- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The Champ Car World Series springs back to life Sunday on the streets of Las Vegas (4 p.m. ET). Here's a team-by-team breakdown:
Champ Car's most successful team with seven championships is building for the future in 2007. Carl Haas and Paul Newman have hired 18-year-old Atlantic Championship graduate Graham Rahal to drive alongside three-time defending series champion Sebastien Bourdais.
With the Frenchman expected to finally get a crack at Formula One in 2008, young Rahal has a year to learn the ropes and position himself for either a long-term Champ Car career or his own shot at F1.
"For me it's a dream come true to be able to not only move into Champ Car but to move into this team," said the son of three-time series champion Bobby Rahal. "You can see by the records that they are the best, and it's just an honor to be part of it."
Meanwhile, the hypercompetitive Bourdais should have no trouble staying motivated in his quest to win a historic fourth consecutive series title.
"When you are with such a dedicated team with really high quality equipment and everything is given to you to perform, you really enjoy it," he said. "I just go out there, race my very best and try and win races, and when you do that, usually motivation isn't really hard to find."
Bourdais' car is again sponsored by McDonald's, while Rahal's blue-and-white No. 2 machine is backed by Medi Zone, a medically supervised weight-loss service.
Change is the operative word in this merging of two Champ Car teams. Justin Wilson finished second in the 2006 standings for RuSPORT Racing, but an ownership change from Carl Russo to Dan Pettit led to a cutback to one car for the Colorado-based organization. Meanwhile, Paul Gentilozzi's Rocketsports team managed only one podium finish in 2006 and decided to focus its effort on a single car for Alex Tagliani.
Both one-car teams struggled in early testing of the new Panoz-Cosworth, but when Pettit and Gentilozzi were discussing options about sharing hospitality, the conversation shifted to sharing resources on the racetrack. Hence the merger into R-SPORT.
"The joining of Rocketsports and RuSPORT is both a strategic and economic alliance," Gentilozzi stated. "Two single-car entries leave themselves without the technical sounding board that is certainly required today. Two drivers working together can expand the performance envelope when one is perhaps still looking for the right combination. This arrangement will help both of us and our teams."
Wilson's No. 9 CDW car sports a smilar look, while Tagliani will race a red-and-black car supporting a charity backed by Wal-Mart Canada.
Forsythe Championship Racing
A week before the start of the
season, Paul Tracy's wish came true and he got a teammate. For reasons of his own, Gerald Forsythe chose to field a single car for Tracy throughout the initial development of the new Panoz. Finally, former team driver Mario Dominguez was invited back to contest the first three races of 2007 with backing from Telmex.
Dominguez' three-race trial gives him a chance to resurrect his Champ Car career, and the series keeps one of only three major Mexican racing stars on board. But Dominguez and the team are behind in terms of getting to know the new Panoz.
Tracy returns for his fifth season with Forsythe's team, and though preseason testing has not gone well, the Canadian cannot be discounted as a championship contender -- unless his season starts like 2006, when teammate Dominguez crashed him out of two of the first three races. If Dominguez wants his second sojourn at Forsythe to last, he'll need to be a better team player.
"It's been a tough offseason and I've been working really, really hard every single day to try to get sponsors, to try to get what's needed in order for me to race in Champ Car," Dominguez said. "But the fact that I'm going to be able to start the season with Forsythe, with a team that would be like coming back home, it's just the best news possible I could have ever gotten."
Derrick Walker's team has quietly undergone a resurrection since he teamed up with Aussie businessman Craig Gore two years ago. By the end of 2006, the Team Australia program was starting to bear fruit as local hero Will Power took pole position for the race in Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Power went on to claim his first podium finish in the 2006 Champ Car finale at Mexico City, and he backed up that performance with some impressive testing times over the winter. The 26-year-old from Toowoomba probably won't be a championship threat, but don't discount the possibility of a race win.
Power's new teammate is Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who drove a Team Australia entry to the $2 million 2006 Atlantic Championship. A protégé of Sebastien Bourdais, Pagenaud has been clean and tidy in Champ Car testing to date.
Minardi Team USA
This team changes identity more often than Beyonce changes outfits. Call it Bettenhausen, Herdez Competition, HVM, CTE or Minardi, this Keith Wiggins-managed outfit is one of Champ Car's true survivors, and that perseverance has paid off in the form of three race wins, most recently for Nelson Philippe at Surfers Paradise in 2006.
With the team now controlled by Minardi's Paul Stoddart, the talented young Philippe has inexplicably been dropped for '07, but '06 running mate Dan Clarke returns. Clarke, who had several promising runs last year after a crash-strewn start, will be teamed this year with F1 test/reserve driver Robert Doornbos.
In another inexplicable move, Minardi has named F1 refugee Zolt Baumgartner as a test/reserve driver for its Champ Car effort. The Hungarian's main duty on race weekends will be to chauffeur VIPs in the Stoddart-supplied Minardi F1 two-seater.
Champ Car boss Kevin Kalkhoven's team gets a
total makeover for 2007, with Red Bull sponsorship added to the existing Gulfstream jet package for the No. 21 car. The driver is 23-year-old Swiss Neel Jani, a Formula 1 tester and race winner in the development GP2 series. Panned as a pay driver, Jani has impressed at every opportunity over the winter and he could replicate Sebastien Bourdais' impressive entry into Champ Cars in 2003.
The second PKV car is likely to be much less competitive in the hands of Frenchman Tristan Gommendy.
Dale Coyne Racing
True to past form, Dale Coyne Racing had not nominated its drivers just seven days before the start of the 2007 season. When the announcement is made, it is set to be the most competitive lineup in the 20-year history of the team, with multiple-race winner Bruno Junqueira and Katherine Legge expected to get the nod.
Junqueira is motivated to perform after being dropped by Newman/Haas Racing, while Legge spent an unhappy winter not knowing what team she would be driving for. The adoption of the new Panoz-Cosworth package will put the Coyne team on level terms with its rivals, arguably for the first time ever, while an increased engineering emphasis should pay off as well.
Pacific Coast Motorsports
After a couple of years in the Grand Am sportscar series, the 2004 Atlantic series champion team returns to open-wheel racing. Funded by Bob Figge for his son Alex, PCM also will field a car for Ryan Dalziel, a Scotsman who has been on the verge of a Champ Car ride for nearly three years. Expectations are low in terms of initial results, but this laid-back California-based team will make its mark on the Champ Car series.
Eric Bachelart's partner Mike Lanigan has
shifted his support to Newman/Haas Racing, but Conquest Racing is set to carry on into 2007 as a single-car team. The driver for the first few races at least is expected to be Matt Halliday, a New Zealander who graduates from the Indy Pro Series.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
8dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz