CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach: Season opener preview

TALENTED 2005 BRIDGESTONE PRESENTS THE CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES POWERED BY FORD LINEUP HEADED BY QUARTET OF FORMER TITLEWINNERS The 2005 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford will feature one of its strongest and most...

TALENTED 2005 BRIDGESTONE PRESENTS THE CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES POWERED BY FORD LINEUP HEADED BY QUARTET OF FORMER TITLEWINNERS

The 2005 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford will feature one of its strongest and most talented driver lineups in many years, and each of the drivers that comprise that lineup will be out to prove their worth as the 14-race season kicks off with Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

This year's campaign features four drivers that have captured Champ Car titles in their illustrious careers, one of which has four Long Beach wins under his belt, along with three former Long Beach pole sitters. But the battle for Long Beach won't be determined just among those drivers with championship pedigrees as the 2005 Champ Car lineup features a number of drivers and teams that will figure prominently in how the weekend -- and the championship -- is decided.

The battle for the title usually begins with the guy that holds the crown, but on the 1.968-mile Long Beach street course, any quest for victory has to go through the pit of Paul Tracy (#3 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). The series active leader in victories (28), poles (22), laps led (3,672) and starts (223), Tracy is the two-time defending winner at Long Beach and has four total Long Beach victories on his resume, second only to Al Unser Jr.'s six. Tracy stormed to the front on the first lap in 2004, using the push-to-pass feature on his Ford-Cosworth XFE engine to move up from his third-place starting spot, and led 78 of the day's 81 laps to score the win.

One of the two men that Tracy passed on that opening-lap move would shake off the effects of pass and go on to put together one of the strongest seasons ever by a second-year driver en route to the 2004 Champ Car title. Sebastien Bourdais (#1 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) carries the Vanderbilt Cup to Long Beach after a year that saw him win six races and seven poles. He earned his first Long Beach podium a year ago with a third-place run and began a remarkable qualifying string that saw him start in the top-three spots in every race in the 2004 season. He has started in the first two rows in each of the last 18 races and has gridded in the top-five in both of his previous Long Beach starts.

Last year's polesitter also has a strong streak going, but Bruno Junqueira's (#2 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) string is based on finishes instead of starts. The fifth-year Champ Car pilot -- and teammate to defending champion Bourdais - brings a streak of six consecutive podium finishes to Long Beach. The Newman/Haas Racing driver could become the 11th driver in series history to score seven straight trips to the podium if he can reprise his second-place Long Beach finish from a year ago.

Possibly the most impressive streak of all comes to Long Beach courtesy of another former series champion. PKV Racing's Jimmy Vasser (#12 Gulfstream Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will look to make his 198th consecutive Champ Car start when the green flag drops at Long Beach, extending the longest such skein in series history. The 1996 Long Beach winner, Vasser had an uncharacteristic off day in SoCal last year when his 16th-place finish snapped a streak of eight consecutive top-10 Long Beach runs.

Vasser will partner with the other former series champ in 2005 as PKV racing looks for its first series victory. Cristiano da Matta (#21 PKV Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) makes his return to Champ Car racing after two seasons in Formula 1, and comes back to a Long Beach course that saw him start on the front row and lead 30 laps in 2002. The popular Brazilian has four previous Long Beach starts to his credit with a podium finish coming in 2001.

Changes have abounded in the Champ Car paddock during the offseason with some teams still considering last-minute changes even as the transporters roll for the opener. But some of the teams have had their programs in place despite making changes and expect to make a lot of noise once the engines fire for Friday's first practice. One of those teams is the Colorado-based RuSPORT squad, who will field a pair of sophomore shoes in its quest for a maiden Champ Car victory.

Reigning Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year A.J. Allmendinger (#10 RuSPORT Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and the man that finished second in the rookie chase Justin Wilson (#9 RuSPORT Ford-Cosworth/Lola Bridgestone) will carry the RuSPORT banner into Long Beach as they head into their second seasons. Allmendinger made his series debut at Long Beach a year ago, but knows the way to Victory Lane after winning the 2003 Toyota Atlantic event on the SoCal streets. Wilson made a stirring debut a year ago, coming from 11th on the grid to place sixth, the highest finish for a driver making his Champ Car debut in 2004.

Mario Dominguez (#7 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will have a new seat in 2005 as he moves to Forsythe Championship Racing to partner with Paul Tracy after running his first three seasons with Herdez (now HVM). Dominguez put together the best season of his three years in Champ Car last season, finishing fifth in the championship. He started the year with a fifth-place run in Long Beach, marking the second consecutive season that he has placed fifth on the tricky California street course.

Long-time Champ Car competitors Walker Racing will have a new look across the board this year as Australians Craig Gore and John Fish have joined Walker as owners of what will now be known as Team Australia Racing. The lineup will feature veteran Alex Tagliani (#15 Aussie Vineyard Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) along with rookie Marcus Marshall (#5 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Tagliani has started in the first two rows in his last two Long Beach visits and has a pair of Toyota Atlantic Long Beach wins on his resume. He also comes off his best-ever Champ Car season, after a 2004 campaign that say him score his first victory and finish a career-best seventh in the season standings.

Rocketsports Racing will attack 2005 with a pair of new drivers as well as former Herdez driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) moves to the Michigan-based team along with former Formula 1 driver Timo Glock (#8 Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Hunter-Reay enters his third year of Champ Car competition and has tallied wins in each of his previous two seasons. He has also run well at Long Beach, finishing seventh in each of his two starts. Glock comes to the team after a year of F1 duty where he competed with Jordan.

One of the more intriguing lineups comes out of the Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing stable as Nelson Philippe (#34 Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Andrew Ranger (#27 Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) make up the youngest driver duo in Champ Car history. Philippe became the youngest driver ever to start a Champ Car event last year when he finished 13th in his Long Beach debut, while Ranger will be the second-youngest driver ever when he takes the green flag. Ranger put himself on the radar screen a year ago when he finished second at Long Beach in his Toyota Atlantic debut.

The former Herdez Competition squad will have an entirely new look in 2005 as the team becomes HVM Inc. and attacks with former FIA International F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim (#4 HVM Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and 2004 Toyota Atlantic competitor Ronnie Bremer (#55 HVM Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Both drivers have logged substantial miles in preseason testing and bring a deep and diverse racing background to the Champ Car World Series.

Veteran Oriol Servia (#19 American Medical Response Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) returns to the Dale Coyne Racing squad for a second year in 2005, rejoining the Illinois-based team after giving it one of the most successful seasons in its 21 years of Champ Car competition. The Spaniard became the first driver ever to take a Dale Coyne car to the top 10 in the season standings, finishing in a tie for ninth in the final standings.

The quest for the Vanderbilt Cup gets underway this weekend with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Practice begins Friday morning with qualifying sessions both Friday and Saturday, with the 81-lap race getting underway on Sunday. The race can be seen live on NBC beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

-ccws-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Justin Wilson , Al Unser Jr. , Jimmy Vasser , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Oriol Servia , Mario Dominguez , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Sébastien Bourdais , A.J. Allmendinger , Bjorn Wirdheim , Nelson Philippe , Ronnie Bremer , Marcus Marshall , Andrew Ranger , Timo Glock , Dale Coyne , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Dale Coyne Racing