Monday, April 17, 2006

Big Open Single Seaters

Its subtle; You can't really see it unless you look very closely. Its not Ronnie Peterson in a March in the mid 1970s for sure, but its definitely there on occasion. Four wheel drift. With 600BHP, on worn tyres, the latest spec GP2 cars, with their emphasis on mechanical, rather than aerodynamic grip, conjure up the ghosts of an earlier era, a time when the laws of physics were less well understood - when the whole idea of inverting an aeroplane wing to keep something on the ground was a novelty in itself. Out of Valencia's many second gear corners, drivers are visibly wrestling with their cars, constantly having to apply opposite lock out of the corner, fighting their cars for all they are worth. Through the few faster corners, they drift, almost imperceptibly, but they drift....

Up front, a man with an awful lot to prove, uncharacteristically serene and in control. Nelson Piquet Jr was expected to challenge for the title last year, but whether through lack of application on his part, or a lack of experience on the part of his team, he never really got it together. And so the momentum and the attention switched to the other son of a famous father - the one who didn't have an F3 title to his name. Now though, he looks imperious, the class of the field. Perhaps, like his father, he's just happiest way out in front, a big gap back to the next competitor, with only himself to beat.

Behind him, two new names. Tristan Gommendy, already out of his car and wondering what might have been. Gommendy, who has been floating around the junior single seater ranks for years, was not at the top of anyone's list of those "most likely to" and yet there he was, on the front row in his first GP2 race. Then, after only two laps, his engine dies, and with a back row starting slot for the next day, his weekend is written off, and he must be wondering whether he's already lost his best chance of a real result all season.

Enjoying better luck, Adrian Valles even gets to lead the race for a while during the pit stops. Adrian who? A reasonable question, but that will be the Adrian Valles who finished second to Kubica last year in the Renault World Series, and who may just turn out to be Spain's next great racing export - he's perhaps not as well known as he deserves to be. Even with last year's perennial tailenders, Campos Racing, and despite a less than ideal pit strategy, he scores a fine podium at his home circuit in race one.

Down at the back, two big names having a really bad start to 2006. Nicolas Lapierre came into GP2 with everything going for him - a seat at Arden, a good showing in a competitive F3 Euroseries season, pole in the opening race....and then nothing. After a winter of domination over in A1GP, we wondered if it would be different this time and yet after qualifying, there he was down in 21st place. Come race day though, he's able to make amends, and to show why he still can't be discounted from this year's title race. In the first race he climbs up to 4th (albeit with a blackmark for his clumsy pass of Andreas Zuber, which took the Austrian out of the race) and come the second, he's on the podium, a lucky save, and he leaves Valencia second on points.

Less lucky is Northern Irish series sophomore, Adam Carroll. After being right at the front all through winter testing, he's unexpectedly off the pace in qualifying. He compounds his problems by screwing up his start, falling from 13th on the grid down to 21st with a lot to do. Carroll was always a great racer but Valencia is no easy place to pass at - a Monaco with run off areas and big Moto-GP style banked kerbs, if you will. Always a street fighter, the frustration of being stuck behind much slower cars begins to tell. Carroll 's driving seems wayward today, more rock-ape clumsy than merely combative. His pass on Fauzy relies more than a little on a bit of wheel-banging, and he ends his weekend with a barrel roll while fighting with Valles for the final point in race 2.

Just a few stories from the opening race. It might not have been a classic, but this is still shaping up to be a very close run season. The cars looked good on the tracl and there was plenty to keep the informed fan interested - and I haven't even touched on the fast South Americans, Viso and Lopez, or the contrasting fortunes of the ART boys, not to mention the success of first-time winner and former FRenault driver, Michael Ammermuller.


Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, just a few hours later, the Champ Car series got underway after a long winter break. Too long , perhaps. Mario Dominguez shows he is a little race rusty , on the way down to the first corner, misses his braking point and ploughs into his team mate, Paul Tracy. In the confusion, AJ Allmendinger, Oriol Servia and Bruno Junquiera are eliminated, and at a stroke, the main interest in the race is largely killed. Such is the way sometimes - most of the heavy hitters gone in one fell swoop. There was just about enough going on further down the field to keep one from falling asleep while watching the late night Eurosport coverage.

It doesn't take long for Bourdais to show that he has the legs of Wilson, or, for that matter, for the 2 F3000 champions past to show that they are the class of what remains of the field. By contrast with the GP2 cars, the Champ Cars look big and clumsy around Long Beach, prone to understeer, rather than oversteer. But perhaps that is just a side effect of the fact that, on a concrete-lined street circuit, the drivers can't take the same kinds of chances as their GP2 brethren.

Some of the newcomers don't seem entirely to realise this. Dan Clarke, who had not really done anything to stand out in a not particularly competitive British F3 field last year, is surprisingly close to the pace in the HVM-CTE car, but finishes only 11th after not one but two trips into the wall (the first of which, in particular, would have totalled a less inherently sturdy car). By way of consolation, he sets the third fastest lap of the race on his debut.

Dutchman Jan Heylen, by contrast, is the slowest, but the steadiest, of the rookies. As a result of being the only one to stay entirely out of trouble, he comes home the best of them in 7th place. He's pushed all the way by Britain's other new Champ Car driver, Katherine Legge. The centre of attention in more ways than one, Legge endures a mixed debut. At around half distance, she makes a careless mistake at turn 5 just as the safety car came out to deal with Pizzonia and stalled the engine. Suffering the indignity of a face-facing camera, we see a flash of an exhausted looking and anguished rookie, and my first thought is that she is in no fit state to be in a race car, either mentally or physically, and that the team should pull her in. Which goes to show why I'm not a team boss - as she went on to recover impressively and hustle Heylen right to the line. Perhaps, with rearward facing cockpit cameras a novelty, I'd simply overestimated the calm and composure of the average racing driver in action.

Elsewhere, Cristiano Da Matta attempts to rescue his career following the Toyota sacking and the PKV debacle, and drove well to 6th for underdogs Dale Coyne racing, and both Will Power and Antonio Pizzonia show flashes of pace, and more than a little inconsistency in their Champ Car debuts. If we don't lose most of the quick guys at the first corner next time out, this could be an interesting race series, if something of a shadow of its former glory.

All in all, in a weekend with no F1, there was still more than enough action for single seater racing fans to be satisfied - and some of it rather more interesting than this weekend's Imola encounter is likely to be.


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