- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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LAS VEGAS -- Get ready for a wacky and unpredictable year in the Champ Car World Series if the season-opening Vegas Grand Prix is an indicator.
Australian Will Power cruised to an easy victory in the 68-lap race with a massive 17-second margin of victory over rookie Robert Doornbos, with series veteran Paul Tracy third another 12 seconds back. Only nine cars were running at the finish in a fairly ragged debut for the new Panoz DP01-Cosworth combination, and three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais was a nonfactor, crashing out before half distance.
In spite of a fantastic new downtown street course, the inaugural Vegas GP won't go down as a classic motor race by any stretch of the imagination. But as a new event, it was a solid overall effort, and the race did at least show it won't be business as usual for the Champ Car set in 2007 as teams and drivers adapt to the new Panoz spec car.
"I think this is the start of a new era for Champ Car," commented Tracy, whose bid for victory in his adopted hometown was foiled by refueling problems. "You've got a bunch of new young drivers that are in the series, obviously showing that they're quick. It's not the scenario that everybody thought it was going to be where Sebastien is going to run away with everything. It's going to be quite interesting."
One thing is for certain: There was nothing fluky about Power's first career Champ Car race win. The 26-year-old from Toowoomba made his series debut at his home race at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 2005 and earned his first career pole there exactly a year later. Power then completed the 2006 season with a podium finish at Mexico City and established himself in the minds of many as a dark horse championship contender.
On Sunday, the Team Australia driver took the lead from Tracy on the 10th lap and held it through the first round of routine pit stops on Lap 28. Then the 2003 CART series champion had to make an unexpected return visit to the pits a couple of laps later because his Forsythe Racing Panoz hadn't taken on any fuel.
"Before the first stop, I was glued to the back of Will's car, but we got only four laps worth of fuel in 15 seconds," Tracy said. "That was frustrating, and it took the fight out of the race for Will."
In fact, the new car's refueling system proved to be its biggest trouble spot. Every team installed upgraded parts shipped in to Las Vegas on Wednesday and Thursday, an 11-hour job per car. But several runners reported difficulty getting fuel into their cars, including Dale Coyne Racing, which saw Bruno Junqueira lose a likely podium finish.
"We had the worst weekend I can even remember. Just about anything that could go wrong went wrong for the McDonald's team."
-- Sebastien Bourdais
The fuel system problems affected Team Australia as well -- but only Simon Pagenaud's car, which had a leaky fuel cell that required changing Sunday morning.
"We had small problems all weekend, but for the race it was good,"
Power said. "I knew something must have happened to Paul when he stopped again so quickly. But my biggest problem in the second half of the race was a long brake pedal. It went to the floor in the second pit stop, and I hit one of my guys on the right front. We lost about 10 seconds on that."
By that time, Doornbos was well out of range and Tracy's extra fuel stop relegated him to the final step of the podium.
"I've been looking forward to this since Surfers Paradise last year when we got taken out while running in the lead, and it feels really good," said Power, who averaged 94.607 mph for the timed race. "After Paul dropped back, I was pretty much alone out there.
"I had plenty in hand if anyone wanted to challenge me," Power added.
"I think a pole and a win is a pretty good birthday present for [Team Australia co-owner] Derrick Walker."
Doornbos drove in eleven Formula 1 races over the past two years but was delighted to accept Paul Stoddart's invitation to race with his Minardi USA Champ Car team.
"I really enjoyed it, and I couldn't have dreamed of a better start, really," stated Doornbos, who qualified third for his Champ Car debut. "It's a relief to be competitive straight away, and I can't wait to get to Long Beach. Maybe people will pronounce my name right now!"
Tracy lamented his bad fortune with the fueling system, but he was happy to begin his championship campaign with a podium after a disastrous 2006 season.
"I think we could have put a lot of pressure on Will, but we were 45 or 50 seconds behind him after the extra stop," Tracy said. "Obviously, we have some problems to work on for next week because if you want to win at this level, you have to get your pit stops right."
Meanwhile, Bourdais' attempt to win a fourth consecutive Champ Car title got off to a rocky start. After hitting a wall in final qualifying to start 16th, Bourdais suffered two punctured tires but worked his way up to third place before he made a mistake and crashed out after 30 laps at Las Vegas. His new teammate at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing -- Graham Rahal -- fared even worse, crashing on the pit straight before the first corner of the race.
"We had the worst weekend I can even remember," Bourdais noted. "Just about anything that could go wrong went wrong for the McDonald's team."
Based on his past three races dating to last year, Power looks like a legitimate championship contender. He certainly doesn't need any convincing of that.
"I'm relieved more than anything," the Australian said. "We were fast in testing and we were expecting to be somewhere in the top three or four here, and it turned out to be our weekend.
"I set my mind for the first three races, so I'm not really celebrating yet," Power added. "I'm going to get a good night's sleep and focus on Long Beach. You don't want to have a big high and then follow it up with a big downer."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.