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
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.
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