The 2001 Rockingham 500 was a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) motor race held on 22 September 2001 at the Rockingham Motor Speedway in Corby, Northamptonshire, England in front of a crowd of 38,000 people. It was the 17th race of the 2001 CART season, the second (and final) event of the year to be held in Europe, and the first time the series had visited the United Kingdom. The 140-lap race was won by Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran who started from second position. Kenny Bräck finished second for Team Rahal, and Newman/Haas Racing driver Cristiano da Matta came in third.
Drainage problems with the circuit caused the first two days of the event to be cancelled. Bräck — the season points leader heading into the race — was awarded the pole position. The original distance of the race was reduced from 210 laps to 168. Bräck lost the lead on the first lap to de Ferran who held the first position for the next 44 laps. Bräck passed de Ferran to reclaim the lead on the 45th lap and remained the leader until the second round of pit stops. The race distance was further reduced by series race director Chris Kneifel from 168 to 140 laps because of a danger from fading daylight. Gil de Ferran held the first position until he was held up by a slower car on the race's penultimate lap which allowed Bräck to retake the lead. He held it until de Ferran overtook him on the final lap winning the race. It was de Ferran's first victory of the season, his second on an oval track, and the sixth of his career. There were three cautions and five lead changes during the course of the race.
The result meant Bräck's advantage over de Ferran in the Drivers' Championship was reduced to six points. Michael Andretti remained in third position, but was now two points in front of Hélio Castroneves in the battle for the position. Da Matta's strong finish allowed him to move from eighth to fifth. Honda's lead over Ford Cosworth in the Manufacturers' Championship was increased, while Toyota maintained third place, with four races left in the season.
The Rockingham 500 was confirmed as part of CART's 2001 series' schedule in July 2000. It was the conclusion of a two-week European stretch for the series; the American Memorial was held at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Klettwitz, Germany one week earlier. The Rockingham 500 was the 17th of 21 scheduled races for 2001 by CART, and was held on 22 September at the Rockingham Motor Speedway in Corby, Northamptonshire, England. It was the first time that CART had visited the United Kingdom. CART hoped for a crowd of 40,000 at the track, which had a capacity of 52,000. The track is a four-turn 1.479-mile (2.380 km) oval that has banking of up to 7.9 degrees. Prior to the race, Team Rahal driver Kenny Bräck led the Drivers' Championship on 131 points, ahead of Gil de Ferran in second and Michael Andretti third. Hélio Castroneves was a close fourth with 111 points, ahead of fifth-placed Scott Dixon on 86 points. Honda were leading the Constructors' Championship with 257 points; Ford Cosworth were in second on 224 points, two ahead of Toyota in a close third place.
Bräck said his car's engine and chassis had been fast on oval tracks and felt that he and his team would compete for the victory at Rockingham. Da Matta stated that he had good results in the lower category formulas at tracks across England, and he had good memories about competing in the country, and hoped the race at Rockingham would be "interesting" having heard of a smooth track surface. Following a major accident involving Alex Zanardi at the season's previous race, his team Mo Nunn Racing announced they would participate at Rockingham but that only one car would be entered. All crew members who worked on Zanardi's car were sent to the United States to recover from the incident, although the driver's wife protested the decision. Mo Nunn Racing announced that the car would return for the next race of the year (at the Grand Prix of Houston), and revealed the week after Rockingham that Dayton Indy Lights Series driver Casey Mears would participate in the season's four remaining races.
Three practice sessions were scheduled to be held before the Sunday race: two on Thursday and one on Friday. The first session was due to run for 105 minutes, and the second and third sessions were scheduled to last 90 minutes. Heavy rain on the days before the event resulted in the local clay absorbing a large amount of water. Only a small amount of evaporation had occurred due to low air temperatures. Race officials examined water that emerged through the track's surface in several areas on Thursday. The track surface had been drilled through overnight in an effort to drain collected water and to prevent further seepage. CART's jet dryer was used on the track but, despite creating a dry track surface, water continued to appear through it. CART chief steward Chris Kneifel drove the pace car which went on the track at 3:00 p.m. British Summer Time (UTC+1) along with all 26 racing vehicles and 23 secondary cars under caution for five installation laps with both groups. No improvement was reported, and CART announced at 4:00 p.m. local time that the remainder of the day's activities were cancelled.
