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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Where Are They Now? Champ Car World Series

Three years ago tomorrow, the Champ Car World Series commenced its final season on the streets of Las Vegas. It was the first in a planned 17-race schedule, though three races were eventually cancelled, and was won by a young Australian driver by the name of Will Power.

It was Power's first career win in major American open-wheel racing, and it foreshadowed his successes to come, taking victories in open-wheel in every season since. It seems fitting now, as Power dominates the early stages of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series, to take a look back at that last season of Champ Car, its participants, and its races, in memory of the "other" form of American open-wheel.

The opener at Vegas heralded a new era for the series: new cars, new teams, new drivers, a new track, and a new TV contract. Power's domination also made it look like a new face would run up front, replacing the old guard, three-time defending champion Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais had a difficult weekend, qualifying 16th of 17 and failing to complete the final 38 laps.

Of course, however, Bourdais proved that Vegas was simply an aberration by winning the next three races, eight of the season's 14 events, and the championship by 83 points over Justin Wilson. Bourdais parlayed that success into a Formula 1 ride, but a season and a half of poor luck and being outperformed by his teammates led to his dismissal.

Bourdais moved on to the Superleague Formula, a European racing series sponsored by soccer clubs that uses a chassis descended from the Champ Car Panoz DP01. There, too, he has seen success, winning one race in each of his first two events, and returning for the full 2010 season.

Indeed, Superleague Formula has proven a refuge for multiple former Champ Car competitors. Tristan Gommendy found a home there after Champ Car's 2008 demise and has never looked back, winning events in each of the past two seasons. But a stronger competitor in the 2007 championship than Gommendy has also made his place in the young division.

Robert Doornbos won Champ Car's Rookie of the Year award in 2007 after winning twice and finishing third in points. "Bobby D," as he is known, was unable to find an IndyCar ride in 2008 when Minardi pulled out of the merged series. He went to Superleague, winning two events and finishing third in points. Last year, he bounced between Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and HVM Racing, two former Champ Car teams, and had a miserable season, before watching his sponsorship money fall through for 2010. With no other option, Doornbos will compete against Bourdais again in Superleague this year.

Some drivers have made their way into sports car racing, instead of carrying on in the open-wheel ranks. Among them are eighth-place Simon Pagenaud, who competes in the American Le Mans Series; ninth-place Neel Jani, who concentrates on the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and 21st-place Matt Halliday, now racing in the Porsche Supercup. Perhaps the biggest sports-car triumph of an ex-Champ Car driver came this January, however, when Scot Ryan Dalziel was a part of the team that won the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona.

Katherine Legge, the series' lone female driver, took a similar route by switching her focus to the DTM, Germany's premier touring car championship. There, however, she has languished in the back, with 10 DNFs in 21 starts and a best career finish of 12th, twice.

For a sad majority of ex-Champ Car drivers, however, open-wheel racing in North America remains their goal. With only so many seats to go around, some prominent names are left on the sidelines for the majority of races. Former stars like Bruno Junqueira and Paul Tracy only have rides lined up for the Indianapolis 500 thus far. Oriol Servia and Dan Clarke are out of work entirely.

The biggest travesty of all befell Graham Rahal, who finished eighth in IndyCar points last year but lost a lucrative sponsorship deal with McDonald's. He now runs a limited schedule with Sarah Fisher Racing, with the intent of assembling a full-season deal somewhere to give him a shot at contending for the title. It really says something about the state of the sport in North America when its top American driver not named Danica Patrick can't find a full-time job.

As for the drivers who can count themselves among the employed, however, they're currently running very well. Both Justin WIlson, the 2007 Champ Car runner-up, and Alex Tagliani, who placed tenth, have shown teeth in the first two races of the season. Wilson has won an IndyCar race in each of the past two years, and Tagliani nearly won last year's Toronto race. Jan Heylen currently competes in the Firestone Indy Lights Series and finished in second in the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Power, of course, leads the pack. His story is well-known by now: drafted in by Team Penske last year as a temporary replacement for Helio Castroneves, and given a limited ride after the Brazilian's return, performing excellently in every race. Then, a practice crash at Sonoma sidelined him for the rest of the year with a back injury. He rehabilitated in the offseason, vowing to come back stronger than ever, and thus far the results have been phenomenal.

Of the ex-Champ Car teams now running in IndyCar, many have taken on pay drivers to survive. Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, Rahal's old team, is one of them, now running Honda-backed Hideki Mutoh. Dale Coyne Racing campaigns the underwhelming Milka Duno. The team in the best shape is KV Racing Technology, which now runs three cars and has backing from the powerful Lotus Cars brand.

Conquest Racing and HVM Racing are the teams that best retain the spirit of the old Champ Car World Series, by bringing European talent over to America and giving them a shot. Mario Romancini and Bertrand Baguette, Conquest's two rookie drivers, competed against one another in the European Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2008. Last year, Romancini ran Indy Lights, winning races, and Baguette won the Formula Renault title.

HVM also has a rookie driver, Swiss standout Simona de Silvestro, who may prove to be the final graduate of the Atlantic Championship, Champ Car's old feeder series, which shut down earlier this year. Last year, she won four of the series' 12 races and nearly took the championship after leading in points for much of the year. De Silvestro led laps in her IndyCar debut in Brazil and is looked at by many as a serious Rookie of the Year threat.

Of the other four teams to compete in Champ Car in 2007, two - Forsythe Racing and Pacific Coast Motorsports - no longer actively campaign cars in any series. Walker Racing currently runs Indy Lights with Jonathan Summerton, and RSports - now known as Jaguar RSR - campaigns a Jaguar XKR GT2 in various endurance races worldwide. Dalziel, in fact, was one of its drivers in this year's 12 Hours of Sebring.

The diaspora of the old Champ Car World Series is extensive, with many of the former parties unlikely to ever compete against one another again. But its final season provided open-wheel fans with plenty of memories, including those of a fantastic racecar, the early success of some future IndyCar stars, and one of the most dominating season-long performances in open-wheel history by Bourdais. While the infrastructure may be gone, the memories still remain for a small legion of devoted fans.

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