CART roared into St. Petersburg, Florida this week, then turbo-whistled back home after a highly successful three days of testing, promoting and preparation by competitiors in their top category, the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World ...
CART roared into St. Petersburg, Florida this week, then turbo-whistled back home after a highly successful three days of testing, promoting and preparation by competitiors in their top category, the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, just down the road at Sebring Raceway.
Spring Training this year kicked off in grand style in the home of the Champ Car series' new season-opener, St. Pete. The events, a reception at the plush Renaissance Vinoy, demo laps of the new St. Pete street course by Bruno Junqueira in his Newman-Haas Lola, and a few lunchtime downtown pit stop simulations (with St. Petersburg's mayor helping with the stop board), worked well for CART to showcase the upcoming race. The local news organizations made the Champ Car race a top story, and the town (and course) look on target to deliver another winning event for CART.
The course, with its street and airport elements, could be one of the best temporary circuits in the Champ Car schedule. It has both fast and slow turns, some wide braking areas where passing will be possible, a long straight, a "finesse" section around Pioneer Park, and a couple of spots where the drivers will need to pay close attention to stay out of trouble.
The Champ Cars sounded good and familiar, with their new specification Ford Cosworth XFE engines making sounds not far different from what Champ Car fans will remember from previous years. Happily missing from the sound was the staccato popping of traction control devices, that function now being provided by the skilled right feet of the drivers.
The cars were not as familiar to the eye, only a few teams retuning with liveries that carried over from 2002. Forsythe's Player's cars looked the same, albeit on Lola chassis rather than the familiar Reynards. Ditto Patrick Racing - old colors on a different frame. The Herdez, Fernandez, and Rahal teams returned with carryover schemes, although Herdez has cloned a second green, white and blue painted Lola for Roberto Moreno, and the other two outfits have scaled back to single-car efforts for Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain, Jr.
Returning championship team, Newman-Haas Racing, had new colors on their Lolas, the black and white with red striping setup on rookie Sebastien Bourdais' car reminding many of the similar design carried on the team's cars in the past. The pattern of the scheme matched that of the purple, white and yellow colors shown on Bruno Junqueira's number one car at the Laguna Seca test a week earlier.
New teams Conquest Racing, Rocketsports, Pollock Kalkhoven Racing, and Dale Coyne Racing all had plain-looking or incompletely detailed cars. Rocketsports solid blue will be their color for the year, a beautiful shade making up for the lack of contrasting color. Conquest's car, for now in plain yellow and red, will get its familiar Mi-Jack lettering on the sidepods before the St. Pete race. Hopefully, PKR's plain-wrapper white and Coyne's equally plain yellow cars will get splashes of color - or at least sponsor logos - before the cars appear before the fans and cameras in St. Pete.
But you wanted to know how the cars ran, didn't you? With thousands of laps run by the 18 drivers over the three days at Sebring, we can get an inkling of what is to come. Strongest impression: Newman-Haas is the team to beat. Topping the time charts in nearly every session, just as they did at Laguna Seca, N-H drivers Junqueira and Bourdais will be the rabbits for the start of the year. Bourdais walked away with the honors for fast time of the week. Junqueira was right with him on speed all week, but Bourdais has impressed all with his speed and consistency since first sitting in a Champ Car over the winter.
Next impression? The Champ Cars' reputation of being difficult to drive fast was upheld at Sebring - Bourdais speed notwithstanding. A look at the time chart prior to the final set of sessions (where some teams were simulating qualifying runs) shows the rookie class (minus Bourdais) at the bottom of the list. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see which of the new drivers and teams can improve their lot with some experience.
Of the new outfits, ASTJ looked the most polished and Conquest presented themselves well, but PKR and Rocketsports are still struggling to get going after late startups in the off-season. Dale Coyne's two rookie drivers, Joel Camathias and Roberto Gonzalez, rode the bottom of the charts all week. It will be interesting to see whether their performance improves after a few races. Similarly, PKR's Patrick Lemarie and Conquest's Mario Haberfeld are new drivers on a steep learning curve with new teams and could show better after some race miles.
The other returning teams, Players, Herdez, and Fernandez, were in the middle of the charts over the Sebring days. Adrian Fernandez, still hurting from the injuries he received last season, was trying to get himself comfortable in the car, and to help that was working with Dr. Terry Trammel to fine tune the car's seat.
Players, expected to be contenders with Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier in the seats, were concentrating on getting their new Lolas set up for the races to come rather than looking for fast times. Herdez Competition showed that the addition of Moreno to the lineup should help second year driver Mario Dominguez run closer to the front this year.
In addition to the splashy appearance by Roush Racing's NASCAR star, Busch, the Sebring paddock was busy with visiting drivers and other racing celebrities, trying to line up rides and deals for the 2003 season. Strongest candidates appear to be a partnership between Emerson Fittipaldi and Eric Bachelart to run a second car at Team Conquest - the driver a subject of much speculation - and a second PKR car for Mika Salo that could appear as early as round 3 at Long Beach.
With 18 cars on track for Spring Training - and more to come, St. Petersburg set for a rousing opening race, and an exciting mix of new and old teams and drivers, the Champ Car World Series is poised for a strong 2003 season. It should be a great ride.