- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Heading into the IndyCar Series season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Chevrolet's engine wasn't given much of a chance.
After Chevrolet was abandoned by many of its teams in the wake of General Motors' decision to pull out of Indy Racing League competition at the end of 2005, few observers believed Chevy could compete against the financial and engineering might of Honda and Toyota, the manufacturers that have dominated the last two years of IndyCar competition.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Homestead, where the Toyota Indy 300 will be staged Sunday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN2): Tomas Scheckter qualified his Dallara-Chevrolet on the pole. His Panther Racing teammate, rookie Tomas Enge, made it a 1-3 for the only two Chevrolet-powered cars in the field.
It was a dream result for everyone involved with the maligned Chevrolet IndyCar program, which has been in turmoil for the better part of two years. The trouble started in early 2003 when it was quickly obvious that the Gen III IRL engine developed in-house by GM Racing was not up to the benchmark set by then series newcomers Toyota and Honda. At mid-season, GM forged a deal to badge Cosworth's stillborn IRL engine the Chevrolet Gen IV while moving forward with a joint development program.
The move was controversial, but the Gen IV produced instant results and two-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish used the potent new powerplant to mount a second-half rally that nearly resulted in a third consecutive crown. But due to a variety of factors, 2004 was a disaster for the GM IRL program, with only a single podium finish for Alex Barron.
The low point came in October, when GM announced its intention to pull out of the series when its contract expired at the end of 2005. Making matters more difficult for those close to the program, Cosworth's future was uncertain thanks to the Ford Motor Company's decision to sell the engine-building firm as part of its corporate withdrawal from Formula 1.
Cosworth not only found a buyer; it found a buyer who wasn't afraid to do what was necessary to keep the Cosworth-designed Chevrolet engine competitive in IndyCar racing. Somewhat ironically, Cosworth's new owners are Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, who also own the Champ Car World Series. Despite that seeming conflict of interest, Kalkhoven has maintained that he hopes Cosworth remains in the IRL even after Chevrolet withdraws its support for the program.
Contacted Saturday, Kalkhoven expressed delight upon hearing that 'his' engines powered cars to 1-3 spots on the Homestead grid.
"Cosworth is showing that as the world's leading independent race engine manufacturer it is capable of providing competitive engines in any series," Kalkhoven said. "I am delighted at their grid positions and hope we have a great race."
GM Racing's IRL Program Manager Joe Negri gave Chevrolet's side of the story.
"Even though we're getting out of this series, we haven't lifted off the throttle," Negri said. "If anything, we've worked harder and Panther has worked harder too because it is everybody's best interest for us to go out as winners. And that is fully our intent.
"Cosworth is working as hard as they can as well because it is in their best interest as well as ours in this last year," he added. "Obviously, they need to get customers for the future, and Panther needs to run strongly to attract support form another manufacturer for the future. So there is no reason for any of us to back off. We all have egos."
Panther Racing has compiled an enviable record at Homestead, with Hornish driving the Pennzoil car to victory in 2001 and 2002. Engineer Andy Brown, who is credited for developing Panther's chassis set-ups, was quick to give credit to Chevrolet and Cosworth for Scheckter's Homestead pole.
"This is definitely a horsepower track, though the chassis matters a bit more here than it does at a place like Texas," Brown said.
But Brown maintains that the Chevrolet engine didn't just gain 30 horsepower overnight and that the writing has been on the wall for all in the IndyCar Series to see.
"We were very quick at Texas last year but nobody noticed because they were caught up in saying that our cars were illegal (for failing a rear wing stress test post-qualifying)," Brown said. "What they failed to notice was that we came from the back of the field to the front using an unpainted wing element straight off the Dallara truck."
Scheckter was certainly the fastest Chevrolet driver throughout 2004, but he endured an almost unbelievable amount of bad fortune, most of which was not of his own making. The second-generation South African star knows he has to post a better finishing record in 2005 and he is very pleased with the way his campaign has kicked off.
"I had a fairly decent qualifying car, but the important thing is that I know I have a great race car," he said.
Enge's performance was also noteworthy. The man stripped of the 2002 FIA Formula 3000 title for failing a drug test ran two exploratory IndyCar races for Pat Patrick's defunct team in 2004 and made enough of an impression to land the second Panther seat. GM's Negri is definitely on Enge's bandwagon.
"I fully believe that during the season he's going to end up being a threat to win some races if we can keep our engine program where it's at now," Negri said. "He's doing a lot better than I thought because it takes a long time to learn how to run these ovals if you've never done it before. The Panther team has been really good about working with him and he's learning a lot every day."
Notes: Rahal Letterman Racing was the second star of Homestead qualifying. Vitor Meira split the Panther cars to land on the front row, while last year's Homestead pole winner Buddy Rice qualified fourth. Danica Patrick will make her IndyCar Series debut from ninth on the grid….Andretti Green Racing did not live up to expectations Saturday. Dario Franchitti led the AGR effort with the fifth fastest qualifying lap, while Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta and Tony Kanaan are back on the sixth and seventh rows…Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. swept the fourth row, but it was bad news beyond that for Toyota. Darren Manning was 12th and the rest of the Toyota runners filled the back of the field from 16th to 22nd.
Cosworth and Chevy both have a lot to prove this year in IndyCar racing. They did on Saturday.