Champ Car newcomers fast already
SEBRING, Fla. -- The field that will take the green flag for the Champ Car World Series opener at Long Beach on April 10 has been slow to come together. But it promises to be deeper and more diverse than last year.
Former series champion Paul Tracy paced testing action Wednesday morning at Sebring International Raceway, where 16 cars and 20 drivers were on hand. Tracy lapped the 1.67-mile airport circuit in 51.7 seconds before strong winds blew leftover trash from last weekend's 12-hour ALMS race all around the facility and delayed the activity. When action resumed, rookie Timo Glock unofficially ran a 51.6-second lap, the best reported.
Most of the interest centered around Glock and the five other newcomers to the Champ Car series, two of whom are battling for the second seat with the HVM (formerly Herdez) team. Toyota Atlantic frontrunner Ronnie Bremer and Formula 1 veteran Jos Verstappen drove the HVM team's two Lolas Wednesday, while confirmed driver Mario Dominguez and fellow Mexican Roberto Gonzalez are slated to take the wheel on Thursday.
HVM team manager Vince Kremer was impressed by rookie Bremer and "rookie" Verstappen, whose Formula One experience makes him a heralded newcomer to the series.
"Ronnie picked up on the car very quickly," Kremer said. "He was very smooth and he learned the power curve of the engine very fast. Jos had to re-adapt to things like a manual gearshift and steel brakes, but I was very impressed with his professionalism and his desire."
Verstappen whittled his time down to 51.8 seconds in the afternoon, unofficially third fastest.
Jos accepts that Champ Cars are a step down from F1, but he relishes the challenge of returning to a series where the driver is the biggest ingredient for success.
"I could have had a chance in F1 again, but it would not have been with a very good team and basically I was fed up with it," the 34-year-old Dutchman said. "I want to compete for podiums and I think the chance of doing that here in the States is a lot higher than it is in Formula 1.
"I still have to get used to the car, but it's fun. Shifting gears, no traction control ... that's how it should be. It makes the driver more involved. But if I'm going to put something together, it needs to happen in the next week or it will be too late."
Though he is barely half of Verstappen's age, 18-year-old French-Canadian Andrew Ranger already has been confirmed for the full season with Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing. Ranger, who also competed in the Toyota Atlantic Championship in 2004, has been touted as the most talented Quebecois since Gilles Villeneuve. Ranger even races with the No. 27 that Villeneuve made famous in the latter years of his Ferrari F1 career.
"I heard a lot about Andrew and I had been watching him for some time, but I was really struck by his composure and dexterity in handling the car," said team owner Eric Bachelart, a former racer himself. "We've strengthened our technical and engineering program with Bruce Ashmore and we feel we have two capable drivers in Andrew and Nelson Philippe to take full advantage of our technical package."
Glock, a German who competed in a handful of races for the Jordan F1 team in 2004, was the fastest of the newcomers Wednesday in the No. 8 Rocketsports Racing Lola. Though this is his third test with Paul Gentilozzi's team, Glock's status with the team for the season has not been confirmed.
Still, Glock's arrival with the team nudged incumbent Alex Tagliani out of a ride. However, 'Tag' quickly landed with Walker Racing, where he will be teamed with Australian rookie Marcus Marshall. Derrick Walker single-handedly tried to keep the Reynard chassis alive last year, but he, too, has switched to Lolas this year, effectively making Champ Car a spec Lola/Ford-Cosworth series.
The final newcomer is former Formula 3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim, who most recently served as the third driver for the Jaguar F1 team. Wirdheim drove a Dale Coyne Racing Lola alongside Oriol Servia.
The other major news to come out of Champ Car's media day was the announcement that the series will travel to Beijing, China, in 2006 for a street race at an unspecified date, probably in May or September. Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven has targeted the Pacific Rim as critical for the series' international development. In a recent trip to the Far East, Kalkhoven and Champ Car officials also met with a group trying to organize a Champ Car street race in a suburb of Sapporo, Japan.
Kalkhoven, incidentally, was not able to make it to Champ Car's media day at Sebring because he broke his shoulder in a skiing accident this weekend in Aspen. He is recuperating after surgery.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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