The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg opens this weekend as a new race that has the honor of opening the next great era of CART. The Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford opens the 2003 season with this inaugural event on a sparkling new street/airport temporary course. To make things more exciting, there will be an interesting mix of new and old teams and drivers, and a new power package in holdover chassis.
The start/finish straight of the course is set on a runway of Albert Whitted Airport, with a parallel taxiway in place as the pit lane. The entry to the turn 1 & 2 "bus stop" complex could be the best passing place on the course, as the cars come off the runway and are routed toward St. Pete's city streets.
The course first goes east on Bayshore Drive, then the drivers brake for the tricky right-hand turn 3 onto northbound 1st Street. After passing Al Lang (baseball) Field on the right, the tight technical section of the course begins. Ninety-degree turns 4 (right) and 5 (left) lead to the turn 6 & 7 "jog", then around Pioneer Park with two more 90-degree right turns.
A long, kinked straight carries the field along St. Pete's South Yacht Basin, south to return to the airport. Fast turn 10 (left) continues the loop around the Basin, then a short straight and a quick right-left (11 & 12) leads back onto taxiway and two right turns, 13 & 14, puts the field back on the start/finish runway.
The expanded Champ Car World Series field has a number of returning stars. Bruno Junqueira, Paul Tracy, Patrick Carpentier, Jimmy Vasser, Oriol Servia, Adrian Fernandez, Michel Jourdain, Mario Dominguez, and Alex Tagliani were full-season regulars in 2002, and Roberto Moreno comes back after a one-year absence. While the rest of the '02 field has moved on - to F1, NASCAR, IRL, and F3000 - a strong and diverse rookie class will make for an interesting 2003 season
The top Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year candidate is reigning International F3000 champion Sebastien Bourdais as Junqueira's teammate at Newman-Haas Racing. Two other drivers who competed in F3000 last season, Mario Haberfeld and Tiago Monteiro will also participate. Two of the new drivers, Darren Manning and Patrick Lemarie, are returning to full-season racing after spending several years as test drivers for F1 team BAR.
Add in two graduates of the CART ladder system, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rodolfo Lavin, young Swiss driver Joel Camathias and Mexican Formula racer Roberto Gonzalez, and you have a large and varied field for that rookie award.
You want diversity? The Champ Car series will have five Mexican drivers, three Canadians, three Brazilians and two from the US. European countries represented include England, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and France, with perhaps others ready to join a little later in the season.
The teams have been scrambled as well. Newman-Haas returns to defend its 2002 championship, chased hard by Players-Forsythe Racing. A strengthened Patrick Racing (but still only one car), an expanded Herdez Competition (now two cars), and single cars from Fernandez Racing and Team Rahal have also returned. Walker Racing also will field two cars.
New teams American Spirit Team Johansson, PK Racing, Rocketsports Racing and Conquest Racing are all staffed and managed by racing veterans so should be counted on for strong performances. Dale Coyne Racing returns to a full season effort after a couple of years fielding cars for only a race or two a year.
With new colors on many of the cars, and new helmets showing out of some of the cockpits, the field may be hard to recognize even for regular Champ Car fans. Once the drivers fire their engines, though, the familiar sound of CART's top series cars will make those same fans smile in recognition. The fans at St. Petersburg will also get to say that they were on hand for the rebirth of the Champ Cars.
The Champ Cars will race at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix on February 23 at 1:00 pm EST. Support races will include the Trans-Am series - just after the Sunday Champ Car race - the Fran-Am World Championship race just before the big CART cars, and the Barber Dodge Pro Series at 3:45 pm on Saturday, February 22. Practice and qualifying sessions for all four series are scheduled for Friday and Saturday, and rock band Better Than Ezra will play a concert following the Saturday afternoon Barber series race.