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Friday, March 12, 2010

IndyCar Season Preview: Conquest Racing

Conquest Racing spent much of 2009 struggling to find funding for driver Alex Tagliani, eventually forcing the team to only run a limited IZOD IndyCar Series schedule with its lead No. 34 Dallara-Honda. They attempted to qualify a second car for the Indianapolis 500, but when that car made the race and the lead car didn't, Tagliani took the car over for the race. After announcing his departure to start the new FAZZT Race Team in 2010, team owner Eric Bachelart replaced Tagliani with a handful of pay drivers, with poor results.

The team's best run came at Toronto, when Tagliani led a good chunk of the race and may have won if not for a few bad breaks that put him back in ninth place at the finish.

This year, the team started on shaky ground when Bachelart sent Bruno Junqueira and Jan Heylen to preseason meetings, despite having no sponsorship for the car. Junqueira qualified the team's second car at Indy last year, while Heylen drove for the team in Champ Car and also calls Bachelart's native Belgium home. Later reports suggested the team had signed Tomas Scheckter, or would become a two-car Brazilian pay driver team (as it was in 2008) with Nelson Merlo in one of its vehicles.

Eventually, things shook out when Mario Romancini, one of the top young available rookies, signed to compete for the team for the entire 2010 schedule. Romancini was reasonably fast in preseason testing, usually hanging around mid-pack, and will bring Guarana Dolly soft drink sponsorship for at least the Brazil race.

Judging by his performance in Firestone Indy Lights last year, where he won two oval races, and his experience in various European open-wheel racing formulae, Romancini may be the perfect balance for Conquest as it attempts its first full-time IndyCar season since 2008. In the past, the team has struggled on ovals, mostly because its drivers have been road course experts, but Romancini showed an adeptness on the circle tracks last year that will certainly help improve their standing.

Romancini may not contend for wins this year, but he will contend for a place between 10th and 15th in the season standings. He may be the best young driver Conquest has had since Justin Wilson drove for the team in Champ Car in 2004. His development may be the key to establishing legitimacy for Conquest in the IndyCar Series, something they haven't seen since their debut season in 2002.

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