New Panoz performed well, but there were glitches
SEBRING, Fla. -- Nine of Champ Car's 10 prospective 2007 teams answered the bell for the first open test of the new season at Sebring International Raceway.
And while Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing led the way on the first two days, a 1-2 result from PKV Racing on the third day of running showed that the new Panoz DP01 spec chassis could indeed level the Champ Car field as intended.
Need additional evidence that a new car creates new results? Consider the fact that Dale Coyne Racing placed third and fourth on Wednesday, nearly driving series veteran Paul Tracy crazy in his quest to top the perennial tail-enders.
The new Panoz/Cosworth combination certainly wasn't perfect, and almost every team had a tale of woe to tell about gearbox, brake or engine electronic problems. But 14 examples of the new machine generally ran reliably -- and quickly -- around Sebring for three days.
Here's a snapshot of what each of the Champ Car teams accomplished during its visit to central Florida.
Three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais was fastest the first two days of the Sebring test before relinquishing the top spot on the final afternoon. Even the most experienced team in the Champ Car World Series has a steep learning curve when it comes to the new Panoz, and the McDonald's team wasn't exempt from minor problems such as an electrical glitch that caused Bourdais to miss most of the Wednesday afternoon session, though he was still quickest at 50.88 seconds.
More engine woes prevented the Frenchman from making a new-tire/low-fuel run on Thursday afternoon when the track was at its fastest.
"We were able to test a couple of things which were interesting," he said. "Unfortunately, we encountered an engine issue, which lost us the last 30 minutes. It would have been better if we could have had a full day to finally get going on the test plan, but it was better than nothing."
Though he still has not been confirmed to the team's driver lineup, rookie Graham Rahal piloted the No. 2 Newman/Haas entry throughout the three-day test. Sponsorship is set to come from Gehl industrial equipment. The 18-year-old Ohioan's best lap of 51.41 seconds was ninth-fastest overall and he felt he could have been as quick as Bourdais if not for persistent gearbox problems.
"There was a leak in a line that prevented shifting, which we had to fix and it took some time," Rahal said. "Had I gotten one clear lap on the last run on new tires, we could have lowered the time a little bit."
Justin Wilson returns to RuSPORT for the third consecutive year, the second with computer products wholesaler CDW as chief sponsor. Like most drivers, the Englishman struggled to time his downshifts correctly with the new paddle-shift mechanism and he failed to break the 51-second barrier.
"It's good to finally get in the new car and get a feel for it," Wilson said. "We had problems with the gearbox and shifter system, which was a bit frustrating, but I'm confident that the team can sort out the problem. We came away from this test with a lot of positives but also some work to do."
Under new owner Dan Pettit, RuSPORT hopes to finalize its driver lineup before the next Champ Car open test, at MSR Houston on Feb. 12. Mario Dominguez drove the No. 10 car at Sebring and was a tenth of a second quicker than Wilson.
"The Panoz is quick and definitely a more modern car than what we had," said the Mexican. "I was impressed that the new car is doing similar times to the Lola after only a couple of days of testing."
Forsythe Championship Racing
Champ Car series co-owner Gerald Forsythe seems to be holding true to his threat to run only one car in 2007, despite protestations from driver Paul Tracy and general manager Neil Micklewright. Tracy struggled to come to grips with the new Panoz's spec brake system on the first day and he had a minor off-course excursion on Wednesday when his Cosworth engine's throttle stuck 40 percent open. He was one of four drivers to break the 51-second barrier and the only to do it on two consecutive days.
"I don't put much stock in who is fastest yet because nobody is running at the weight they will be required to run, and nobody is using ballast," Tracy said. "We are running our weight and I think the car feels pretty good. We had a good three days of testing and we are looking forward to the next one."
Minardi Team USA
Paul Stoddart's team ran rookie Robert Doornbos for the first day and a half before the Dutchman handed off to Nelson Philippe, but the Frenchman took the nose off the No. 4 car when he ran off the track Thursday morning.
Philippe's 52.4-second lap was a tenth quicker than Doornbos.
"I was very curious to see how the new car was and how it felt in comparison to the Lola, which I tested at Houston a month ago," said Doornbos. "It's a lot of fun to drive and I think I would really like to be over here to compete this year because you have a chance to win if you have a good team, and they work well together."
Philippe has the inside track for the second car, though Katherine Legge, Dan Clarke and F1 refugee Jos Verstappen are also under consideration.
Rookie Simon Pagenaud, who won the Atlantic Championship for team Australia in 2006, drove the No. 5 car the first day, while confirmed driver Will Power took over for the rest of the test. Pagenaud, who has a $2 million budget to work with as his Atlantic Championship prize, has the inside line for the second seat.
"We learned a lot about the car, but unfortunately, we were not as quick as we wanted to be," said Power. "I think it's a matter of getting used to the new car because it feels a lot different than the Lola. The steering is lighter and the brake pedal is softer -- the whole car is different."
The surprise of the test was Champ Car chief Kevin Kalkhoven's own team, which set the overall pace with Oriol Servia's 50.74-second lap on Thursday. The Catalonian drove for PKV in 2006 but as of yet, his contract has not been renewed.
Co-owner Jimmy Vasser drove the first two days of the test to help Swiss rookie Neel Jani develop a baseline setup for the new Panoz, but the American veteran insists he won't be making any Champ Car race appearances this year.
"It was great to be back in the car and it really didn't feel like I had been away that long," Vasser said. "It feels like a Champ car, but newer. There's still some things we need to work on with it but it's a beautiful car and the fans are going to love it."
Jani was an impressive second-fastest on the first and third days of the test, his 50.90-second Thursday lap good for second overall.
Dale Coyne Racing
Champ Car's perennial "lovable losers" proved that the new Panoz just might level the playing field the way series officials hope it will. DCR caught the attention of the paddock when its cars ran third- and fourth-fastest on Wednesday with drivers Legge and Bruno Junqueira -- both of whom are currently unemployed.
"I'm very happy with the new car," stated Legge, who got down to 51.06 seconds. "The back end is much more stable than the Lola, and I'm able to run with more confidence."
Added Junqueira: "I knew if I could be at this test and drive, I could help a team get into the top five and it would be good for both of us. I am very happy to have worked with Dale and I was pleased to see the progress the team made."
Alex Tagliani returned to the team he drove for in 2003 and '04 and managed a best lap of 51.84 seconds. The team has not finalized arrangements for a second car.
"Overall, I feel confident and comfortable because the team has put together a reliable car," Tagliani said. "It was actually fairly easy and we did not have to struggle to get to the limit."
Pacific Coast Motorsports
This transplanted sports car team has a big job ahead of it with two rookie drivers, but Alex Figge and Ryan Dalziel completed plenty of laps without incident over the three-day Sebring test, circulating in the mid-52-second range.
"We had some issues that kept us from getting the miles we wanted," said general manager Tyler Tadevic. "Part of that was our inexperience, some was just problems with the car. Our team learned a lot; we have seen how high the mountain is that we have to climb, but we're excited about going after it."
Team boss Eric Bachelart admitted that his Conquest team is struggling financially, and though it has taken delivery of and prepared its first Panoz DP01, the team elected to skip the Sebring shakedown. Bachelart hopes to be present at the MSR Houston test in February.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.