- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The disparity between the haves and have-nots wasn't as great in the Champ Car World Series in 2006 as it was in some other forms of open-wheel racing, but a class system was still in existence. Admittedly, Newman/Haas Racing was in a class by itself, but there was a good battle for second-level honors between Forsythe Championship Racing and RuSPORT Racing, with either team occasionally able to challenge Newman/Haas and Sebastien Bourdais for overall honors on any given weekend.
What differentiated Champ Car's class racing from that of Formula One or the Indy Racing League was the possibility for third-tier teams to score the occasional result -- witness Nelson Philippe's victory for CTE Racing/HVM at Australia or Team Australia's numerous misses.
With everyone using the Lola/Ford-Cosworth package for the third year in a row and engineers jumping from team to team, setup secrets were few and far between in the paddock, yet Newman/Haas still maintained an edge.
By winning the first four races of the year, the championship was Bourdais' to lose. Fortunately, two teams recovered to give the Frenchman and Newman/Haas a run for their money down the stretch, and there was even a surprise or two. Let's analyze how the nine Champ Car teams fared on an individual basis
Through midseason, the team owned by Carl Haas and Paul Newman looked like men competing against boys.
The competition got tougher in the second half of 2006, but NHR was never worse than the second-best team on the track, resulting in a third consecutive driver's championship for Bourdais. He was especially happy to win at Milwaukee on what he called "a real oval," and he has won half the races and sped to half the available pole positions over the last two years. There is little reason to believe those statistics will change much when the series introduces a new car next year.
However, NHR failed to repeat its 1-2 finish in the championship from 2005-06 as Bruno Junqueira had a winless campaign that left him fifth in the standings. The Brazilian recovered from the injuries that cut his 2005 season short, but nothing seemed to click for him this year and his luck was atrocious. He could lose his seat to rookie Atlantic Championship graduate Graham Rahal.
Dominguez then threw away the Houston race and when he took out Tracy at Milwaukee, he was shown the door and replaced by A.J. Allmendinger.
Installed in a blue and white Forsythe car, Allmendinger was transformed into a world-beater. The American won five of the next nine races and sometimes made Tracy look bad in the process. However, Allmendinger and Gerald Forsythe never had an easy time on the business side and when A.J. decided his future was in NASCAR, Forsythe told the driver not to let the door hit him on the way out.
Tracy injured himself off-track, so Buddy Rice and David Martinez drove the Mexico City finale; Martinez did enough to get invited back for a test and a shot at a 2007 race seat. Although he had a winless year in which he made more headlines off the track than on, Tracy is locked into Forsythe with a long-term contract and his pattern has been to bounce back strongly from adversity.
The resilient team started by Tony Bettenhausen has gone through four name changes since the turn of the decade and doesn't have the budget or the engineering capabilities of Champ Car's top teams. But it chalked up a popular win in Australia in Nelson Philippe's hands, and unknown Englishman Dan Clarke made a credible run at Rookie of the Year honors. Philippe wound up fourth in the points and was named "Most Improved Driver" by his peers for the second year in a row. More changes are on the horizon for the team as former Formula One team owner Paul Stoddard is set to take an ownership role.
A dramatic season for the team co-owned by veteran campaigner Derrick Walker featured eight major crashes and almost left the team without enough chassis at midseason. But the Indianapolis-based group responded strongly and a late-year engineering focus produced pole position for the team's "home" race in Australia and the Rookie of the Year award for Will Power. The Australian finished sixth in the standings, two places ahead of teammate Alex Tagliani, who was unlucky not to crack the top five. The team could add Ryan Briscoe to create an all-Aussie driver lineup for '07.
RuSPORT was expected to challenge the Newman/Haas drivers for championship honors in 2006, but the team took a step backward. Though he ultimately finished second in the standings, Justin Wilson won only one race and didn't show the blinding pace he did so often in his and the team's breakout 2005 campaign.
The most shocking aspect of RuSPORT's year was the firing of Allmendinger after the Milwaukee race. When the Californian immediately began winning races in a Forsythe Championship Racing Lola, it brought RuSPORT's shortcomings as a young team into perspective. It also made you think about how Wilson -- who comprehensively beat Allmendinger for more than a year when they were teammates -- would fare in a Forsythe or Newman/Haas car.
After Allmendinger was dismissed, Cristiano da Matta didn't run much better in the No. 10 car before tragically sustaining critical head injuries in a freak testing accident. Ryan Briscoe ran the last two races of the season for RuSPORT and showed promise in Mexico.
Carl Russo formed RuSPORT around Allmendinger, so perhaps it wasn't surprising that he devoted more and more of his attention to his "day job" running telecommunications company Calix over the summer. Shortly after the season ended, Russo reached an agreement to sell the team to Dan Pettit, who hopes to retain Wilson and sponsor CDW.
Dale Coyne Racing
As usual, the Coyne team interchanged drivers like light bulbs but provided a more competitive seat than many would imagine. Desperate to remain in Champ Cars, former series champion da Matta started the season in a Coyne car before landing the RuSPORT gig. Dominguez took over and almost came in second at Cleveland. Rookie Jan Heylen wheeled the team's other car and turned in some credible performances.
Eric Bachelart's team did a nice job on a shoestring budget. Andrew Ranger started the year with enough money to do three races and performed well enough to maintain his ride until backing from Wal-Mart Canada rolled in. But the team questioned his technical ability and commitment. Rookie Charles Zwolsman, the defending Formula Atlantic champion, suffered from tendinitis in his wrists early in the year but came on strong in the second half.
Oriol Servia was steady but not spectacular and never really challenged for a race win. Meanwhile the focus was on rookie Katherine Legge, who had a few good runs (notably on the Milwaukee oval) but lots of crashes, including a massive one she was lucky to walk away from at Road America. The effort wasn't helped by a preseason management housecleaning that saw the legendary Jim McGee step aside.
A race winner as recently as 2004, Rocketsports' Champ Car team slipped to the back of the grid in 2006 but had its honor restored when Dominguez finished second at Surfers Paradise after a gritty drive. Other than that, results were thin, though GP2 driver Antonio Pizzonia looked better than the other rent-a-drivers who took a shot at the No. 18 car.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel Racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Newman/Haas Racing stayed the class act of the Champ Car world in 2006. But other teams made strides, writes John Oreovicz.