Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Up against the ropes, but still fighting...

I've never been one to hide my own prejudices and preferences. Everyone has them, so I figure its as well to be upfront about them. And I've always preferred the Champ Car series to the IRL. To my mind, its more of a purist's formula, something a little closer to what I think the essence of motor racing is really all about. And I don't much care for oval racing....

Its been hard, though, to ignore the fact that the series has been looking far from healthy for a few years now, and over the winter, its occasionally looked like collapsing entirely (Bill Sheets summarises the problems well on his blog).
Just days before the start of the opening race, many teams had not announced their drivers, and after talking of having 25 cars on the grid this year, Kevin Kalkhoven was forced to concede that, at Las Vegas at least, there would only be 17. Even now, many of the drivers are on 2 or 3 race deals and its far from clear whether Halliday, Junquiera or Legge, for instance, will see out the season.

Last weekend, the first race of Champ Car's new spec-formula Panoz era began round the streets of Sin City. Las Vegas, as it turned out, gave both the doubters and the cheerleaders plenty of ammunition. To see the track was to feel that one had stepped back in time, to an era before obsessive safety precautions, when street circuits could be fast and challenging. The circuit had long straights, elevation changes, a couple of really quick corners and even a pair of underpasses. It brought to mind nothing so much as the F1 street races of the late 70s and early 80s. If even this correspondent feels that the chicane before the underpass was a little too hairy, it nonetheless has to be acknowledged that this was a proper racing circuit, and that is not something that can be said of every place that Champ Car has gone street racing in over the last couple of years.

The basic problem with the track was its location. People come to gawp at the greatest monument to sheer, shameless excess and bad taste on the planet. People come to gamble. People do not come to watch motor races. Its been proven before with Bernie Ecclestone's unsuccessful F1 races in the early 80s that Vegas is not the best place in the world to run a race. Street races succeed in places where there is a little less going on, where the race is more of an event. In Vegas, its just one more distraction. That, and the fact that the spectators were not afforded the best view of the track, meant that the race day crowd was pretty thin. A shame, because while Champ Car might have awful TV ratings, its one strength in recent years has been its ability to pull in a crowd.

On TV, though, the track looked great. It helped that the new cars looked fantastic. Visually, they're half way between GP2 cars and the old Lola Champ Car chassis, and perhaps something of an acquired taste, but what's important is how they go. And on the evidence of the first race, they're a vast improvement on the old Lola. They look faster and certainly much more nimble, and having taken a lead from GP2, the new cars generate much more of their downforce from underbody aerodynamics, and so can run much closer together. The result was some serious GP2-esque wheel to wheel racing in the early stages.

The big problem was that, as perhaps was to be expected with a new car that has had minimal testing, reliability was woeful. Several cars went out with what appeared to be gearbox/electrical problems, and the battle for the lead was ultimately decided by the refuelling problems which appeared to afflict most of the teams over the course of the race. I'm sure that the teams will soon get on top of the refuelling, but it is much more important that the other car reliability problems are sorted out. There are only 17 cars on the grid right now, and at street circuits you can usually count on 2 or 3 falling by the wayside in accidents. If half of the rest fall out with mechanical failures on a regular basis, then we could see as few as 7 or 8 cars actually making the finish.

To be fair, GP2 suffered equally serious problems with their cars when the series first started in 2005, with clutches burning out at the start and brakes going away entirely by half distance. The teams and the chassis manufacturer quickly got on top of these, and to my mind its now the strongest single seater racing series outside of Formula 1, and the best to watch of the lot. Champ Car is unlikely to challenge GP2's strength any time soon, but in terms of spectacle, the cars are in many ways like more powerful GP2 cars, so there's potential there.

