CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach: Round one preview

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS BEGINS QUEST FOR THREE-PEAT AS CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES OPENS 2006 SEASON IN LONG BEACH INDIANAPOLIS (April 5, 2006) -- As the curtain opens on the 2006 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford ...

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS BEGINS QUEST FOR THREE-PEAT AS CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES OPENS 2006 SEASON IN LONG BEACH

INDIANAPOLIS (April 5, 2006) -- As the curtain opens on the 2006 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season, the stagelights fall on a bespectacled young Frenchman chasing history, while 17 of the best open-wheel racers on the planet lurk behind, planning a seven-month pursuit.

Sebastien Bourdais (#1 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) plays the lead in this year's 15-act play, looking simultaneously to defend his twice-earned Champ Car title while trying to become the first driver since Ted Horn in 1948 to win three consecutive series championships.

He begins his quest at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a place where he started his successful hunt a year ago with a victory on the fabled 1.968-mile street course. Coming from fourth on the grid a season ago to score the win, Bourdais joined an elite list of racing royalty in tasting victory champagne in Long Beach.

The list of drivers that have won America's longest-running street race reads like a Hall of Fame roster, with names like Andretti, Unser, Sullivan and Zanardi all earning the right to have their likenesses forever etched at the entrance to Victory Lane. The history-rich event has become the preeminent street race in all of North America, and will welcome the Champ Car World Series for the 23rd time when the green flag flies over another huge crowd on Sunday afternoon.

But despite being the protagonist in this production, the road to the top both in Long Beach and in the chase for the Vanderbilt Cup is far from being a pre-written certainty for Bourdais. Challenges will come in a number of forms throughout the 18-car field, including one that comes from the very own Newman/Haas Racing stable that has provided the power that carried him to back-to-back titles in the last two seasons.

Bourdais' Newman/Haas teammate Bruno Junqueira (#2 Newman/Haas Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) makes his return to the Champ Car battlegrounds with this weekend's event, strapping back into his 750hp rocketship for the first time since his harrowing accident in last year's Indianapolis 500 left him with severe back injuries. The Brazilian returns with a championship on his mind, looking to duplicate his Long Beach success from a year ago that saw him start on the outside of the front row and finish in the third spot. Junqueira carries an active streak of eight consecutive podium finishes into the 2006 lidlifter, just three off of the all-time series record.

No list of potential Long Beach challengers can be deemed authentic without the name of veteran Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). The last man not named Bourdais to win the series championship, Tracy has carved his own name deep into the history books of the Southern California event. The Canadian star has earned four of his 30 career victories on the streets of Long Beach, with three of them coming in the last six seasons. He roars into 2006 looking to atone for a maddening '05 campaign where he was a threat to win every time out, led more laps than anyone in the series, but suffered a myriad of troubles that left him fourth in the final standings.

One of the new breed of Champ Car stars that made his way past Tracy last season returns with even bigger aspirations this season. Justin Wilson (#9 CDW RuSPORT Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) made his Champ Car debut just two years ago on the streets of Long Beach and has rapidly risen to the role of championship contender. A two-time racewinner a year ago, including a dominant run in the season finale in Mexico City, propelled the former Formula 1 driver to the third spot in the standings. He has finished sixth and fourth respectively in his last two trips to Long Beach, and comes to the season opener after leading the field in last week's open test session at California Speedway.

His RuSPORT teammate A.J. Allmendinger (#10 RuSPORT Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) comes off the best season of his Champ Car career, but heads to the season opener in search of his first Long Beach top-five finish. The Hollister, California native will look to pick up where he left off in 2005, when he ended the year with the first back-to-back podium finishes of his career.

Having provided more than its share of historical moments over the years, Long Beach will add one more line to the annals of Champ Car this year as Katherine Legge (#20 Gulfstream/Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) makes her Champ Car debut. The first female to compete full-time in the series, Legge burst onto the racing scene last year in Long Beach when she came from midpack to earn her first Champ Car Atlantic victory, making her the first female driver to win a major open-wheel race in the United States.

