Commentary

Bourdais and the boys try to get a foothold in Europe

Chances are good that Champ Car's road course events at Zolder and Assen will be well-received. The big question is, asks John Oreovicz, will anyone not directly affiliated with the series even care?

Updated: August 20, 2007, 10:47 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

Champ Car racing has been called a confusing array of names over the years, with "World Series" an official part of the moniker since 1980. But until 1991, when a race in Surfers Paradise, Australia, was added to the schedule of what was then known as the PPG/IndyCar World Series, the championship only sporadically left North America.

There were several false starts before then. In 1957 and '58, a non-points event known as the "Race of Two Worlds" pitted USAC Championship drivers and cars against contemporary Formula One competitors on the old high-banked oval at Monza, Italy. Nearly a decade later, USAC staged a "demonstration" on the Fuji road course in Japan, and another five years passed before a pair of one-off, points-paying races were run on an oval in Rafela, Argentina.

Robert Doornbos
Clive Mason/Getty ImagesDutchman Robert Doornbos will give spectators at Holland's Assen circuit someone to cheer for.

It was not until 1978 that Champ Car racing made its official European debut, with USAC-sanctioned races on the Silverstone and Brands Hatch road courses in England. The events were well-attended and well-received, but the first American open-wheel racing war (when the majority of the team owners formed CART and broke away from USAC for the 1979 season) prevented any momentum from being achieved.

Indeed, it was not until 2001 that Champ Car racing returned to England. By then, the current open-wheel schism created when Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George formed the Indy Racing League was five years old. But for once, the American open-wheel war was not the prime topic of conversation in the Rockingham Motor Speedway paddock; that event was staged on Sept. 22, 2001, when there obviously were much larger issues to deal with in the world.

Rockingham was the second half of a much-hyped European doubleheader for the Champ Car series, but it was obviously a very somber event. Aside from the angst created by the Sept. 11 attacks, two-time Champ Car titlist Alex Zanardi was clinging to life after losing his legs in a gruesome crash in the first of the two European races, run a week earlier at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany.

In retrospect, it is amazing to recall that in the early days of the IRL, CART actually added oval races to its schedule rather than increasing the emphasis on road racing. Nine of the scheduled 21 races in 2001 were at oval venues, including EuroSpeedway and Rockingham. The fact that both race weekends were severely affected by wet weather only added to the gloom for nearly 1,000 Champ Car-affiliated Americans abroad for the international events, people who had no idea when they would be permitted to fly home.

The races themselves were generally excellent. Zanardi turned in by far the most impressive performance of his comeback Champ Car season until his crash with 13 laps to go. The Italian spun exiting the pit lane, and when his car slid up the track in Turn 1, it was speared broadside by the car driven by Alex Tagliani. Thankfully, Zanardi made the best recovery that could be expected, and he is now a competitor in the European Touring Car Championship. Kenny Brack and Max Papis scored a grim 1-2 for Team Rahal, a result that was difficult to celebrate under the circumstances.

At Rockingham a week later, rain wasn't an issue, but groundwater bubbling up through the newly constructed track was far more severe than any "weepers" ever seen at Indianapolis or Michigan and the cars sat idle for the better part of three days. After barely an hour of practice, a race shortened by darkness finally was run. But what a race it was, as Gil de Ferran made a thrilling last-lap pass of Brack for the victory.

CART returned to Rockingham in 2002 for a race won in popular style by Dario Franchitti -- his only oval-track victory in six years in Champ Cars. The series made a final appearance at EuroSpeedway a year later on a weekend made memorable by the recovered Zanardi, who drove 13 emotional laps at speed in a specially modified Champ Car with hand controls.

Champ Car's 2003 European tour started out at Brands Hatch, where Sebastien Bourdais claimed the first of his 28 Champ Car wins on the classic British road course. It was only the young Frenchman's fourth race in the series, and he duplicated the result a week later on the EuroSpeedway oval.

CART's difficulties and subsequent bankruptcy prevented Champ Car racing from gaining a consistent foothold in Europe, yet the current management regime is eager to give it a try again. Oval racing is not part of the contemporary Champ Car formula, so the series' 2007 European swing will feature a pair of road races -- at Zolder in Belgium, followed by Holland's Assen circuit. Zolder hosted the F1 Belgian Grand Prix nine times between 1973 and 1982 but is best-known as the site of Canadian star Gilles Villeneuve's death in 1982. Assen is synonymous with Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Ticket sales for the European Champ Car events reportedly have been strong at both venues, boosted by the announcement that three-time series champion Bourdais will return to his European roots to race in F1 next year. There is also a local connection for both races; Belgian Jan Heylen is again racing in the Champ Car series, and Dutchman Robert Doornbos has won two races this year in his rookie campaign and briefly led the championship.

These races are important for Champ Car from an image standpoint. There is no denying that the series has lost respect in Europe in recent years, with most of the recognizable teams and drivers having switched sides to the IRL since 2003. That decline no doubt hindered Bourdais' efforts to land an F1 opportunity.

Back in America, a debate rages about the merits of Champ Car traveling abroad. Certainly, the key motivation for series management is the lure of a large payday; for the past 10 to 15 years, sanctioning fees for international races have been much larger than for domestic events.

And though many constituents involved with the series are happy to take their show to quality European road courses, a considerable faction has concerns about the long-term viability of racing abroad at a time when Champ Car is struggling for sponsorship and media coverage in America.

Many companies interested in sponsoring a team want to see their dollars working at home, not in markets in which they have no presence. That was a key factor that led to sponsors such as Marlboro, Target and Motorola switching sides to the IRL, which -- until the past five years -- raced exclusively in the United States. Even now, the IndyCar Series' only international event is held in Japan and is a direct result of that championship's relationship with Honda.

The bottom line is that Zolder and Assen are likely to be successful events. But the bigger question is whether anyone not directly affiliated with the Champ Car World Series will really care.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.