Title coming into focus for Bourdais
This weekend's Centrix Financial Grand Prix of Denver could potentially be the turning point in the 2005 Champ Car World Series. As the ninth race of 14, Denver comes at a critical time in the championship battle between Sebastien Bourdais and his rivals.
For his part, the Frenchman knows a repeat of his spectacular victory in the Mile High City last year could go a long way toward his winning a second consecutive series title over chief challenger Paul Tracy.
Newman/Haas Racing is 3-for-3 since Champ Car racing returned to the streets of Denver in 2002. But most of the team's success on the 1.657-mile street course has come at the hands of now-sidelined driver Bruno Junqueira, who led 215 out of 296 laps at Denver while racking up two wins and a third-place finish. Oriol Servia, who is subbing for Junqueira while the Brazilian rehabilitates his injured back, also has performed well at Denver, leading 30 laps and finishing third in 2003 while driving for Patrick Racing.
The question is whether Servia or anyone else can beat Bourdais, who hopes to build on the current two-race win streak that has put him 28 points ahead of Tracy in the championship sweepstakes. Last year, Bourdais came out of a first-turn skirmish with Junqueira in 13th place. But in a comeback drive befitting Alex Zanardi, Bourdais blazed through the field to truly earn the most memorable of his 13 Champ Car wins.
"For me, it was obviously a great race in Denver last year for the McDonald's team," Bourdais recalled. "It was a huge performance, the best drive I think I have ever done, and I had to make it happen on the racetrack, not in the pits."
A number of things conspired to allow Bourdais to pull off his audacious win. He made the most of his Push-to-Pass, those 90 seconds worth of extra horsepower Champ Car drivers can go for in times of extreme need. The nature of the Denver course, with a 180-mph straightaway and as many as three places to pass, certainly helped, as did a timely full-course caution that eliminated Tracy's 11-second lead.
"Push-to-Pass was everything last year for me here," Bourdais admitted. "Everybody said that it was impossible to pass in Denver, and we made it happen. Hopefully, we won't have to use it this year."
Servia has finished on the podium in five of six races since taking over Junqueira's seat at Milwaukee in June, but he still hasn't taken his first Champ Car race win.
"Last year, the PacifiCare finished on the podium again, so there is no reason why I can't put the PacifiCare car on the podium again this year," he said. "Hopefully on the top step of the podium."
Tracy will have to re-acclimate to a Champ Car after logging a two- day NASCAR Nextel Cup test at Michigan International Speedway with Richard Childress Racing. The Canadian led 40 laps at Denver in 2004 but ultimately ceded the win to Bourdais. Tracy should get strong support this year from Forsythe Championship Racing teammate Mario Dominguez, who twice has finished in the top five at Denver.
The local team has to be counted among the favorites, as well. Based in nearby Loveland, RuSPORT Racing has enjoyed a breakout season with Justin Wilson winning in Toronto and A.J. Allmendinger coming close to winning on two other occasions. The American has failed to finish the last three races, missing out on at least two podium finishes.
"Overall, for me, it has been a disappointing season due to mistakes I've made over the past few races," Allmendinger said. "Going into Denver, I'm just trying to forget about the mistakes I've made, learn from them and move on. If we do that, I think we'll have a good chance of being there again."
Alex Tagliani, a regular podium threat in 2005 with Derrick Walker's revitalized Team Australia, will celebrate his 100th Champ Car start Sunday.
"It seems like years ago that I made my debut [actually 2000], but I am actually pretty surprised it has been 100 races already," the French Canadian said.
PKV Racing tested on the California Speedway road course last week, and the team hopes that transpires into an improved street course setup for former series champions Cristiano da Matta and Jimmy Vasser. Meanwhile, in the race within a race for Rookie of the Year honors, Timo Glock's sixth-place finish at San Jose helped the German eke out an 11-point lead over Ronnie Bremer, with Andrew Ranger and Bjorn Wirdheim also still in contention.
Coming on the heels of a very strong month for the series, the Denver event has a lot to live up to, in terms of its own history and its role in Champ Car's revival under its new ownership. Denver was the "most improved" race on the Champ Car schedule in 2004, and local officials are confident that even bigger improvements are on tap for this year.
Prerace ticket sales have tripled for an event that drew an announced 112,000 over three days in 2004. Corporate suites have been upgraded dramatically, and the presence of seven spectator bridges means fans won't have to cope with the long lines they faced two weeks ago in San Jose.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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