Legge will have a pair of veteran teammates to help her along the way as Oriol Servia (#6 Gulfstream/Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Jimmy Vasser (#12 Gulfstream/Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to bring PKV Racing its first Long Beach win. Servia comes off of his best-ever Champ Car season, finishing second to Bourdais in the final standings while Vasser eschewed retirement to return to the cockpit for his series-record 211th consecutive series start.

2002 series champion Cristiano da Matta (#19 American Medical Response Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will get a change of scenery this year in his search for his first Long Beach win. Gearing up for his sixth Champ Car season, da Matta takes over as the team leader for Dale Coyne Racing, partnering with Belgian rookie Jan Heylen (#11 Sonny's BBQ Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone).

A grizzled third-year veteran at the ripe age of 19, Nelson Philippe moves to the #4 CTE Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone where he will be the experienced member of the CTE Racing -- HVM driver roster. The Frenchman hopes to build on a 2005 season that saw him earn the Bosch Most Improved Driver Award, but may do some of his best work as an experienced teammate to 2004 Formula Ford champion Dan Clarke (#14 CTE Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Clarke will be part of the six-person chase for the Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year Award, and will be one of four drivers making their Champ Car debut this weekend.

The excitement surrounding the 2006 rookie class is mixed liberally with the anticipation of seeing some of the top veterans in the series chase their first championships. Mario Dominguez (#7 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) opened eyes last season when he rolled into Long Beach in a new Forsythe Championship Racing mount, qualifying third and finishing fifth for the third consecutive year in Long Beach despite not having turned a single lap of preseason testing with the team.

Alex Tagliani (#15 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) is back for his seventh Champ Car season, and his second with Team Australia. The Canadian star gave the rookie team -- created when Craig Gore and John Fish merged with long-time team owner Derrick Walker -- a strong debut season, scoring a podium finish in just his second start. He is another veteran driver that will be joined by a rookie stablemate in 2006 as Australian open-wheel prodigy Will Power (#5 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) returns for a full season in the car that he ran in the final two events of last season.

Charles Zwolsman (#34 Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) becomes the second Atlantic champion in the last three years to parlay his series championship into a full-time Champ Car ride, as the Dutchman joins Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing. Zwolsman, who competed in the season finale in Mexico City a year ago, will partner with Andrew Ranger (#27 Tide/Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) on the Indianapolis-based team. Ranger made his debut in Long Beach last season, and then went on one race later to become the youngest driver in series history to earn a podium finish.

The final member of the 2006 rookie class may carry the most impressive credentials as former Formula 1 driver Antonio Pizzonia (#8 Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will make his debut with the Paul Gentilozzi-owned team. Pizzonia comes to Champ Car after running parts of three seasons in F1. The 25-year-old earned top-10 finishes in eight of his 20 starts running with Williams and Jaguar. He is familiar with a pair of his new foes however, having competed against Bourdais and Wilson in FIA International F3000 competition.

The season-opening Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will kick off the 2006 season April 7-9, with qualifying taking place both Friday and Saturday. The first race of the year will get the green flag on Sunday, April 9, and can be seen live on NBC at 4 p.m. Eastern. Fans can also follow all of the action via the official website of the Champ Car World Series, www.champcar.ws both through its live timing and scoring feeds as well as the popular Race Director features, which allows fans to access streaming audio and video of the race.

-ccws-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Antonio Pizzonia , Justin Wilson , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Oriol Servia , Mario Dominguez , Sébastien Bourdais , A.J. Allmendinger , Katherine Legge , Nelson Philippe , Andrew Ranger , Jan Heylen , Charles Zwolsman , Will Power , Dale Coyne , Cristiano da Matta , Dan Clarke
Teams Williams , Conquest Racing , Dale Coyne Racing