Editorial

View from the Topside
Long Beach postscript

   by Rick Benjamin
April 13, 2006

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(L to R) Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alex Tagliani

Just back from the Champ Car season opener, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and a challenging weekend covering both Champ Car and the new Champ Car Atlantic Championship. Both series delivered plenty of interesting story lines while still ranking clearly as works in progress.

The Champ Car round saw a typical Long Beach incident in Turn 1 which knocked out several key contenders. We never got the chance to measure how strong Paul Tracy, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junqueira, or AJ Allmendinger might prove to be this year against the dominance of Sebastien Bourdais. Justin Wilson was left to try to keep pace with Bourdais, a task no one could fulfill at least this day.

For Wilson it was a solid effort though he obviously was disappointed. RuSPORT team President Jeremy Dale was hopeful Wilson’s CDW machine would be able to challenge Bourdais, especially after the addition of some key engineering help in the off-season designed to address the team’s perceived shortcomings on street circuits. Unfortunately for RuSPORT it appears they’ll need to go back to the drawing board over the next couple of weeks to prepare for another temporary course in Houston.

For RuSPORT and the rest of the teams chasing Newman/Haas the good news is Houston will be run on a brand-new track where no one will have tested. In past months that’s been the type of combination Newman/Haas has had a bit of difficulty solving, so there’s hope for the other eight Champ Car teams trying to elbow their way onto the podium.

Houston will open a tough two-week stretch for the Champ Car family as well, with the tour’s annual visit to Monterrey, Mexico, immediately following. The good news is Champ Car runs Saturday night in Houston, allowing team and series transporters to head south Sunday. And of course the distance between Houston and Monterrey is not nearly as great as the trip has been from team shops in Indy to Mexico.

I think the other noteworthy development at Long Beach was the impressive debut logged by Katherine Legge. Legge showed during her Atlantics year that she was often able to race much better than she practiced or qualified. And she carried that theme forward at the season opener. After battling her PKV machine throughout Friday and Saturday sessions she started 17th, used attrition and caution laps to advance, and survived a 360 degree spin to end up 8th. She was smooth and consistent and surely proved her skills on Champ Car’s biggest stage.

Comparisons to other women racers are inevitable but I believe Katherine is off to a terrific start and may prove to be the best of all. I’m looking forward to seeing how her rookie season plays out.

The Champ Car Atlantics Championship should be a one to remember. True, Andreas Wirth also led all the way Sunday morning at Long Beach, but he was under pressure most of the way. Raphael Matos has shown plenty of talent in other series and added to his reputation in California. Jonathan Bomarito was strong as was young Graham Rahal, and there are a host of other talented drivers who will no doubt build strength as the season progresses.

I’m particularly impressed with 16-year old Richard Philippe, the younger brother of Champ Car pilot Nelson. Richard possesses a cool confidence uncommon in someone who should be a high school sophomore. He clearly expects a lot of himself and watching his development will be fun. The four-car Forsythe “Track Pack” promises to be a group to watch as well. Wirth was dominant, Leonardo Maia was barely heard from, James Hinchcliffe was fast all weekend long, and the four young drivers all seem to be on the same page, hoping to learn and develop together. I think Gerry Forsythe has assembled a very impressive group which should accomplish plenty this season.

Team Australia’s Simon Pagenaud also debuted impressively, qualifying up front and hanging in the lead pack all morning. Besides being obviously fast he’s very personable, and having the quiet backing of Sebastien Bourdais is going to be helpful.

Atlantics officials, working with Swift Engineering, Cosworth, Mazda, and Yokohama, may well have crafted the best brand-new open wheel package in racing history, especially when you consider the 7 ˝ months they had from announcement to the first green flag. Contrast what we saw Sunday with the nightmare USAC is facing with its ill-advised new-generation Silver Crown machine and you get the clear idea that Champ Car has hit a home run.

Champ Car teams are hitting their stride quickly, going testing at a couple of venues before the inaugural Houston event. Now that the first race of 2006 is in the books the pace only gets quicker from here. Should be a fun ride.

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