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A joyful holiday season this year for Champ Car teams

   by Rick Benjamin
December 20, 2006

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This should be the most exciting Christmas in a long time for the race teams planning on contesting the Champ Car World Series come 2007. While most of us are anticipating chestnuts roasting by the open fire, meals with friends and family, and gifts under the tree during the holiday season, Champ Car teams are anticipating getting their first gifts of a new Panoz race car today  - before Christmas.

The new DP-01 chassis are due to be delivered very soon, just in time to give engineers and mechanics a few precious hours to start the hands-on assessment process before taking what will likely be a brief holiday break. With the tight time frame before testing can officially begin, teams must familiarize themselves with the new race car quickly and start planning what changes and adjustments they'll be able to make once they actually get their next-generation Champ Cars on the race track.

Champ Car's philosophy with the new Panoz is pretty simple: contain costs, preserve tight racing, enhance safety, and keep intact the spirit of what's made Champ Car racing so terrific over the past several years. While the outgoing Lolas were gorgeous race cars, reliable and fast, the difference between winners and also-rans in recent seasons has usually boiled down to aerodynamic development and damper programs...in other words, wind-tunnel time and shock-and-spring development.

Now, while engineers will no doubt find grey areas in the rules governing the new cars within which to work some magic, Champ Car teams will likely have a much smaller window in which to work their magic.

What should be much more important will be driver/engineer combinations, and the ability of drivers to provide good feedback during testing. And that should put a premium on teams retaining experienced drivers, drivers who will be able to call on a strong base of Champ Car knowledge and help their teams get a handle on the new cars quickly. Much as NASCAR will see with the advent of first Toyota and then the Car of Tomorrow this season, Champ Car will, I think, see the possibility of new teams getting competitive more quickly.

It's normal in racing to see established, top-tier teams stay on top through major technological shifts. After all, those who run up front usually have more of the best stuff...the best drivers, equipment, and personnel. But a move to a brand-new race car, especially a spec-car package, should provide a major reshuffling of the deck. And that invariably means at least a couple of Champ Car's traditional mid-pack squads have a shot at becoming winning teams.

Based on the last couple of 2006 events I'm guessing that the new Stoddart Minardi Team USA, Rocketsports, and Team Australia will have a great shot at success when the new season starts in April. All three teams put together strong runs at Australia and Mexico City, and all have experienced engineering staffs.

Now that the playing field should be a bit more level with the new car, I think those teams have a good opportunity to join Newman/Haas, RuSPORT, and Forsythe Championship Racing at the front of the grid. And the revamped PKV team will also be a team to watch closely as the new season gets ready to start.

Of course the final say in much of this goes to the drivers involved. And at this point, beyond knowing Paul Tracy will continue to lead the Forsythe team, there are more questions than answers in terms of Champ Car driver lineups. Hopefully the rest of the teams will get the drivers they want wrapped up soon, if not in time for Christmas.

Those of us who are fans of Champ Car are waiting patiently....and looking ahead to the excitement of a new season that will create plenty of new drama.

Have a wonderful Holiday season.

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Columns by Rick

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Looking ahead to Montreal

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