- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Officials from OCESA -- the promoter for the Champ Car World Series finale scheduled for Nov. 11 in Mexico City -- can resume breathing now.
There will be a pair of Mexican drivers in the 17-car field.
Sadly, Champ Car expedited that pressing need in a clumsy, heavy-handed fashion. To make room for rookie David Martinez at Forsythe Championship Racing and veteran Mario Dominguez at Pacific Coast Motorsports, those teams jettisoned popular incumbent drivers Oriol Servia and Ryan Dalziel.
The circumstances that left Servia and Dalziel on the sidelines with two races remaining in 2007 were wildly different. But their unexpected (and unpopular) ousters are symptomatic on a small scale of what ails the directionless open-wheel series -- a constantly changing cast of drivers and venues.
As the man who guided Champ Car racing into Mexico in 2001 with races at Monterrey and Mexico City, Gerald Forsythe knows as well as anyone that there must be local stars in the field for the event to succeed.
Adrian Fernandez filled that role the first couple of years before he took his team to the IRL, and Michel Jourdain Jr. was the draw in 2003 and '04, but left to pursue a stock car career.
Dominguez, a three-time race winner in Champ Car, lost his ride with Forsythe to A.J. Allmendinger midway through 2006 but was picked up for the last few races of the season by Rocketsports Racing -- mainly to ensure there would be a Mexican on the grid for the '06 Mexico City race. Meanwhile, Martinez made his Champ Car debut in that same race in the car Dominguez started the season in after Forsythe cut Allmendinger loose early upon learning of the American's intended move into NASCAR.
Martinez acquitted himself well in his one and only Champ Car race, qualifying and finishing ninth. He's a decent racer who probably deserves a shot at the next level.
It's just unfortunate that it comes at the expense of Servia, one of the friendliest and most upbeat people in the Champ Car paddock. Not surprisingly, he took the termination with class, even helping the Forsythe team out by driving in a recent test at Sebring International Raceway.
"I know it is kind of strange, but at the end of the day, when you take away the anger, it makes me feel good that they asked me to test for them," Servia said. "I must be doing a good job and I still hope to be with a competitive team either this year or next."
Aside from Paul Tracy's win at Cleveland, Servia scored most of Forsythe's best results this year and was ranked sixth in the point standings.
Team leader Tracy said the move wasn't unexpected, but it wasn't easy to accept.
"It's sad," he wrote in his online column. "Oriol has done a really good job for us, he's been a really good teammate and he's also been useful because he is probably the closest teammate I've had in my career in terms of what we want and need from a car.
"But right from the get-go of his deal, I think it was made pretty clear that this might happen. It was a race-by-race gig, and we need a Mexican driver for the Mexico City race."
The arrival of Dominguez at the Pacific Coast Motorsports team was much more surprising. Though this is its first year in the Champ Car series, the California-based team partnered Dalziel and Alex Figge in Grand Am Daytona Prototypes the last two years. Team owner Tom Figge (Alex's father) kept the driver lineup intact when he moved to open-wheelers this year, and with a pair of rookie drivers, PCM not surprisingly often struggled.
Dalziel provided the best moments by leading in the rain at Toronto and running well in the wet portion of the Mont-Tremblant race. In terms of results, he was far ahead of Figge, with six top-10s in his 11 races.
Ironically, when the 25-year-old Scotsman missed the San Jose race in July due to injuries sustained in a bicycle accident while training, he may have sealed his own fate. Dominguez replaced him at PCM and the team was deeply impressed by his veteran feedback, even though he had run only a few races in this year's new Panoz DP01 car.
Though they have maximized one-off local sponsorships, Pacific Coast has run without a major backer this year, and the team hopes signing Dominguez will attract Mexican support.
"We've been working very hard on commercial programs in Mexico for some time and the opportunity to add a proven race winner and Mexican star of Mario's stature enhances these programs significantly," said PCM team manager Tyler Tadevic. "In addition, Mario's wealth of experience on both of the upcoming circuits will strengthen our program as we prepare for the 2008 Champ Car season."
Worthy as Dominguez and Martinez may be as drivers and sportsmen, bringing them in for Mexico City is an example of Champ Car putting a Band-Aid on a much more significant wound. This is a series that is desperately in need of more cars on the grid, with many more recognizable names driving them.
Bruno Junqueira recently floated the idea that Champ Car should sign 10 or 12 of its best-known drivers to long-term contracts, just to keep some continuity and stability in the series. For a championship seriously lacking in those respects, the concept is not as far-fetched as it seems.
Shoving aside a longtime asset like Servia might sell another 10,000 tickets at Mexico City. But is it worth selling out for?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.