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Final Point Standings
Driver Championship
1 Sebastien Bourdais 364
2 Justin Wilson 281
3 Rob Doornbos (R) 268
4 Will Power 262
5 Graham Rahal (R) 243
6 Oriol Servia 237
7 Bruno Junqueira 233
8 S. Pagenaud (R) 232
9 Neel Jani (R) 231
10 Alex Tagliani 205
11 Paul Tracy 171
12 T. Gommendy (R) 140
13 Dan Clarke 129
14 Ryan Dalziel (R) 116
15 Katherine Legge 108
16 Jan Heylen 104
17 Alex Figge (R) 95
18 Mario Dominguez 78
19 Nelson Philippe 28
20 David Martinez (R) 18
21 Matt Halliday (R) 18
22 Roberto Moreno 9

Rookie of the Year
1 Robert Doornbos (R) 268
2 Graham Rahal (R) 243
3 Simon Pagenaud (R) 232
4 Neel Jani (R) 231
5 Tristan Gommendy (R) 140
6 Ryan Dalziel (R) 116
7 Alex Figge (R) 95
8 David Martinez (R) 18
9 Matt Halliday (R) 18

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How Safe Is Too Safe?

by Adriano Manocchia
Thursday, January 17, 2008


Racing will never be perfectly safe.  Inherently it is a dangerous sport

There was a time when drivers had to be one part skillful, two parts crazy. Seat belts were for sissies, fires were commonplace, and death was just a part of the sport's landscape. And the tracks were just as bad. Speeds were fast and errant cars weren't stopped so much by gravel traps as they were by trees.

Because of the inherent danger, there was a strong presence of something that seems to have left the sport almost entirely: accountability. If a driver took a chance, forced a pass, pushed the envelope a little too much, there was a very real risk of paying the ultimate price. So how is it that anyone survived the '60s? Simply by exercising some judgment.

Champ Car has routinely led the way in safety over the years. As one might expect, this was largely out of necessity from racing very fast open-wheel cars on ovals. Today's driver is wrapped in layers of fireproof clothing, heads are encased in advanced composite helmets and secured with HANS devices, and safety harnesses hold bodies tight in carbon fiber survival cells.

When it comes to track design, the goal is to make all these safety features unnecessary. Accidents usually only result in injury if you hit something, so huge gravel traps and ample runoff areas aim to stop cars before they ever reach a wall. Should those safety measures fail, impact areas are protected with stacks of tires and even ovals now feature energy-absorbing "soft walls."

For much of its history, Formula 1 held fast its place at the caboose of the Safety Train. Through sheer luck, disaster was averted race after race. Cars raced through pits that looked very much like a Miami night club. Drivers were dangerously exposed. Cockpit sides didn't even reach a driver's elbows; feet and legs were almost completely unprotected. Changes in safety were typically reactionary and sparse. It was not until World Champion Niki Lauda almost gave his life in 1976 that the 14-mile Nurburgring was dropped from the calendar. Most other changes were relatively small in scope, until the seminal event that defined F1 in the '90s.

Ayrton Senna's death was the catalyst that would completely reshape the motorsport landscape throughout the world. Almost overnight, Formula One transformed itself into one of the most safety-conscious series on the planet. Tracks that had been a part of the calendar for decades were immediately deemed too dangerous and preposterous temporary chicanes were added to slow cars at many circuits. Most of the excessive knee-jerk reactions resolved themselves over time, but there were lasting effects that are still with us today. Global adoption of pit lane speed limits and tighter crash-test standards for cars are certainly good things, but nothing has been so detrimental to the sport as the inexorable emasculation of the racing circuit.

Tracks came under extreme scrutiny in the name of safety. Walls were pushed back, gravel traps bloomed, and there was a marked proliferation in that greatest of scourges in track design: the chicane. Wherever adequate safety could not be engineered into a circuit, up popped another chicane to slow the cars. Senna despised them and it is a cruel irony that perhaps the most tangible legacy he left was their widespread adoption in the name of safety. Some tracks were re-profiled so drastically that their souls were completely paved over. Silverstone in England was once a blindingly fast and flowing circuit. It underwent continuous tinkering until more than half the layout was distorted into an interminable series of slow, boring corners. By 1996, the track was a shadow of its former self. Cars could only muster an average speed of 130 mph, where more than ten years earlier Keke Rosberg had recorded the first lap of 160 mph on a road course. This scenario has been played out on tracks the world over.

