Change has defined inaugural event
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- After two days of action, one thing is certain: The inaugural Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose is a work in progress.
Although the activity on Saturday morning wasn't nearly as frantic as that from 24 hours earlier, the rough edges were still being shaved off the new 1.448-mile San Jose street course. The lap opening chicane was transformed into a faster (and safer) left-right sweeper, and the straightaway leading into the hairpin was altered to include a rudimentary new chicane. The changes added about two seconds to the overall lap time and left the Champ Car drivers breathing somewhat easier about hazardous work conditions.
As a group, the drivers learned about the revised circuit in an unusual way. Just before the morning practice session was about to start, the field of 18 jumped onto a trio of pit carts and made a slow drive down to the new chicane, which slowed the cars to third gear (or about 100 mph) in an effort to make up for the total lack of runoff area at the hairpin.
"I wish we didn't have to resort to artificial corners, but they needed to get something sorted out at the hairpin," commented Sebastien Bourdais, who later took his third pole of the season Saturday afternoon with a 54.243-second (96.101 mph) lap. "We couldn't afford to arrive there at 175 mph because it you had a brake failure you would kill yourself and the crowd in the grandstand. You always have to anticipate the worst."
The good news is that there appears to be even greater scope for modification in 2006. Champ Car officials are confident that the success of the first-year event, which has attracted more than 91,000 spectators over the last two days to downtown San Jose, will convince city officials that with a little cooperation and advanced planning, things can be made even bigger and better.
"I hope it's going to be such a great event for the city that they're going to let us use three or four more streets and have a bigger track," remarked Oriol Servia, who completed a front row sweep for Newman/Haas Racing by qualifying a career-best second. "Then it would be awesome, honestly."
In every way, the San Jose weekend has really kept the Champ Car teams on their toes, because the track has quite literally changed with every session. So have the rules. For qualifying, drivers were allowed unlimited laps rather than the usual limit of 15. And the race will be run to a time limit rather than to a scheduled distance. Several Champ Car races have been flagged at the one-hour, 45-minute mark this season because of television demands, but the competitors have never started the race not having a target number of laps to shoot for.
"This is a first and it's very unique," Bourdais said. "It's something that the engineers aren't used to and it's extremely difficult to predict what will happen because you can't control how many laps of yellow there will be. Normally, you are at least assuming a distance. But here you have to turn the problem around and start thinking in terms of gallons of fuel used per minute. And if there is something like 22 laps of yellow, it could be a one-stop race."
The one or two pit stops are certain to be critical to the final result, because there is absolutely nowhere to pass on the narrow San Jose streets.
"The only passing possibility you had was at the hairpin, and they've taken that away now," said Paul Tracy, who was disappointed to qualify third. "It put qualifying at a premium. We're just going to have to play the game tomorrow and hopefully have better pit stops."
There's also a high likelihood that the punishing track will force some drivers into mistakes.
"The bumps and everything make the track really demanding on your shoulders," Tracy said. "It's like being in a paint shaker. It's very fatiguing, not from a physical standpoint like Edmonton where it's hard to turn the steering wheel, because the loads are high. It's just shaking you and banging you around all the time."
Race and series officials cheerfully admit that the inaugural San Jose race hasn't been a model of perfection. Even though the bridge over the back straight was completed and in use Saturday, with 50,962 fans on hand, the lines to cross the track were still unacceptably long. Additional track crossing options are an absolute must for next year -- for example, the upcoming Grand Prix of Denver will feature seven bridges.
But give credit where credit is due. Changes have been made on the fly as needed thanks to a can-do attitude and some judicious flexibility -- something Formula One racing could learn from after its recent debacle in Indianapolis.
"I think that was a real shame what happened in Formula One," Bourdais said. "They didn't do what was necessary to make it happen. Whoever is responsible, it doesn't matter. You have the duty to the fans. We had 50,000 people today, and we're going to have probably even more tomorrow. We just have to put on a show."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.