As Bourdais tried to put in a fast lap before heading for his final pit stop hoping to emerge ahead of Wilson, he bumped into Tagliani and almost slowed to a stop in turn 7.
"[Tagliani]nearly lost it coming into [turn]5, ran slow in 6 and when we got to 7, I was side by side with him," Bourdais said. "He just completely didn't see me, I guess."
Bourdais emerged from the pits in second place behind Wilson and never challenged for the lead again.
Tagliani, of Lachenaie, Que., had a different view of the incident.
"I think we could have finished eighth, but the wreck with Bourdais was pretty disappointing," Tagliani said. "It's the tightest corner of the racetrack and it's not a place where you can go on the outside to let somebody by.
"He needed to wait one more corner and I would have let him by."
Tracy, a native of Toronto, was the top Canadian, finishing fifth. After running with the leaders in the early going, tire troubles after the first pit stop made it difficult to control his car.
"The tire pressures would not come up for me and it took about 12 laps for the car to finally be right, but it was smashing into the ground all around the track," said Tracy, who is now fourth in the championship standings with 130 points.
"Then I spun coming into the fast chicane just before the front straight and I lost a couple of positions. It was a big moment and I was lucky that we didn't crash out."
Tracy's teammate, Allmendinger, battled a chest cold throughout the race and failed to make it four consecutive wins, something that had team owner Jerry Forsythe breathing a sigh of relief.
"I made the offer before the race to shave my head if A.J. won a fourth in a row," he said after the race. "I've had the same hairstyle for about 40 years."
On Saturday, the team's vice-president of racing operations, Neil Micklewright, paid his bet to Allmendinger by having his hair shaved off by the team's engineers.
While he didn't set the track ablaze, Andrew Ranger of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing drove a steady race and finished seventh, one lap down on the leaders.
"Sure I was one lap down, but I am very happy to get the finish where we did," said Ranger, who was knocked out of last year's event on the first lap.
"I think my times were very consistent, and it was nice to finish the whole race here this year, so I am happy."
1. Justin Wilson (RuSport): A blazing middle stint gave him his first win of 2006 after finishing second four times this year.
2. Sébastien Bourdais (Newman/Haas): Two uncharacteristic mistakes may have cost him the win, but not the lead in the championship.
3. A.J. Allmendinger (Forsythe Racing): He battled a queasy stomach to get his car onto the podium for the fourth consecutive race.
5. Paul Tracy (Forsythe Racing): Tire pressure trouble wreaked havoc with Tracy's race, causing a spin where he lost two places and put him back into sixth.
7. Andrew Ranger (Mi-Jack Conquest): He drove a solid race to take his seventh top-10 finish in eight races this year.
12. Alex Tagliani (Team Australia): He played a critical role in the outcome when he and Bourdais touched wheels late in the race, which allowed Wilson to keep the lead.