- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Robert Doornbos kind of got lost in the shuffle of an unusually strong group of Champ Car World Series rookies. After all, Graham Rahal is Champ Car royalty, as the son of a three-time series champion. Simon Pagenaud narrowly beat Rahal to the 2006 Atlantic Championship -- and the $2 million prize that got him into Champ Cars.
And Neel Jani lit up the timing screens in preseason testing.
So, a month ago, Doornbos looked like nothing more than another European Formula One castoff looking to prolong his career in America.
A midfielder in testing, his opportunity in the States came when Minardi owner Paul Stoddart took over the CTE/Herdez/Bettenhausen Champ Car team.
But a funny thing happened in Doornbos' first three races: He was solidly competitive. In the opener at Las Vegas, he qualified third and finished second, making him the first Champ Car rookie to finish on the podium in his debut since Nigel Mansell won at Surfers Paradise in 1993. He followed up by qualifying sixth at Long Beach before notching another podium with a third-place run at Houston, putting him third in the early season standings.
Doornbos' early season form hasn't surprised Stoddart, who gave the 25-year-old from the Netherlands his first F1 race ride in 2005.
Doornbos never finished better than 13th in a Minardi F1 car, but his efforts landed him a job as Red Bull Racing's third driver for 2006.
The Stoddart and Red Bull connections came together in the form of a Champ Car race seat -- though it came at the expense of the highly rated Nelson Philippe.
"Yeah, it's been very good," said the laid-back Doornbos. "We obviously had a very good one in Vegas where we just were competitive every session really. To finish on the podium on your debut is great.
"At Long Beach, we had a mechanical problem. But, you know, that happens in racing. You have to get yourself over it. Luckily there was only five days in between the next race, so we could take our revenge for a good result.
"[At Houston], we knew the car was quick for the race, better than what our grid position suggested. And we proved it with very fast lap times and good strategy."
Indeed, it was the Houston event that really hammered home to Doornbos that he made the right choice to give up a comfortable living as an F1 test and third driver for the opportunity to compete on Sundays -- especially in a more open formula.
"Starting P13 and ending up P3 is amazing," Doornbos reflected on his Houston achievement. "We really messed up qualifying but we redeemed ourselves [in the race].
"This is what I love doing -- racing -- and why I came to the States,"
he added. "Every lap was like qualifying and I was pushing, pushing, pushing. Mike [Cannon], my engineer, did an amazing job."
Doornbos was fortunate that Stoddart acquired one of the most underrated teams on the Champ Car grid. Under the direction of Keith Wiggins since 2001, the team now called Minardi is short in terms of numbers but makes up for it with heart and ability. With Stoddart on board, the team now has stability as well. Cannon is the race engineer who helped guide A.J. Allmendinger to five race wins in 2006 with Forsythe Championship Racing.
And with a driver lineup comprised of Doornbos and 23-year-old Englishman Dan Clarke, the team also has a pair of hard chargers in the cockpit. Clarke, who had a best result of second in his rookie Champ Car campaign in 2006, at least has a year of experience under his belt, but Doornbos is all too happy to admit that he is still learning about the cars and the racing.
"So many things are new to me," he said. "The race strategy is all about saving fuel. That's always a difficult concept for a race driver. The rolling start caught me out a bit at Vegas, and I lost a couple of positions as a result. For Houston I had a really good rolling start and I really got the hang of it. I went on the inside and I think I passed five or six guys into turn one, which was quite close, quite exciting.
"Then during the race it was really fun driving the circuit because you just have to be committed every lap. There's no point to relax, really. The rear tires, they went off quite quickly, so the right foot was my traction control instead of a button on the steering wheel."
If Doornbos' Long Beach result was helped by the fact that it was the first race with the new Panoz-Cosworth package and some teams were struggling for reliability, his run at Houston should put the Dutchman on people's radars for the rest of the season.
"I'm pleased we showed once again that we have the speed to be championship contenders," he said.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Graham Rahal has the pedigree. Simon Pagenaud has the résumé. Robert Doornbos? The European F1 castoff has the top rookie ranking after two podium finishes in three events, writes John Oreovicz.