SIMON PAGENAUD AND GRAHAM RAHAL READY TO DECIDE 2006 CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP INDIANAPOLIS (September 14, 2006) -- They're about as different as night and day and they've taken completely different paths to get to this point in their...
SIMON PAGENAUD AND GRAHAM RAHAL READY TO DECIDE 2006 CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP
INDIANAPOLIS (September 14, 2006) -- They're about as different as night and day and they've taken completely different paths to get to this point in their careers, but next week Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) and Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) will square off to decide the 2006 Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda series championship.
One is a reserved, polished European road racer who worked every possible angle to secure an opportunity to drive in North America's top open-wheel development series. The other was born into racing royalty and has matured into a smooth and confident driver before our eyes at the tender age of 17. Their season-long battle on the Atlantic circuit this season has been a study in contrasting styles, but as the 12th and final round of series racing approaches with the Gehl Champ Car Atlantic Championship Finale at Road America set for September 22-24, there's no doubt that Pagenaud and Rahal have emerged as the two top competitors in one of the most talented Atlantic fields in series' history.
The two fierce competitors are even spending this week in drastically different ways. Pagenaud, the series points leader since Round 7 at Toronto, is trying to learn as much about the Road America circuit as possible by watching tapes of previous races at the venue, while Rahal is continuing to refine his skills with a long-awaited Champ Car test session in Sebring, Florida with Newman/Haas Racing.
A mere 12 points separates the two spectacular rookie drivers as they enter the season finale at the classic Road America road course (tape-delayed broadcast on SPEED at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, October 8). With the prestigious Atlantic title and the $2 million series champion's Champ Car bonus for 2007 on the line, it marks the third consecutive season that the battle for the Atlantic Championship has come down to two drivers at the final race of the season. Jon Fogarty edged Ryan Dalziel for the '04 series crown, while Charles Zwolsman beat Tonis Kasemets for the title last season.
Pagenaud, the 22-year-old native of Montmorillon, France, has quietly been a model consistency this season. After distinguishing himself in Formula Renault competition in Europe, Pagenaud enlisted the help of countryman Sebastien Bourdais, the two-time defending Champ Car World Series champion, to try and open some doors in the United States. After several impressive Atlantic tests over the winter, Pagenaud signed on with Team Australia, a veteran Champ Car team co-owned by Derrick Walker and Craig Gore, making its first foray into Atlantic competition this season. The pairing seemed to click almost instantly as Pagenaud was among the fastest drivers at the first test of the new Mazda-Cosworth/Swift/Yokohama Atlantic cars in March. A strong fourth-place finish in his series debut at Long Beach proved to be a sign of things to come as Pagenaud has been a front-running staple this season with a series-high nine top-five finishes in 11 races, despite competing at all of this season's venues for the first time in his career. He earned his first win at Edmonton and he's appeared on the podium six times, including four runner-up results, on the way to his series lead.
"Everything has gone very well this season," said Pagenaud, who can wrap up the championship simply by producing another top-three finish at Road America. "We've always been at the front, usually in the top four. We've definitely been the most consistent team out there. It's time to say thank you to everyone on the team, Derrick Walker, Craig Gore, (team managers) Rob Edwards and Derek Higgins and my engineer Chris Yanchar along with my whole Team Australia crew. They have been great and have worked so hard. Each race we improve and get stronger and everyone has worked extra hard for Road America. As usual I've been watching a lot tape (to prepare). I've been very successful on this type of track which is like Portland, Cleveland and Monterrey. I just have to keep the consistency. Graham has a lot of pressure on him and his concentration with the Champ Car test and for me I'm in a better position because I just have to focus on the race. I can't wait for Road America."
Walker, who's in his 16th season as a team owner, is also excited about the finale as his team's first championship is finally within striking distance. "We were fortunate to sign Simon because even though he had never raced in the USA before or an Atlantic car, he had a great deal of open-wheel experience in Europe which was a big advantage because he is very mature racecar driver," said Walker. "Generally the season, when you look at our consistency and reliability, I think we've earned our opportunity to compete for the championship. To win the championship we can't make any mistakes. We've got to go into Road America like we have every other race, which is to win."
While Pagenaud has been the most consistent performer this season, Rahal has certainly established himself with his burgeoning talent and electric performances. Former Champ Car champion Bobby Rahal's 17-year-old son entered Atlantics this season with another established Champ Car team solidifying its foundation with a first-year Atlantic effort -- Mi-Jack Conquest Racing. After competing in Formula BMW USA and Star Mazda competition over the last two seasons, the young Rahal really began to shine in the past year as he claimed the '05 SCCA Formula Atlantic run-off title and then excelled in A1 Grand Prix action. It didn't take him long to earn his Champ Car Atlantic wings as he became the youngest winner in the 33-year history of the series when he earned a flag-to-flag victory at Monterrey, Mexico in Round 3. He swept the series' doubleheader at his home race in Cleveland and added wins at Denver and last round at Montreal, where he edged Pagenaud by .073-of-a-second in the closest finish in Atlantic history. The series leader in victories (five), poles (four) and laps led (129), Rahal is confident heading into Road America, though he knows he'll need another dominant effort in both qualifying and the race and still have to rely on Pagenaud struggling a bit in order to claim the title.
"I think we have a good shot of winning," said Rahal. "Simon has been very consistent and quick all season but after the last race he seemed kind of upset that he didn't win and if we keep creeping up on him, by taking the extra points on Friday and Saturday, it will only add pressure. We know what we need to do and we know that we also need Simon to have a bad weekend. If we score maximum points, he will need to finish at least third, so the pressure is on him."
Even if the Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team falls short of its championship goal, the squad has to take a lot of pride in its very successful debut season in Atlantics. Between Rahal and teammate Ryan Lewis, MJCR is currently riding an amazing streak of nine straight podium finishes and they hope to stretch it to 10 at Road America.
"It's been an exceptional year for the Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Atlantic Team and a big part of our success has been Graham's performances," said team co-owner Eric Bachelart. "He has been so dominating. He has the most wins, the most poles and the most laps led. If you look at the season as a whole we are very, very happy with what we've done. But, if you look at every race separately, you see that it has not all been joy and happiness. There were races where Graham should have finished on the podium, but was taken out or made a mistake, but that's racing. Overall I'm extremely pleased with our first season in the series, we really couldn't ask for more."
Follow all of next week's Atlantic racing action from Road America through the Live Timing link, and watch all of this season's races on demand, by visiting www.champcaratlantic.com.
-credit: cc atl-