Monday, June 18, 2007

Champ Car and GP2 - Observations From The Opening Races

The vultures are circling over a few Grand Prix drivers at the moment. Ralf Schumacher is widely thought to be out of favour at Toyota as his contract comes up for renewal. Alex Wurz's qualifying pace in the Williams has been so awful that his considerable racecraft has proven insufficient to make up for it. Heikki Kovalainen is probably out of the danger zone at Renault after a couple of good North American races and a strong performance in Spain, but both the Toro Rosso drivers could be considered to be under threat, as perhaps, is Spyker's Christijan Albers, who has been comprehensively outpaced by Adrian Sutil. Sutil, is, of course, one of the names which comes up when talk turns to who might replace these men, but he could only fill one of the available seats, and it looks as though there may be rather more available than that.

Formula 1 team bosses, therefore, might do well to pay attention to what is happening in the two other big single seater road course series - the Champ Car World Series and the GP2 series. For the rest of us, they're worth following in themselves. These series feature 600-750BHP cars on slick tyres with, by F1 standards, limited downforce and much greater mechanical grip - and there's no traction control or similar electronic gizmos either. Aside from the spec-chassis nature of both championships, they come very close to a purist's vision of what modern single seater racing should be about.

There were a couple of notable milestones the other weekend at Portland. Newman Haas took their 100th Champ Car victory since they entered what was then the CART series in 1987. Unsurprisingly, it was Sebastien Bourdais - responsible for more than a quarter of those 100 wins, who took the chequer first, racking up a hat trick of wins in the new Panoz Champ Car in the process.

Perhaps less expectedly, the Portland race was also the first Champ Car race in several years to go the entire distance without a single yellow flag. Leaving aside a couple of drivers who ran out of fuel in the closing stages, there were no retirements either. As such, the race offered an unusually good guide to the overall competitiveness of Champ Car at the moment.

The picture that the race painted was, on the whole, good. The new Pacific Coast Motorsport Team's cars were three and two laps adrift, respectively, but none of the rest of the field fell more than one lap down in the whole of the course of the race - a race which, lest we forget, is more than a hundred laps long. What the race did seem to show was that the introduction of the new chassis has not made a great deal of difference to the relative competitiveness of the teams. The fact that Alex Figge was running at the back might be put down to the fact that he doesn't really belong at this level, but Ryan Dalziel was only a lap further in front in the other PCM car - which suggests that this new team still has a good deal to learn.

Much closer to the pace, but still behind all but the PCM cars, were the Dale Coyne cars of Bruno Junquiera and Katherine Legge. Again, its unlikely to be down to the drivers - Junquiera was a race winner when he was at Newman Haas, and while Legge's record in Champ Car is patchy, she had actually just passed Junquiera when she ran out of fuel. Jan Heylen did a fantastic job to get onto the tail of Paul Tracy (before he too ran out of fuel) in his return to the series, replacing the luckless Matt Halliday at Conquest.

Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that there are no more than five, perhaps at a push, six, potential race winners in the series. Sebastien Bourdais is head and shoulders above all of them - and it is notable that it is he, specifically, and not Newman Haas, in general, who has been making the running in the opening races. However, one should not forget 2007 race winner Will Power, who has been a consistent front-runner at Team Australia, nor his former team mate, Alex Tagliani, who appears to be enjoying something of an Indian Summer at RSports. The other two drivers who at least look like they might be capable of winning races this year are two ex-F1 drivers: Robert Doornbos at Minardi Team USA who has taken to Champ Cars like a duck to water, and Justin Wilson at RSports, who looked to have the race at Portland in the bag when he came into the first pit stops with a 20s lead.

You might wonder why I haven't mentioned either of the Forsythe Championship racing guys. Well, I might be wrong, but I can't help feeling that Paul Tracy is long past his peak now. He was reasonably convincing at the opening round, but still couldn't catch Will Power, and on his return at Portland, he was absolutely nowhere. Worse still, he was openly pondering retirement - hardly the talk of a driver who fancies his chances of adding to his 2 Champ Car titles. And the other Forsythe driver? Well, for as long as the team keeps chopping and changing its driver line-up, I just can't see Servia, Martinez or Dominguez winning races. How all concerned must wish Allmendinger hadn't taken the NASCAR dime (including, perhaps Allmendinger himself, given how awfully his NASCAR season has been going).

In the end, while a team boss might be tempted to test Will Power, and maybe even Simon Pagenaud, to see what they can do, Sebastien Bourdais is probably the only serious candidate for an F1 drive in Champ Car right now. The question is - will anybody offer it? Toro Rosso have tested him, perhaps Toyota might want to try him out. Unlike many knocking on the door of F1, he would be a seriously experienced safe pair of hands - and he just might be seriously quick as well.