Course officials resumed work by drilling shafts into the surface to form a well and installed a cap on it. This was an attempt to reduce the drainage problem before the start of Friday's scheduled sessions. It was mooted by some British press publications that the race would be moved to the track's infield road course but this could not be achieved because the circuit did not hold a licence from motorsport's world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, to hold an event on this section, and the teams did not bring a suitable aerodynamic package. Drainage problems continued to affect the track which led to the cancellation of the qualifying session, and the starting order was determined by the drivers order in the points' standings. The pole position was awarded to Bräck, his sixth of the season. He was joined on the grid's front row by de Ferran. Andretti was third, Castroneves fourth and Dixon fifth. Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier, Cristiano da Matta, Roberto Moreno and Tony Kanaan rounded out the top ten. Drying efforts continued overnight with additional equipment and extra workers from across England brought in to help improve the track's drainage. Five jet dryers were taken onto the track with additional fuel transported from Sywell Aerodrome to help the vehicles carry out their operation. Additionally, thousands of small holes were created in the track's surface to release moisture.
The Chief Executive of the Rockingham Motor Speedway David Grace apologised for the delay in the event's schedule but denied that the drainage problem had been anticipated. He added that the operators took advice from experts, and CART's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Heitzler rejected suggestions that it was the wrong decision to hold the race in the month of September as he had been informed that the month was one of the driest of the year. Carpentier was vocal in his criticism of the organisation of the track, saying that the track personnel should have been ready a month before the race was held, while Kanaan admitted that he was concerned, feeling that the situation was not good for everyone. The 15,000 spectators who attended the track on Thursday were issued cash refunds.
Problems on the backstraight had been mostly rectified although a wet track surface in the first and fourth turns appeared caused by water coming from under the grandstands. Race officials deliberated on the morning of the race before declaring the track safe following the completion of repairs. The drivers took to the track at 11:15 a.m local time for a 10-minute practice session. Carpentier set the fastest time with a lap of 27.075 seconds; Franchitti was second and Jimmy Vasser rounded out the session's top three drivers. A second session, lasting 90 minutes, began at 12:20 p.m. local time. Kanaan recorded the session's fastest lap with a time of 24.719 seconds, ahead of Bräck in second and Tracy third. Three yellow caution flags were shown: the first was for Max Papis who cut his right-rear tyre, the second was for Maurício Gugelmin who slid out of the groove and hit the turn one outside barrier. His car slid across the wall and stopped at the corner's exit. The final stoppage was for a track inspection after Castroneves' pit crew reported the driver's right rear tyre was cut.
All drivers participated in an eight-minute installation session which saw Kanaan continue his good form by setting the fastest lap. Tracy and Dixon rounded out the top three. Weather conditions at the race's start were partly cloudy and mild with an air temperature ranging from 11–19 °C (52–66 °F), and a track temperature between 16–20 °C (61–68 °F). The race was due to be held over 210 laps originally but was reduced to 168 because of the compacted schedule. Approximately 38,000 people attended the race. Oriol Servià's car failed to start and his pit crew worked quickly to allow him to take the start. Michel Jourdain Jr. had problems starting his engine but was able to join the field. The race started at 4:45 p.m. local time. Bräck maintained his pole position advantage heading into the first turn with de Ferran driving on the outside lane. De Ferran passed Bräck on the backstraight to take over first place and held it to lead the first lap.
The race's first caution was necessitated on the same lap when Papis spun on the frontstretch, and slid backwards towards the first corner before getting his car facing in the racing direction. Vasser made contact with Tora Takagi who was sent into the frontstretch barrier. Bruno Junqueira and Memo Gidley spun in avoidance; the latter regained control of his car while Junqueira collided with the outside wall, causing him to become the race's first retirement. Max Wilson spun while gaining optimum tyre temperature and fell to the rear of the field. The race restarted on the ninth lap with de Ferran leading Bräck and Andretti. Bräck was held up by Wilson on the 23rd lap which allowed de Ferran to establish a two-second lead over him. Wilson received a warning from the series' race control. Castroneves was passed by Franchitti for the fourth position seven laps later. Christian Fittipaldi attempted to lap Gidley on lap 37, but the latter drove defensively causing Fittipaldi to reduce his speed, and he was overtaken by Vasser, Adrián Fernández, and Carpentier.
