- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ASSEN, Netherlands -- Sebastien Bourdais' 53-point lead in the Champ Car World Series standings is looking a little more comfortable than it did just a couple of days ago.
While the series is away from the United States on a two-week European tour, series management acknowledged the cancellation by the promoter of the Grand Prix of Arizona in downtown Phoenix, the scheduled series finale. Champ Car also finally publicly admitted that it will not race in China this year after failing to secure an approved date.
Temporarily putting aside serious questions about the overall health of the embattled open-wheel formula, the shortened schedule has a direct impact on this year's championship, because Robert Doornbos and Will Power now have fewer point-scoring opportunities to catch Bourdais. After Sunday's race at the TT Circuit Assen (ESPN Classic, 7:00 a.m. ET), only two races remain -- at Surfers Paradise, Australia, on Oct. 22, and Mexico City on Nov. 11.
A record fourth consecutive championship looks like a foregone conclusion for the 28-year-old Frenchman. If Bourdais wins at Assen, Doornbos must finish at least sixth for the championship battle to be extended into the seven-week break before Australia. Should the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing driver score bonus points for fastest qualifying time or best race lap -- again, almost a given -- Doornbos'
target becomes fifth place.
"That was a shock," Doornbos said of the Phoenix cancellation, which reduces the Champ Car slate to 14 races. "It's not going to affect the way we go about things. We're still going to try for wins and work to score as many points as possible.
"But it doesn't help, that's for sure."
Although the championship battle will be the central theme of the Assen weekend, Doornbos will be the central figure. The Rotterdam native is the only Dutch driver in the 17-driver field.
Driving for Minardi Team USA, Doornbos has had an extremely successful rookie Champ Car campaign -- similar to Bourdais' first year in 2003. In fact, "Bobby D" has won two races and occasionally rattled Bourdais' cage in the process, but he is ruing the fact that his championship challenge has faded in the last two races, when he finished 13th and seventh.
Bourdais won both, bringing his victory tally on the season to six.
"We were only 10 points separated and now it's more than 50, so obviously we have lost a lot of points the last two weekends," Doornbos said. "What happened at Road America [teammate Dan Clarke botched an overtaking move and punted Doornbos off track] was a complete waste of a weekend where we had the pace to finish second. Zolder was much the same. We pushed Sebastien for the first two stints, but the team made the wrong call on the strategy.
"If we can put everything together in Assen we'll see where we are on points, but it looks like Sebastien is getting into the comfort zone. We just need to focus on getting good results these next three weekends and hopefully winning. That's the best publicity you can get yourself and your team."
Doornbos is one of the few drivers in the field who has experience at Assen, but the track has changed dramatically since he finished second in a 2001 Formula Ford event during his first year of racing cars. Now measuring 2.83 miles and with 14 corners, most of which are slightly banked, the track is most famous for hosting the Dutch rounds of the Moto GP and World Superbike championships.
Bourdais is one of the many drivers with little or no knowledge of the Assen track.
"Although I have heard about Assen and the Dutch Moto GP race since I was a kid, I have never been to the circuit before," Bourdais said. "Of course I had never raced at Zolder until last weekend, so it looks like Champ Car is desperately trying to find places I don't know in Europe, which is not easy!
"As for our strategy this weekend, we will be trying to win like we always do," he continued. "But at the same time, with our wins at Elkhart Lake and Zolder, we have constructed a pretty good lead in the championship. So with the points situation and the championship, it is more critical than ever that we just finish races and don't take chances."
Based on the way he has driven since his 2008 Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One deal was announced, Bourdais could be unbeatable this weekend. He is guaranteed the crown if he has a 68-point lead after Assen.
Besides Doornbos, only three other drivers have shown they can occasionally run with Bourdais this year. Power has consistently been his closest challenger, also scoring two wins. The Team Australia driver is currently 62 points back after a fourth-place finish at Zolder.
"The Aussie Vineyards car has been so quick and we had a great, mistake-free race last weekend," Power said. "I just wish we could have brought back better results. We can do it this time around."
Justin Wilson (RuSPORT Racing) has occasionally qualified well, but he has not sustained that pace over a race distance. Meanwhile Forsythe Championship Racing's Paul Tracy is the only other race winner this year, but the Canadian veteran has not been a consistent front-runner in 2007.
That leaves 18-year-old Graham Rahal, Bourdais' rookie teammate at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, as the only other credible threat to win on Sunday. Rahal is coming off two consecutive third-place finishes.
"I hear Assen is another quick track so I'm hoping we can go there and bring back another good result," Rahal said.
Clarke, who was suspended from the Zolder race after triggering a four-car crash less than a minute into the first practice session, has been reinstated by Champ Car race director Tony Cotman.
"I think Dan has learned a lot in the past week and he is ready to compete again." Cotman said. "During his suspension, he showed us what he's all about. He participated in fan and media activities, helped his team and also came to race control to see how we come to our decisions. I hope he is more aware now that in racing, small mistakes can lead to big consequences."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.