So if there's only one guy who really looks up to the job in Champ Cars, how are things over in GP2, where the opening five races have seen five different winners. Ron Dennis remarked earlier in the year that he didn't see any of the current crop of GP2 drivers as being potential F1 front runners, and with one exception, he may well be right.

For while there have been five different winners, Timo Glock has emerged as far and away the front-runner in the series. He won the second race at Barcelona, but would probably have won the first as well had it not been for a dodgy pit call, and might well have added victory in race 1 at Bahrain had he not damaged his steering in a first corner incident. In Monaco he qualified an unusually lowly 7th, but was able to fight his way up to 3rd on a circuit where passing is all but impossible. He's hardly emerged from nowhere, either. He was quick when deputising for Pantano at Jordan, despite being very inexperienced at the time. His performances in Champ Car were good, and perhaps even better with the benefit of hindsight (nobody else did anything much with a Rocketsports drive, did they?), and once he got together with ISport last year, he was as near as makes no difference a match for Lewis Hamilton in GP2. I'm still amazed that BMW were more inclined to call Sebastien Vettel when a vacancy unexpectedly arose at the US Grand Prix at the weekend.

The rest? Pastor Maldonado looked absolutely stunning at Monaco, but as Martin Haven remarked, he's the Goran Ivanisevic of motorsport - you never know which Maldonado will turn up on any given occasion. Certainly he hasn't looked like scoring points, let alone a win, on any other occasion. Nicolas Lapierre finally broke his duck and won a race in Bahrain, but doesn't look like the great white hope for French motorsport that he (and Premat) did in his F3 days.

The most promising of the other winners, to my mind, have been Luca Filippi and Bruno Senna. Senna doubtless has found his path to the top smoothed by a family name which will open a lot of doors, but there's still no getting around the fact that he has been astonishingly quick for a guy who, unlike most of the rest of the field did not spend his teenage years going round in circles in karts.

Filippi was a man I singled out as a potential front runner last year, but he never seemed at home at Fisichella Motorsports, and was out after just a few races. Pantano's late season wins for FMS suggest this wasn't all about the team, but Pizzonia's struggles there this year do rather hint that its not the easiest place for a driver to make an impression. At Supernova, he's finally living up to the promise that I thought I saw in him, and making British F3 champion Mike Conway look rather ordinary in the process. I'd tip him as the man most likely to get between Glock and the title this year. Although, on balance, I rather doubt anyone will do that.

Others worthy of mention? Andy Zuber has been very quick in qualifying in the other ISport car, and just might be able to take the fight to Glock if he can ever get off the line in Race 1. Mikhail Aleshin was pretty impressive in his debut with ART, and of all people, Vitaly Petrov has suddenly emerged at the front of the midfield. Amazing what a good, experienced team mate can do for a young driver, eh?

Still, if we're looking for potential F1 drivers, my money is on the BMW tester. What price a Glock/Bourdais pairing at Toro Rosso next year?

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Anonymous Keith said...

Somehow GP2 just isn't doing it for me this year. That last two seasons were a blast but everyone seems to have reached a consensus that 2007 is Glock's year and resolved not to fight it that hard.

It's had a different winner in every race and yet there isn't an obvious title battle yet. Last year it was Hamilton-Piquet - this year there only seems to be Glock.

Having said all that I'm sure once it gets into the stride of the European season it'll liven up again.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

I've not been able to find GP2 on the terrestrial channels, but the vibes certainly aren't as good as they were last year - and last year I thought the series was a bit overrated. Glock was a joy to watch at Jordan and I hope he does get another bite at the F1 cherry, but I don't see it happening.

Once the team bosses lose interest in the series, not a lot can be done by an individual driver to re-engage that interest - as Sebastien Bordais has demonstrated. He shouldn't have needed to go to Champ Car, let alone get a pair of championships there...

8:57 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

Alianora - I liked the GP2 races last year - there were a few dull ones, but on the whole it was a pretty exciting race series.

Agree with you both that this year hasn't really come alive so far. They've yet to have a single really close fought race, and other than Glock, no consistent front runners seem to have emerged.

Still, early days yet. After all, Rosberg was nowhere in the early races in 2005.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous jeff@champodcast said...

Great post, your thoughts on Portland giving us a good idea of how the teams stack up right now is spot on. I agree that there really are only a few teams and drivers that look capable of winning a race in Champ car this year besides Bourdais and the one Power got in Vegas. Sadly I have to agree with you about Paul Tracy, he looks like his best days in open wheel are behind him. I will give him a few more races, but looking at Day 1 Qualifying at Cleveland, he was way down the provisional grid.

12:35 PM  

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