First tests leave reason for hope and doubt
SEBRING, Fla. -- The Champ Car World Series got in nearly three full days of testing at Sebring International Raceway last week to kick off the 2007 season.
Even though much of the final day of action was blighted by rain, there was enough track time to demonstrate that the series' new Panoz DP01 spec car is fast -- but it also showed that like any other new piece of racing machinery, there are a few bugs to be worked out.
That whole "Yeah! But " dynamic sums up the current state of the Champ Car scene. For every positive thing that happens to Champ Car (a new car, new venues, a new television package on ESPN/ABC), there always seems to be some sort of offsetting factor. So perhaps the best way of wrapping up the Sebring open test is in point/counterpoint form
Optimist: The new Panoz might be a spec car, but it looks like it's going to be a good one. It was fast right out of the box -- three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais did a 51-flat the first day, which is within a second of the Sebring short-course record, and Oriol Servia got down into the 50.7-second range by the final afternoon. That's already on the pace of the old Lola that is being phased out.
Perhaps more importantly, the Panoz looks and sounds good on the track -- with 750 turbocharged horsepower and no traction control, you can see the drivers are working hard.
"The important thing is that the essence of the car is still a Champ Car," said Bourdais. "The speed is in the car but it behaves differently, for sure, so it will be a challenge to figure it out at each track."
Pessimist: Yeah, the car was fast -- when it ran properly. But almost every one of the nine teams that ran reported a gearbox-related issue; the most common complaint was slow downshifting, which is now controlled pneumatically by a steering-wheel mounted paddle mechanism. Some drivers also complained about a lack of feel from the spec brake package; several teams struggled with balky electronics and only four cars were equipped with the final specification clutch that will be used.
Optimist: This is an experiment in progress. The 2007 Champ Car rollout might represent the first time in history that every team in the series took delivery of their new cars simultaneously and had to wait until a prescribed date before testing them. For a group shakedown, it only makes sense that if one car suffered problems, others were likely to perform similarly.
Think about the development of the car that originated the paddle-shift concept -- John Barnard's 1989 Formula 1 Ferrari 640. That car was so unreliable in testing that Nigel Mansell booked an early flight home from Brazil on opening race day -- but he missed it because the car lasted and he won
The most common concern -- downshifting -- is probably a combination of drivers and gearbox technicians simply needing to adjust to the new Panoz after so many years of running standard sequential-shift Lolas.
"It's not like a Formula 1 car," observed Paul Tracy. "You can't just bang off a series of downshifts with your hand and let the electronics sort it out -- you have to pause between shifts to get the revs right."
That's intentional, according to Champ Car competition director Tony Cotman.
"They can't shift if they're not in the right rev range, where they could potentially over-rev the engine," he said. "Once we go racing, that's good for the teams, but it's going to take a little bit for us all to get used to. We do have a niggling little problem with the shifter that we do have to fix before the next test -- so I'd say shifting is the top of everybody's priority list."
Pessimist: Only 14 cars ran and there were more out-of-work racers stalking the paddock than there were contracted drivers in their assigned cars. There were even five rideless race winners shopping their services, including three-time series runner-up Bruno Junqueira.
Optimist: Actually, there were seven former Champ Car race winners observing the action, if you count former series champions Nigel Mansell and Danny Sullivan. 1993 CART titlist Mansell lives in nearby Clearwater, Fla., but his presence at Sebring was significant because he was scouting the revised Champ Car series as a potential career path for his sons Greg and Leo, who will compete in British Formula 3 in 2007.
Pessimist: The announcement that Ford is withdrawing as the series' presenting sponsor can't be good news. What are they going to do for engines?
Optimist: Champ Car already owns all the engines, because series co-principals Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe own the company that designed and produced them -- Cosworth Racing. So engine supply is not an issue.
From an image standpoint, the Ford pullout is certainly bad for Champ Car. But Ford's "sponsorship" of the series was basically in name only, in America at least. Ford had a much bigger presence at Champ Car's Canadian and Mexican events, where the sponsorship actually was used effectively. It appears Champ Car is lining up Mazda -- ironically, a division of the Ford Motor Company -- as a new presenting sponsor/engine badge.
By the way, this optimist hopes that Champ Car can come up with something a little tidier than "Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford" for the future.
Pessimist: Speaking of Forsythe, he certainly picked a curious time to tighten the purse strings and cut back to one car. It doesn't look good when one of the series' head honchos makes a statement like that.
Optimist: I can't argue with you on this one. Car count is a critical issue for Champ Car right now (and an obvious form of comparison with the rival IndyCar Series) and you would think that Forsythe would be expanding rather than retrenching. Insiders believe Forsythe has grown frustrated with his team's inability to find a replacement sponsor for Player's cigarettes (it's been more than three years since Canadian tobacco laws forced them out of racing), and the A.J. Allmendinger soap opera last summer didn't help matters.
Forsythe is likely to capitulate and run two cars -- Tracy and team boss Neil Micklewright certainly want it to happen -- but his team already is falling behind in the Panoz era.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.