Monday, March 03, 2008

The damage done

A commonly told morality tale in the history of war, or at least in fictional accounts of it, is that of two bitter enemies who fight a brutal and bloody war of attrition, and at the end of it, the nominal winner sadly surveys the horrendous damage and devastation they have sustained and is forced to ask: Was it all worth it? In what sense have we really won?

It's a rather melodramatic way of looking at the recently ended US single seater conflict between Tony George's Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series (nee CART) but it there's some truth in it. The recent developments have been billed as a 'merger' between the two series, but in truth, it has been game, set and match for the IRL. The unifited series will be called the IRL, they ill use the IRL's cars, the IRL's engines and will race (mostly) at IRL';s venues. The CHamp Car teams able to raise the budget to compete at all will be at a huge starting disadvantage and outgoing Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais thinks even Newman Haas, the dominant Champ Car team of the past five years, will struggle to be half way competitive. So make no mistake: IRL won. But at what cost?

This article provides an excellent precis of the causes of the IRL split, and the differing visions of the IRL and the then CART series. Fundamentally, the IRL was founded on Tony George's vision of an authentically American oval racing series, with lower budgets and less complex technology than the CART series, as he considered that the series had become too international, too expensive, and lacked home drivers. Yet, ten years on, the cars are built by the Italian Dallara firm, the engines come from Japanese car giant Honda, the leading teams, Chip Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Rahal-Letterman are all relatively recent converts from Champ Car, and for the past two years, both the Indy 500 and the IRL title have been won by foreign drivers (British drivers, as it happens). Tony George's IRL won the battle in the end, probably because it always held the trump card in the form of the Indy 500, the one truly well known race in US single seater racing, but in order to do so, the IRL had to become a virtual clone of the series it was seeking to usurp.

So is it simply a matter of 'as you were' with the unified series being essentially the same as the old CART series that dominated the US racing landscape through the 1980s and 1990s? Sadly, that is far too optimistic a gloss to put on matters. The old series had real star drivers, a huge international following and was without question the most important series outside of F1. When top CART drivers went across the Atlantic to race in F1, they did so in the top teams of the day. Michael Andretti partnered Ayrton Senna at Mclaren in 1993, Jacques Villeneuve went to Williams in 1996, and Juan Pablo Montoya did the same 5 years later.

It's a marked contrast with the state of things today. Reigning Champ Car series champion Sebastien Bourdais has taken a ride with tailend Toro Rosso in F1, while IRL champion Dario Franchitti has joined fellow front-runner Sam Hornish Jr in deciding that his future lies in NASCAR. While its rivals divided and fell in the 21st Century, the US stock car series has emerged from its deep south roots to dominate the US motorsport landscape today (though, to be fair, it has it's own problems). The split was immensely damaging, not just for Champ Car, which has now folded, but for the surviving series too.

Can the IRL, with its main rival extinguished, now recover? Much depends on what happens this year. With its move to include road and street circuits on its calendar, as well as short ovals and superspeedways, the series can with some justification claim to be the most complete test of a single seater driver's versatility. If the most competitive Champ Car teams successfully make the switch, it will have the strongest line-up of teams that any US single seater series has had since the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the news that Forsythe Championship Racing will fold having been unable to raise the budget to compete in IRL hardly bodes well. One hopes that Minardi Team USA, Newman Haas and Team Australia don't go the same way.

On the other hand, set against these strengths, the series is sorely lacking in star drivers. Racing afficionados may know that Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Justin Wilson and Will Power are real talents, but their names will mean nothing to the wider US public. The closest thing that the series has to a household name is Danica Patrick, who has never actually won a major race, and who is famous chiefly for being female. There's Marco Andretti and Graham RAhal, but one suspects that while the surnames may mean something, their first names probably will not.

This will inevitably take time to correct. A good first step would be to stop the flow of young US talents towards NASCAR. Two good junior series, in the form of Formula Atlantic and the Infiniti Pro Series should help, though the former, in particular, is dominated by foreign drivers whose European junior careers have stalled. Attracting back AJ Allmendinger, who was a real star in Champ Car and is now also-ran in NASCAR, would be an encouraging sign.

I hope they succeed. With ever more drivers coming up through the junior single seater ranks and only 22 slots on the F1 grid, there is a desperate need for a viable alternative (and NASCAR, with its emphasis on turning left, spurious safety cars and bumping and boring just doesn't cut it for me). I want the newly unified series to succeed. I'll not pretend that I was ever other than a Champ Car partisan in the single-seater wars, but more than anything, I thought it important that there was a merger. It's going to be a long hard slog, but fingers crossed, they just might do it.

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