It never pays to read too deeply into preseason testing times, but it appears three-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais could face tough competition in his bid for an historic fourth consecutive series title.
The talented Frenchman wound up only fourth fastest in Champ Car's recent open test at MSR Houston, and two of the three drivers who beat him were series rookies.
The only dry day of testing at Houston was paced by Will Power, a 25-year-old Australian heading into his second full season of Champ Car competition. But right on his heels were a pair of pilots who have never taken a Champ Car green flag -- rookies Graham Rahal and Neel Jani, both of whom came within a tenth of a second of Power's unofficial record lap of 70.040 seconds (122.330 mph). Bourdais was only fourth fastest, nearly three-tenths off the pace, but with an asterisk.
"We had four-tenths [advantage] on the field in the early afternoon, but the last couple of hours, we had some minor problems and didn't improve at the end," Bourdais said. "Then we were able to run a 10-flat, but the red flag came out and the lap didn't count."
Meanwhile, Power continued to demonstrate the form that saw him conclude the 2006 season by taking pole position for his home race in Australia and earning his first Champ Car podium finish in Mexico City.
Power's recently confirmed teammate Simon Pagenaud, who won the 2006 Atlantic Championship, was sixth fastest at Houston, putting three rookies in the top six.
"I think I could have done better, but it was just my third time in a Champ Car," explained Pagenaud. "It's just a matter of getting mileage behind my belt and I'm excited for a good season with the team."
Since hooking up with Australian businessman Craig Gore and adopting the Team Australia moniker, Derrick Walker has put together one of the most stable operations on the Champ Car grid.
"Simon did a fantastic job for just his third time in the car, and overall, we have a great package," observed Walker. "Simon and Will are a well-suited and strong pair who work really well with each other. They both demonstrated great feedback and worked well with the engineers."
Although Rahal has been testing with Newman/Haas Racing for more than three months, the team has unfathomably chosen not to confirm his status.
"I'm pretty happy with our lap time, especially since we didn't use Push-To-Pass to get it and we know most people did," said Rahal, whose best lap was timed at 70.079 seconds. "The car is already quicker than the Lola in a lot of areas on the track and I think it will continue to surprise people as it gets faster and faster. It's enjoyable to drive."
PKV Racing has taken some heat for not hiring a more recognizable driver, but Jani, a 23-year old from Switzerland, has performed at an extremely high level in both of his tests with the team. Jani's best lap at Houston was a 70.168.
"On test days, times are not the most important thing," Jani remarked. "Finding out how to get the car better and improve it is our main issue. The nice thing is that we still have good lap times, so that's very encouraging."
Jani spent 2006 as the test driver for the Red Bull Formula 1 team and won races in GP2 and for Switzerland's A1GP effort, but the lure of racing full time drew him to America for 2007.
"It was a logical step for me," he said. "There weren't any good options to race in F1, so it was obvious for me to go to Champ Car, especially since Red Bull had a car there."
Jani's performance was all the more impressive because he was the only driver that PKV ran at Houston. The team confirmed Tristan Gommendy as its second driver.
"We lost, for sure, some information by just having one driver there, but in the end I think it won't be too bad," Jani said.
Backing up the Champ Car youth movement, Nelson Philippe, 20, was seventh fastest in the Conquest Racing entry, while rookie Robert Doornbos cracked the top 10 in the Minardi Team USA car. Minardi is yet another Champ Car team that has not finalized its driver lineup with the start of the season less than 30 days away.
Meanwhile, several veteran drivers and teams continued to struggle to adapt to the new Panoz spec car. RuSPORT's Justin Wilson and Oriol Servia ran eighth and 10th, respectively, while a frustrated Paul Tracy wound up 11th out of the 17 drivers who ran at Houston, 1.5 seconds off Power's pace.
Tracy could face a long season because Gerald Forsythe seems set on running only one car in 2007.
"It has been very frustrating," said Tracy, who lost a big chunk of the only dry day to a clutch problem. "That was probably the worst test of my career and everything that could go wrong went wrong. Our only fast lap of the test would have put us seventh, but it came after the checkered flag so it didn't count.
"But you don't get points or prizes for testing, so we just have to move on and have a more productive test at Laguna Seca."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.