These travesties are not confined to existing circuits. Thanks to Hermann Tilke's prolific track design firm, almost all new major international circuits built in the last decade share a common trait: complete lack of character. Gone are the fast, undulating turns that showcased cars and drivers to the fullest, replaced by tight corners and hairpins strung together with medium-length straights, featuring as much elevation change as a Nebraska cornfield. Whomever these antiseptic, cookie-cutter courses are meant to serve, it certainly is not the driver nor the racing fan.

While the rest of the world was playing catch-up to Champ Car's standards, Champ Car itself was undergoing a transition away from ovals. This was not necessarily out of safety concerns, but in response to fan interest. Today, the schedule is made up entirely of road courses and street courses. However, some of the greatest venues‚ "awe-inspiring tracks with history and character‚" have been passed over in the name of safety. If oval track open-wheel racing were still relevant, it would certainly still be represented in the series. So if it was acceptable to run over 200 mph mere feet from a concrete wall, why must we mar the flow of natural terrain road courses with chicanes or completely overlook the tracks upon which the annals of racing were written? If the cars are getting dangerously fast through a corner, the solution is very simple‚" and this seems to be a lost concept, so try to follow along‚" drivers can simply slow down.

Cars and tracks have gotten so safe, and injuries so rare, that many drivers have become excessively reckless. What's to stop a driver from dive-bombing an opponent when the worst they'll face is a lecture from Tony Cotman? Racing legends are born through feats of bravery and skill. The first half that equation has been all but snuffed out in modern racing. This sense of safety has also led to a proliferation of ride-buyers. Rather than being the sole domain of a special breed that fans would marvel at and idolize, we now have a whole subset of drivers that essentially treat racing as an expensive hobby. This seriously taints the sport's image, as the once transcendent racing driver has been dragged down to the level of the common man.

With each historic road course that gets cast aside in favor of a dull, new, homologous circuit, Champ Car has another opportunity to properly showcase its cars and drivers at a venue that would put the spectacle back in racing. As it expands its presence into Europe, tracks like Assen and Jerez are certainly the right idea, while others like Imola, Brno, and Donington Park should be near the top of Champ Car's list. In North America, it is encouraging to see a return to Laguna Seca, and Mont Tremblant is a wonderful track in an amazing setting, but there are many more enticing possibilities. What racing fan could turn down a Champ Car/ALMS doubleheader at Mosport or Road Atlanta? If oval racing is acceptable, there's no reason any of these tracks should be dismissed.

Former driver Derek Daly is also concerned about the trends of the modern track: "Contemporary designs have eliminated some of the character from what we call road courses. The great corners around the world have either been eliminated and/or disfigured." However, Daly is taking action by teaming up with architect Paxton Waters in a venture to design new race tracks that will bring back some of the flare of the world's great circuits. As Waters states, "The time has come for a fresh approach to road course design and Derek's vast experience as a professional driver at the highest levels will provide us with a new perspective on what the future designs need to encompass."

Derek Daly Design is currently working on its first project, the Bluegrass Motorsports Club and Road Course in Sparta, Kentucky and recently announced a deal to design Riverside Motorsports Park in California. It will be some time before we see the fruits of their labor, but it is encouraging that this issue has been identified and concerned members of the racing community are taking action. Perhaps one day Champ Car will be racing on a Derek Daly Design track.

Today's drivers are certainly safer, but at what cost? From a fan's perspective, the experience has certainly diminished. In the age of the McLawsuit, spectators are pushed farther and farther away from the action. Massive fences keep them protected, but destroy sight lines. If done properly, street races can be great venues. Fast, wide tracks like Long Beach and Surfers Paradise allow the cars to stretch their legs and provide good racing, but too many others simply do no justice to the sport. While they are convenient in bringing the racing to the fans, the effort to get to a permanent road course always pays off when you get to experience Champ Car in its true element. Next year, for the first time ever, more than half the schedule is comprised of permanent road courses. More fans than ever will have the opportunity to see the cars and drivers as they're meant to be seen. For a series in search of an identity, what better than to be the savior of motorsport and bring top-level racing back to the tracks upon which history was written? This is an opportunity to resurrect the glory days of racing everyone pines for and give the fans something to really appreciate.

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