So long Lola, hello rookie battle in Mexico City
MEXICO CITY -- The last race of the season inevitably has a sense of finality about it, especially when the championship has been decided in advance. But this weekend's Champ Car World Series finale in Mexico City is truly the end of an era.
This is the last time that Champ Cars, built using a formula that has evolved since the late 1970s, will race. More specifically, it's the last race for the Lola marque, which traces its involvement in American open-wheel racing to the mid-1960s.
Lola was part of the rear-engine revolution that rocked the USAC Championship Trail, winning the 1966 Indianapolis 500 with Graham Hill. A Lola was the basis for the memorable Johnny Lightning Specials that Al Unser drove to the 1970 and '71 USAC titles, and Big Al was piloting a Lola/Cosworth when he swept the Triple Crown of 500-mile races in 1978.
More recently, Lola drivers won CART-sanctioned championships in 1984, '87, and '90-93, but the second half of the decade was generally a disaster. By 1999, there was only one Lola on a 24-car Champ Car grid.
The company changed hands a couple of times and Lola began winning Champ Car races again in 2000. In fact, by 2002, Lola had basically driven Reynard out of the series and since 2004, Champ Car has been a Lola/Ford-Cosworth spec series.
Lola was invited to bid on the Champ Car spec chassis for 2007 and beyond, but the contract went to Elan Motorsports for a new Panoz design. As such, the 18 Lolas that start Sunday's Gran Premio Telmex at Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez will be relegated to museum duty a couple of hours later.
It's therefore an anticlimactic end to the Champ Car season, with the championship already decided in Sebastien Bourdais' favor.
"Now that the title is decided, we can just try to have a good weekend and a successful end to the season," the 27-year old Frenchman said. "Hopefully this year we will come back and show the kind of speed we had in 2004 [when he won to clinch the first of his three consecutive Champ Car crowns] and just enjoy it."
Bourdais will be on hand (and no doubt on the gas) in Mexico, but his only real competition this season won't be racing because A.J. Allmendinger was released from his ride at Forsythe Championship Racing as soon as Jerry Forsythe learned that the American star was headed to NASCAR in 2007. Forsythe's No. 1 driver is out as well -- Paul Tracy recently suffered a broken shoulder in a four-wheeled mishap -- so FCR will campaign cars for Buddy Rice and Mexican rookie David Martinez this weekend.
It's nothing short of an open audition for Rice, and while Martinez has less lofty expectations, he and Mario Dominguez of Rocketsports Racing will give the fans a pair of local drivers to cheer for over the course of 66 laps on Sunday.
"I'm very excited," Rice said. "It looked like it was going to be a very long offseason, so I can't wait to be back in a car and driving again. Forsythe is one of the top teams out there and there's no better feeling than knowing that you will be in a competitive car that can run up front and win races."
Allmendinger's absence means he could be overtaken for second in the final season standings by Justin Wilson of RuSPORT Racing -- the defending Mexico City race champion needs to finish seventh or better. Not that it means that much -- the difference between second and third in Champ Car's grim prize money economics is only $50,000.
However, it won't be easy for Wilson because he will race with a brace after breaking his right wrist in practice at Surfers Paradise, Australia. Adam Carroll will stand by in case Wilson cannot drive, while Ryan Briscoe will get a second outing in RuSPORT's other entry.
The other story line worth watching this weekend is the battle for Rookie of the Year honors. Will Power of Team Australia leads Dan Clarke of CTE Racing by 15 points, the difference of around six finishing positions.
"I know what the deal is for Mexico -- I need to be one of the front-runners all weekend, straight out of the box," Clarke said. "We have the team to do it and I have the ability to get on the pace within a matter of laps, so it's an achievable goal."
Countered Power: "I don't feel any pressure after the great result of pole that we had in Australia. I'm more interested to see if we can carry the speed we had there on the street course to a road course in Mexico."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.