With the driver deals being done very late, I had serious worries about the quality of the field this year, but to some extent, these appear to be misplaced. After the initial flurry of full course caution periods, the race ran uninterrupted for 3/4 of its length, and despite this, all those who didn't encounter mechanical or other woes finished on the lead lap. This is not something you would have seen in F1, where admittedly the differences between the cars is much greater, but it does suggest that there's nobody really slow in the field. Sure, Junquiera was lapped, but he had particularly severe fuel woes. Legge was almost lapped too, but she had been locked in battle with Tristan Gommendy until her brakes gave out towards the end leaving her about 3 to 4 seconds a lap slower than she had been.

There were notable performances from a trio of drivers who have underperformed in the last year. Bruno Junquiera, who had been comprehensively outpaced by Bourdais at Newman Haas last year had his Dale Coyne car right up among the front runners. Paul Tracy, who hasn't looked the equal of Bourdais since 2003, and who was pretty seriously outpaced by AJ Allmendinger last year, was back on the front row and might have beaten Will Power to the win had he not had problems with his fuelling rig. And finally, Alex Tagliani, who was fairly anonymous at Team Australia last year, was right back in the thick of it in his first race for the newly merged RSports team.

It was unfortunate that both Newman Haas cars and Justin Wilson's RSports car fell by the wayside, because it gives the impression that Will Power's maiden win came about largely through luck. In fact, he had the pole, the fastest lap, and most probably would have won the race regardless of what happened to the established stars. Given the sheer domination of Sebastien Bourdais over the past couple of years, this can only be a welcome development. Power came on increasingly strongly during his rookie year, and now that Newman Haas vast experience with the old Lolas is no longer in play, he and Team Australia just might be serious contenders this year.

The biggest problem on the driver front is that Champ Car is still a largely American based series with a largely European driver line-up. The success of NASCAR (to my mind one of the great mysteries of the racing world) shows that for any racing series to succeed in the US, they're going to have to have first rate American drivers in the field. The two Americans in the field are not exactly the most convincing either. Graham Rahal has been compared to Lewis Hamilton, in that he is a young driver going straight into a top team, but I'm afraid that on the basis of all I've seen so far, Rahal may not even be in the same class as fellow racing scion Marco Andretti, let alone Hamilton. Its early days, but Alex Figge certainly doesn't look like he'll be the man to re-establish Champ Car racing in the minds of the US public. Drivers who spin under full course caution probably don't really belong, and the best that can be said is that his father's Pacific Coast Motorsports team has also brought the far more promising Ryan Dalziel into the series.

There's no getting away from the fact that this is a series which is meant to be America's premier open wheel racing series (and certainly its premier road racing series) and yet the field has just 2 Americans, compared to no less than 4 Britons and 3 Frenchmen. If it carries on going this way, perhaps Messrs Kalkhoven, Gentilozzi and Forsythe might want to consider moving the series over to Europe too.

Its become something of a cliche to say that this is a make or break season for Champ Car. However, with the new car, and with challengers to Bourdais' supremacy beginning to emerge, I think its fair to say that this time, it really is make or break time.

(ps - Finally, a quick plug for these guys, who are podcasting the whole Champ Car season).

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Anonymous Rich said...

Hey there, nice post Patrick. I watched a replay of the Las Vegas race on Eurosport and I'd have to agree with everything you say there.

On Graham Rahal, I was surprised that the commentry team had such praise for his efforts in Atlantics (not having followed that at all). He looked desperately out of his depth in A1GP (admittedly in the worst-prepared car on the grid) so it's not surprising that he's having trouble getting used to the much more powerful champcar.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Bill Sheets said...

Pretty much agree Patrick, the state of the series might well rest entirely on the 2007 season. In fact it might even require that additional entries will be needed before the end of this year to lend credence to the series.

As for the need for American drivers, perhaps the average fan doesn't care so long as the racing is good. I can't make up my mind on this.

NASCAR is a solid business that has many years of trials and tribulations behind it. It is not likely that OWR will achieve a NASCAR like existance for many years to come, if ever.

(ps I put your link in my blog)

1:06 PM  

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