Editorial

View from the Topside
2006 Champ Car seats beginning to fill up

   by Rick Benjamin
March 13, 2006

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The pace is accelerating quickly now for the Champ Car World Series as we prepare for the 2006 opener, just four weeks away in the streets of Long Beach. Iím excited to be back for the third year as the host of Champ Carís network TV broadcasts, and Iím really excited about taking over the call of our coverage of the Champ Car Atlantics this season as well. Working with friends and veterans like Derek Daly and Jon Beekhuis is a treat, and Iím excited about a new voice coming on board in Cameron Steele.

Iíve called a few Atlantic events over the past several seasons as one-offs and have long respected the series. Its credentials as one of the very best proving grounds in racing for drivers and teams are well established. Now, with the advent of a new car and engine package for 2006 teams canít put programs together fast enough. Estimates are that the grid at Long Beach will be well north of 30 entries and Iíd suspect weíll see that kind of strength at most Atlantic races this year. The tour offers great economic incentive with its $2 million prize on the horizon, and weíre again seeing top flight Champ Car teams adding Atlantic squads to foster driver and crew development. Thatís a home run for Champ Car any way you slice it.

Team Possible Drivers Comment
Dale Coyne Racing Gareth Ridpath, Ricardo Sperafico Drivers up in the air right now
Forsythe Championship Racing Paul Tracy, Mario Dominguez Team is set for 2006
HVM Racing Ryan Hunter-Reay, Gareth Ridpath, Nelson Philippe, Dan Clarke, Ronnie Bremer, Rodolfo LavŪn Bremer is supposedly signed for 2006, but all has gone silent on that deal. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Gareth Ridpath and Nelson Philippe are the latest drivers to be rumored for this team.
Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Andrew Ranger, Jan Heylen Belgian Jan Heylen has now tested twice with the team and has become a front runner to land a seat
Newman/Haas Racing Sebastien Bourdais, Bruno Junqueira Team is set for 2006.
PKV Racing Oriol Servia, Katherine Legge Team is set for 2006.
Rocketsports Racing Alex Tagliani, Franck Montagny, Antonio Pizzonia, Enrique Bernoldi Alex Tagliani could land the primary seat. Franck Montagny, Antonio Pizzonia, and Enrique Bernoldi could get 2nd seat if they bring money
RuSPORT Justin Wilson, AJ Allmendinger Team is set for 2006
Walker Racing/
Team Australia
Alex Tagliani Will Power, Ryan Briscoe Team will run 2 or 3 cars for Tagliani, Briscoe and Power

And when you start thinking about the Champ Car World Series and all it will offer fans this year you just have to smile. After a winter of discussion about the future of open-wheel racing in North America itís truly time to focus on the competition that looms at Long Beach and throughout the rest of Champ Carís 15-event schedule this year. While we donít yet know what all the car and driver combinations look like, we do have a good idea of what the front of the grid should include. Newman/Haas, Forsythe, PKV, and RuSPORT are all set with their lineups and after this weekís report that PKV will run a third car for Jimmy Vasser at least at Long Beach every indication is that those nine cars will stage a tremendous dogfight for dominance all season long.

Weíre not yet sure who will be steering for Rocketsports, Team Australia, CTE/HVM, Coyne, or Mi-Jack/Conquest, but it should be a great mix of veterans and fast newcomers.  Word is that Rocketsports may wind up with a Brazilian flavor depending on the outcome of some testing this month. At the very least, the fact that the TransAm series is going on hiatus in 2006 should mean that Paul Gentilozzi and his team will have more time and energy to focus on building their Champ Car group into an even stronger contender this season.

It appears Team Australia/Walker Racing is set with Will Power in one of their cars this season, with Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani in contention for the veteranís chair there.  Derrick Walkerís been quoted as saying heís hopeful of finding funding to run three cars this year; that would give him the ability to field both Tags and Briscoe, two proven drivers well able to help shepherd the talented Power as he makes his first full-year run in Champ Car.

CTE/HVM already has Ronnie Bremer under contract for this season and this could be a breakout year for the young veteran. Rodolfo Lavinís name remains linked with Keith Wigginsí team in their second car, but as yet thereís been no confirmation. Itís a talented group with plenty of ability to put its drivers into contention, and I believe that Bremer could well be a sleeper pick to grab some great finishes this year.

Dale Coyneís team wonít have the help of Oriol Servia this coming season, now that the mechanical engineer from Spain is set with PKV. Coyneís efforts could well involve Ricardo Sperafico again this season, and he showed decently in some events last year. Dale remains one of my favorite guys on the tour and a strong year for his team would be well-deserved.

That leaves Mi-Jack/Conquest. Last season Eric Bachelartís bunch had some strong runs with both Andrew Ranger and Nelson Philippe. Neither has been announced as yet but you have to assume both are likely to return to Champ Car, and would likely remain here [Editorís Note: Hearing Philippe will end up at HVM]. Bachelart is an accomplished team manager and with Mi-Jackís principals taking over as promoter at two of Champ Carís most important venues, Cleveland and Houston, I think that speaks to the strength of the organization. Iím hoping the Mi-Jack team will be able to put their cars on the podium at least occasionally this season.

But there are still some open questions. What about Cristiano da Matta? The former series champ gave PKV their first victory at Portland last summer, a triumph of strategy for both team manager Jim McGee and da Matta. Now Shorty appears to be without a ride, and heíd make a great fit for HVMís other car, or perhaps with Mi-Jack/Conquest alongside Ranger.

And where might Alex Tagliani and Ryan Hunter-Reay end up? Tags has a victory two years ago at Road America to go with a host of great finishes, and Hunter-Reay is one of Champ Carís great young Americans with a couple of wins to his credit. As weíve mentioned Tags could stick with Team Australia. Hunter-Reay at the moment appears to have limited prospects and thatís got to be a tough situation.

Champ Car is in its best situation in years with new events in new major markets, strong teams getting stronger, and several capable drivers competing for the few open seats. It all augurs well for a terrific year on the race track, one thatís just four weeks away. Canít wait to get fired up.

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