Monday, November 13, 2006

Easily Bourdais - Champ Car in Review

I really want to like the Champ Car World Series. On paper, it looks like a proper single seater series. Big fat-tyred 800BHP cars with no traction control, automatic gearboxes, or any of the other paraphenalia which so detracts from the driver's art in Formula One. In years past, there was a very interesting, challenging mixture of circuits too. To master Champ Car meant mastering road courses of both the twisty modern flavour and the balls-out frightening old fashioned variety, street circuits, airport courses and ovals. No other series required proficiency in such a variety of disciplines - and if the drivers weren't always of the same quality as in F1, the series certainly had little competition as the second best single seater championship in the world. The thing is, I really want to like it, but it keeps letting me down.

In the ten years since the IRL/Champ Car split, the series has fallen a long, long way. At the opening round in Long Beach this year, there were just 18 cars on the grid and sometimes that number would fall as low as 16 or 17 as the season progressed. More seriously, a lot of those cars were doing little more than making up the numbers. There were a few really good, serious drivers at the top, including 3 former F3000 champions, rising US star AJ Allmendinger and former champion Paul Tracy. Unfortunately. of those, Junquiera and Tracy showed a distinct loss of form this year. Worse still, while journeymen like Zwolsman, Kasemets, Pastorelli and Legge took up seats, serious racers like Ryan Briscoe, Giorgio Pantano and Franck Montagny couldn't find a drive. Money talks, evidently.

Nonetheless, though there was much to be downbeat about, some of the individual races were very good indeed. The last round at Mexico, with its Bourdais/Wilson showdown stands out in particular, but others were pretty interesting too. Road America saw a pretty interesting scrap between Allmendinger, Bourdais and Junquiera, and Cleveland stood out for the performance of underdogs Clarke and Dominguez - who but for last minute silliness of Clarke's part, would have both finished on the podium.

Still, there was no getting away from the fact that Bourdais never really had any true competition this year. He won 7 of the season's 14 races - but had it not been for Champ Cars over-liberal use of safety cars with its attendant tendency to mix up the order, it might well have been more. He may have had to wait until the penultimate race to secure the title, but that owed more to Champ Car's rather eccentric, "all shall have prizes" points system than anything else. Under an F1 style scoring system he would have won the series rather earlier (and pedants might like to note that Allmendinger would have beaten Wilson to second by a single point).

What, though, were the stories of the year? Well, for one, there was the emergence of AJ Allmendinger as a regular winner. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that it took his mysterious sacking from RuSport mid-season to make it happen. This left the way clear for Forsythe Racing to swoop in. He duly repaid them by winning 5 races, only to decide at the end of the season that he'd rather take more money to drive round in circles in the NASCAR series next year. A disappointment for a series which has been really struggling of late and looked to have discovered an American star among its number.

Allmendinger's performance begged questions of others - most notably Paul Tracy, who, despite his years of experience, much of it at Forsythe, was comprehensively outpaced by the young newcomer. It also left us wondering whether RuSport was really all it was cracked up to be. They had been talked of as the second best team behind Newman Haas before the beginning of the year, but that really has to be open to question. After all, Allmendinger was never quite a match for Justin Wilson there, and yet at Forsythe he won a good number of races. I should imagine there will be a number of Champ Car teams sniffing around Wilson this Winter to see how watertight his RuSport contract his.

Will Power was the best of the rookies, by some distance, but Dan Clarke certainly caught peoples attention from time to time. The HVM-CTE driver didn't come into the sport with the greatest track record having finished 5th last year in a rather weak British F3 field. Initially he was quick but frighteningly inconsistent - crashing twice at the opening race in Long Beach, and then doing much the same at the second round in Houston, going ten laps down after a brush with the wall then running Katherine Legge off the road once back on track. Sixth in qualifying at Portland showed that he had potential, and this time he kept in on the island to finish there too. At Cleveland he was at his best and worse - on the final lap, a podium was on the cards, but a moment of stupidity eliminated both himself and Mario Dominguez, who had been running second. His pole at Road America owed more than a little to luck on a drying track, but he was a regular top ten qualifier in the second half of the season and he looks like someone to watch out for in the future.

Nelson Philippe came of age, helped no doubt by an upturn in form for Bill Wiggins' HVM-CTE team. He deserved his win in Surfers Paradise, and another couple of podiums showed that it was no mere flash in the pan. Perhaps equally significantly, he ended up ahead of Newman Haas' de facto Number 2, Junquiera.

Of those not so far mentioned, Jan Heylen's potential was difficult to judge in the woefully unreliable Dale Coyne entry. Cristiano Da Matta achieved the odd surprise result with the same team and earned a RuSport drive. Sadly, this ended early with a horrific accident in testing at Elkhart Lake which left him in a coma for several weeks. Joao Cacaras, Antonio Pizzonia, Jimmy Vasser, Andreas Wirth and Buddy Rice all put in fleeting appearances but failed to make any impact. David Martinez and Ryan Briscoe looked a little more promising with their one-off drives at Mexico for Forsythe and RuSport respectively.

Next year, there'll be a new, cheaper chassis, and a better TV package in place. Together these might help both the existing small teams to build up their resources, and new teams who might want to come into the series. One can't help but feel that until IRL and Champ Car sort out their differences and arrange a merger, the prospects of both series will remain questionable. All the same, there is a sense in which the worst of it may be over for Champ Car. Lets hope so, anyway.

Motorsports Ramblings' Top Ten Drivers - 2006

1. - Sebastien Bourdais
- Who else could it be, really? 7 wins from 14 races, and his third champ car title on the trot. He must be wondering just what else he can do to bring himself to the attention of the F1 team bosses.

2. - Justin Wilson - I know, you're thinking - he only won one race. Allmendinger won 5. Yes, but when they were team mates, Wilson was clearly quicker. Allmendinger didn't start winning 'til he went to Forsythe, mid-season.

3. - AJ Allmendinger - He wasn't half quick when he got there, wasn't he. Perhaps he would have given Bourdais something to think about had he started the year with Forsythe. A real shame he's gone off to drive stock cars round and round in circles.

4. - Nelson Philippe - A good year for the French. Promoted too soon to Champ Car, Philippe really came of age this year and did well to finish the championship ahead of Newman Haas' Number 2.

5. - Will Power - Far and away the most experienced of this year's crop of rookies and it showed. Looked rather more promising than he ever did in British F3 and outpaced and outscored experienced team mate Tagliani

6. - Paul Tracy - Not the best of years for the Canadian veteran, and probably only so high up the list owing to a lack of competition. Still one of Champ Car's big draws though.

7. - Mario Dominguez - An on/off kind of year for the Mexican. Pole in Houston aside, didn't achieve much with Forsythe. But later in the year was far and away the quickest guy over at Dale Coyne, and should have got a podium in Cleveland...

8. - Dan Clarke - An up and down kind of year for the inexperienced Englishman. Made a lot of mistakes but in between those he was impressively quick. And as Mario Andretti said, its easier to tidy up speed than speed up tidiness.

9. Bruno Junquiera- A decidedly anonymous comeback year. With the best car, he picked up just one pole and no wins. Showed enough consistency to end up fifth in the overall standings though.

10. Andrew Ranger - Not brilliant - outside of the top three or four, few were this year, but decently quick. And much better than his team mate too. Showed much less of a propensity to fall off the road than in previous years.

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