Bruno Junqueira put together a run to start the 2003 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season that would make most drivers in any series green with envy as the 27-year-old Brazilian stormed to 10 top-five finishes in the first 11 races, finishes that saw him climb the podium after seven of those events.
All it did was piss Bruno off.
While the Newman/Haas driver had been a threat to win every time the green flag fell, through 11 races he had yet to taste victory champagne despite piloting the machine that Cristiano da Matta had carried to the series title just one year before. Even more maddening was the fact that Junqueira wasn’t even the fastest guy in his shop through much of the first half of the year, as rookie Sebastien Bourdais took his Newman/Haas ride to the pole in three of the first five races, winning two of those. It was that performance discrepancy, especially from a driver that many pundits tabbed as the favorite for the 2003 title, which sparked negative speculation about Junqueira’s will to win.
For a guy that has won the FIA International F3000 championship and is the only driver since Alex Zanardi (1996-98) to score victories in each of his first three Champ Car seasons, the suggestion that he didn’t have the intent to win every time he strapped on his helmet was something that caught his attention and peaked his emotional temperature gauge.
“I think the thing that upset me most last year was people talking about my consistency," Junqueira said from his Miami home. "I think that people labeled me as a guy that didn’t fight for the win and was happy just to finish in the top five. You don’t always have the best car and sometimes you have to be content to finish second or third. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to win.
“I think the first few races last year weren’t too good because I wasn’t as fast as I expected to be. I was in a fast car with a good team but sometimes our setup might not have been the best for my driving style. I got a little frustrated during that time but then we had some mid-year tests where we were able to work on a few things and after those it got a lot better for us.”
These were uncomfortable feelings for the man who came to America in 2000 after winning in basically every form of racing that he had been in, from the first time he got in a kart in his native Brazil. A bicycle motocrosser as a very young boy, Junqueira caught the karting bug at the age of nine but reports that it took him a while to convince his father that he was ready for the next step.
“My father was an amateur touring-car driver when I was a kid. I always loved racing,” said Junqueira. “I raced BMX from age six to eight, then after a year of asking my father what seemed like every day, he got me my first kart when I was 10. Karting is very big in Brazil and I think that’s why we have so many great drivers. I wanted to be part of it.”
Junqueira won numerous regional championships and took just four years to rise to the status of National Champion. From there he moved into his first racing car, taking part in a Formula Chevrolet series before entering the Brazilian Formula Three Championship in 1994. The step from karting and regional racing to F3 status was a big one from a horsepower standpoint but Junqueira found the move a comfortable one from his perch behind the wheel. But he soon found out that getting behind the wheel was impossible unless a driver was as comfortable at the presentation table as he was in the cockpit.
“My father could help me in the first couple years in karting but it was expensive. I was very close to having to quit a few times,” Bruno said. “Doing a presentation to sponsors is just a part of racing but you have to be just as prepared to do that as you are to be ready to race. You have to be 100 percent when you go to talk to a sponsor. There are thousands and thousands of guys out there so you have to be ready to do it right when you get the opportunity.”
Junqueira soon got up to speed in both aspects of the racing world and moved from the South American F3 ranks to the FIA International F3000 series, where he would go on to win the 2000 season championship in the series that is widely regarded as a direct stepping stone to the Formula 1 World Championship. But winning the title did not guarantee a free pass to a Ferrari or Jordan ride and the young Brazilian found his best opportunity to keep winning would come with a move to North America.
“During the middle of the 2000 season I was talking to some F1 teams and I had the opportunity to talk to (Chip) Ganassi," Junqueira explained. "I looked at the options I had to go to F1 and I knew that I could come to America and have a chance to win races so that’s what I did. Every series I had been in I had done pretty well so I had to come over here thinking that it would go well. As a driver, you have to expect that or there is no point in racing. But my first year was difficult because I was on a big team and good results were not enough even though I won a race in my first year but it got better.”
It didn’t get better right away however despite the fact the Junqueira won a race for Ganassi in that first year. He would remain in limbo for 2002 as Ganassi refused to officially name Junqueira as the driver for one of his two Champ Cars until the final weeks before the start of the season, a fact that didn’t phase the Brazilian, who would go on to win a pair of races and finish second to da Matta in the chase for the Vanderbilt Cup. His second-place finish was a career best but da Matta’s dominant season kept Junqueira from being truly immersed in the pressure cooker of a Champ Car title hunt.
That would change in 2003 after the Newman/Haas #1 PacifiCare-sponsored machine escorted the field across the line in Road America to assume the series lead, giving Junqueira the point position for the first time in his Champ Car career. But the taste of victory that silenced his critics would prove to be part of his undoing in his quest for the 2003 Vanderbilt Cup. He would give the lead back to Paul Tracy by going scoreless in his next two races, first getting knocked off course at Mid-Ohio after a second-corner tangle with Oriol Servia and then spinning out in Montreal while trying to move into second place. He would finish 13th in both races and needed to defend his 2002 Denver race win in order to stay in the hunt.
He answered the bell in Denver, rolling from pole and leading 76 of the 106 laps to claim victory in the Mile High City for the second consecutive season. The door of opportunity swung wide open at the series’ next event when Tracy and Bourdais failed to come out of Turn 2 in Miami on Lap 68, handing Junqueira a free pass to eat into Tracy’s 18-point series lead. He chased leader Adrian Fernandez for 93 laps and could have come away just one point behind Tracy with a second-place finish (having won a point for leading Friday’s qualifying). But the urge to move to the front got the better of him and Junqueira tried a move on the leader that ended up sending both cars into the Turn One fence.
“I always have some regrets and maybe the biggest one was in Miami when I crashed with Adrian,” Junqueira said. “But I was going for the win and that’s the way it happens in racing sometimes. The only thing I can do is learn from it and try to improve. It was very exciting to be part of the championship race but it was frustrating that I didn’t win.”
That frustration is driving Junqueira during this offseason as what is usually a very ambitious fitness regimen has been ramped up as he prepares for the 2004 campaign. An avid cyclist, Junqueira notes that many of his foes are fit enough to make it to the end of a race, but it is the ability to be strong at the end of the day that can make the difference.
“People have no idea how difficult it is to drive a race car,” he said. “On the street you have power steering, air conditioning and everything and it’s nothing to drive for two or three hours. It’s like going from Indianapolis to Chicago. But at the pace we go, it is very difficult. You have to be very, very fit. Last year’s race in Cleveland for example was very hot even though it was at night and the track is very bouncy. Between me, Paul and Sebastien, the pace was like qualifying the whole time. Those are the times when the workouts pay off.”