Bräck closed the gap with de Ferran over the next fifteen laps as they moved towards slower cars. Bräck got a run on de Ferran and overtook him at the bottom of the first turn to take over the lead on lap 46, while Andretti lost fourth place to Franchitti on the same lap. Jourdain spun leaving turn four because of his car generating oversteer, and slid down the frontstretch triggering the second caution on the 50th lap. Franchitti drove to the outside of the track in avoidance. Castroneves avoided hitting Jourdain's car, which remained at the bottom of the first turn and, though his vehicle lost one of its shock covers, he regained control of his car and continued. Fittipaldi reported to his team that he had a problem with either his gearbox or drivetrain and drove slowly into the pit lane on lap 53 becoming the race's second retirement. The leaders elected to make pit stops on the same lap under caution. Da Matta gained the most positions, moving from sixth to third, and Bräck remained the leader for the lap-57 restart. Bräck pulled away from the rest of the field, until de Ferran closed the gap between them by the start of the 80th lap.
Da Matta, Andretti, and Franchitti contended for third position until the field closed up because of the presence of slower cars. The third caution was shown fourteen laps later when Adrián Fernández lost engine power driving into the second turn, and he went to the bottom of the track on the backstretch to retire. Oil was laid on the track heading into turn two, and marshals were required to clean it. It was announced on lap 90 that Kniefel had reduced the number of laps to be run from 168 to 140 because of the danger from fading sunlight. All of the leaders (including Bräck) chose to make pit stops for fuel and tyres under caution on lap 100. Castroneves passed da Matta and Andretti around the inside in the pit lane and Newman/Haas Racing believed he had committed an infraction. The team informed CART of Castroneves' passing, which had been observed by their co-owner Paul Newman.
De Ferran gained the lead and maintained it at the lap-104 restart. Bräck attempted to pass de Ferran for the first position around the outside of the first turn but was unable to get ahead. De Ferran pulled away from the rest of the field. Dixon drove into the pit lane and became the race's fifth (and final) retirement on the 106th lap. His pit crew claimed his car was damaged following contact with Servià during the caution period. Kanaan was closely following Andretti but was held up by the driver which allowed Paul Tracy to pass him. The move caused Kannan's car to develop understeer and Vasser got ahead of him. Carpentier set the race's fastest lap during the 134th lap, completing a circuit in 25.521 seconds. On lap 138, Bräck drafted off slower cars while de Ferran was slowed by Papis in turn four. Bräck got ahead of de Ferran around the outside driving into the first turn to take over the lead on the same lap. On the final lap, Bräck led de Ferran by two-tenths of a second. As the two drivers went onto the backstraight, De Ferran drafted up to the outside of Bräck and closed up to him in the second and third corners. De Ferran moved to the right and overtook Bräck for the lead in the fourth turn's entrance. Both drivers avoided making contact at the corner's edge and de Ferran drove defensively causing Bräck to reduce his speed to avoid colliding with him.
De Ferran remained the leader for the rest of the final lap to win the event. Bräck finished second, ahead of Castroneves who finished third. Da Matta took fourth, and Andretti finished fifth. Tracy, Vasser, Kanaan, Franchitti, and Servià rounded out the top ten finishers. Papis, Townsend Bell, Moreno, Alex Tagliani, and Bryan Herta were the next five finishers, with Carpentier, Shinji Nakano, Gidley, Jourdain, Gugelmin, and Wilson the last of the classified finishers. It was de Ferran's first victory of the season, his second on an oval track, and the sixth of his career. He became the eleventh driver to win a race in 2001, tying a record established the previous year. There were five lead changes in the race; two drivers reached the front of the field. Bräck's total of 84 laps led was the highest of any competitor. De Ferran led three times, for a total of 56 laps. The attrition rate was low, with 21 of the 26 starters finishing the race.
