Editorial

View from the Topside
Looking ahead to Mexico City

   by Rick Benjamin
November 10, 2006

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Justin Wilson in 2005 at Mexico City
Champ Car

As we get set to fly to Mexico City, it’s amazing how different the Champ Car grid and paddock will be for the 2006 season finale, compared to the lineup we’ve enjoyed watching for much of the season.

While Sebastien Bourdais will try to close out his third-straight title-winning year in style, most of the teams that have battled the hardest against Bourdais and his Newman/Haas squad are facing several unknowns.

Most prominent of course is the vastly different driver lineup Forsythe Championship Racing will field Sunday. Gone is championship runner-up AJ Allmendinger to NASCAR and Toyota’s new Cup program. Sidelined is Bourdais’ chief nemesis, ’03 champ Paul Tracy, after his ATV wreck in Vegas and subsequent shoulder injury. And FCR, which was planning to expand to three entries at least this weekend, will be back to their normal two cars, with Atlantic series standout David Martinez taking the seat in Tracy’s ride for now.

For PT, it’s the perhaps welcome end to what has to have been a most frustrating season.  Winless on the year, Tracy will have a couple of months to reassess and recharge before the green drops on 2007’s Champ Car tour in Vegas. He and the FCR team will have a short time to learn the vagaries of the new Panoz DP 01 race car, but at least now all of Champ Car’s teams will start fresh and presumably from the same point. For Rice and Martinez, this weekend adds up to a shot. A chance to audition for a full-time Champ Car deal. And a chance at stardom.

Rice of course brings strong credentials, including an Indy win and a couple of strong seasons for Rahal Letterman Racing with the other guys. Martinez has impressed again in the Atlantics, and deserves props for finding the resources to stay in the game in a tough motorsports economy. I think both are capable drivers and would be welcome additions to the Champ Car grid next season. Rice, for sure, has to be considered the leading candidate to take over the FCR 7 car and work with engineer Michael Cannon. After the magic Allmendinger was able to work in that ride this summer, that seat could be the most coveted in open-wheel racing this winter.

RuSPORT faces its own challenges this weekend. Carl Russo’s team dominated this race in 2005, with Justin Wilson and Allmendinger running 1-2. Now, the 10 car is being driven by its third pilot in less than a season with Ryan Briscoe filling in for the recovering Cristiano da Matta. Briscoe’s debut run at Surfers Paradise was reasonably successful, but it would seem he’ll need to step it up if he’s going to keep the seat at least on an interim basis. And Wilson, recovering from his wrist injury suffered in Australia, will hopefully be able to run with a brace strengthening his arm. But we won’t know for sure until the weekend. Add in the rumblings that there could be a change ahead in the team’s ownership and you have to conclude that the RuSPORT bunch will at best be feeling a bit unsettled when qualifying rolls around Friday.

Meantime, there are a couple of Champ Car teams on the rise. CTE-HVM has returned to glory, with Nelson Philippe’s terrific Australia victory. And Speedy Dan Clarke has hopes of building on his late-season improvement by stealing the Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-year honors from Will Power. Power and his running mate Alex Tagliani had their moments before the hometown fans at Surfers, and could well be contenders this weekend. And Rocketsports seems to have a new lease on life with Mario Dominguez steering the 8 car with his substantial Mexican support and Antonio Pizzonia leading laps at Surfer’s in the 18 car, now backed by Lexington Energy.  Those performances put a smile of the face of old friend Paul Gentilozzi, and the sponsorship that’s emerged for his team hopefully will keep Rocketsports in contention into next season.

There’ll undoubtedly be plenty of additional story lines generated as we head to the continent’s most populous city. Hope you can join us Sunday for our coverage of the Champ Car finale, live on SPEED.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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Columns by Rick

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A peak at Champ Car TV for 2005

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