The top three drivers appeared on the podium to collect their trophies and in a later press conference. De Ferran stated that: "I think first of all, I'd like to say that we're still running under a little bit of a cloud with all of the things that happened in the U.S. last week and what happened to (Alex) Zanardi is still in all of our minds." He said that he was "glad" to have taken part in the race and that the victory was special for him because his wife is from England. De Ferran earned US$100,000 (£68,600) for the victory. Bräck said that he had no complaint over the last-lap loss and that it was a "tough" and "exciting" race. He said the remaining four races of the season were "crucial" and that the very close battle for the championship was not over. He stated that he was looking forward to those events and hoped they would play into his favour. Castroneves congratulated de Ferran on securing the victory, and said that it was "a quick and busy day" for the people who were involved in the event. He was glad that the race was able to be held, and hoped to achieve a good result at the next race of the season.
The circuit received a mixed response from the drivers. De Ferran described it as "very, very fast" and felt the first and second turns was similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The fourth corner reminded him of Homestead-Miami Speedway and what the former Club corner at the Silverstone Circuit used to be like. Da Matta said the circuit was good and that it was faster than the drivers expected. However, he felt the speeds the cars drove at exceeded those normally considered safe and that overtaking was difficult. Tracy stated the Rockingham Motor Speedway was a good track to drive on, and felt it would be "a great facility" to show CART in the United Kingdom. Drivers did not criticise the problems that affected the event. De Ferran stated that similar problems had occurred at several race tracks across the United States. He said that the advice he would give to CART was to avoid holding the race in September. Bräck stated he did not know of a similar event where it had taken longer than expected to dry the track. Heitzler said the series would return to Rockingham Motor Speedway in 2002, and pledged that any problems with circuit drainage would not reoccur.
Two hours after the event ended, Castroneves was judged to have overtaken under caution and was demoted from third to fourth. Castroneves stated that he did not understand why the penalty was issued after the race and that it appeared "very unfair". He said that there was no appeal for the penalty. Da Matta felt Castroneves had forgotten a change in the pit lane speed limit, and that he did not abide by the series' regulations. Nevertheless, he was happy that he was able to finish third, and revealed that his team held their own celebration after hearing about the result. Although Servià finished in tenth place, race officials had recorded his result as 15th. His team manager Phil Howard met with CART officials to discuss the issue and Servià's final finishing position was corrected to tenth. Ninth-place finisher Franchitti said his car was good in the event's first half, although as the temperature dropped it became "nervous" on entering and exiting the track's turns in the race's second stint, and stated he could have dealt with his result had he gained his desired finishing position.
Media reactions to the race were positive, with Kevin Eason of The Times saying, "What the inaugural Rockingham 500 CART FedEx race in Britain lacked in quantity, it made up for with driving of the highest quality." He reserved praise for de Ferran's last lap overtake on Bräck, calling it "astonishing". Writing for The Sunday Telegraph, Brough Scott stated, "Births have always come with their share of noise, difficulty, danger and the odd touch of absurdity. But never can all the elements have been mixed as heavily as in yesterday's much-delayed launch of the Rockingham 500, which opened and closed with overtaking manoeuvres dramatic enough to take your breath away." Richard Williams of The Guardian wrote, "the 38,000 people who had battled against uncertainty and Silverstone-style traffic jams to see US single-seater cars racing on a banked oval track for the first time in Britain were rewarded with a race that fully reflected the present strengths of a branch of motor sport that can trace its roots back to the first running of the Indianapolis 500 race in 1911." The Associated Press stated that despite the race almost being cancelled it became "one of CART's most dramatic of the season."
The result meant de Ferran reduced Bräck's lead in the Drivers' Championship and was now six points behind him. Andretti remained in third, but his advantage over Castroneves was reduced to two points. Da Matta's third-place finish allowed him to move from eighth to fifth. Honda increased their advantage over Ford Cosworth in the Manufacturers' Championship to be 38 points ahead, while Toyota remained in third position, with four races left in the season. Highlights of the race were broadcast the day after the event on the BBC Two sports programme Sunday Grandstand with commentary provided by Leigh Diffey and former Formula One and CART driver Mark Blundell. The event due to be broadcast live in the United States on ESPN but was moved to ESPN2 and aired via tape delay at 12:00 Eastern Daylight Time.Notes
^1 — Includes one bonus point for leading the most laps.
^2 — Helio Castroneves finished third, but was penalised one position after the race for passing during a caution period.
Note: Only the top five positions are included for the drivers' standings.