DETROIT (February 3, 2000) - As the FedEx Championship Series heads into a new century, no one could accuse its top teams of standing pat. It has been an off-season fraught with change since Juan Montoya claimed Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's ...
DETROIT (February 3, 2000) - As the FedEx Championship Series heads into a new century, no one could accuse its top teams of standing pat.
It has been an off-season fraught with change since Juan Montoya claimed Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's unprecedented fourth consecutive FedEx Championship Series title in the season finale at California Speedway last year, bringing an end to the closest points race in series history. New drivers ... new engines ... new chassis ... they all combine to bring an increased element of anticipation to CART's fifth annual Spring Training, Feb. 8-10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla.
Following Media Day on Tuesday, Feb. 8, Spring Training will include two days of open testing, Wednesday, Feb. 9 and Thursday, Feb. 10, on the 1.502-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval. The sessions will give FedEx Championship Series competitors the opportunity to measure themselves against their rivals as they prepare for the 2000 FedEx Championship Series season, which begins with the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota, March 24-26 at Homestead.
The catalog of off-season changes begins at the top, where, after winning four consecutive championships with Honda power, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has made the switch to Toyota engines for Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser in 2000. As significant a change as that is, the team may not be done, as a chassis switch may be in the offing as well.
Though Target/Ganassi drivers Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi ('97 and '98) and Montoya steered Reynard chassis to their championships, the team has recently been testing both Reynard and Lola chassis, and the entry list for Spring Training includes a "TBA" designation where the chassis of choice would ordinarily be declared.
One of the reasons Target/Ganassi is considering a chassis switch may be the success that Newman/Haas Racing has enjoyed during pre-season testing in its new Lola chassis. Newman/Haas, which campaigned a Swift chassis for drivers Michael Andretti (Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Lola) and Christian Fittipaldi (Big Kmart Ford Lola) for the past three seasons, has already been among the fastest participants unofficially in three January test sessions leading up to Spring Training. Andretti was among the pace-setters at Homestead and Phoenix International Raceway while Fittipaldi ran with the leaders on the road course at Sebring International Raceway.
"When you change part of the racing package, there is always a risk," said Andretti, owner of CART's all-time career wins record with 38. "We have set [quick] times everywhere we've tested, which is nice, although there are no points given for testing. We will be a force to be reckoned with this year, but it won't be easy. Winning a championship is always sweeter when the competition is tough, though."
No team has undergone more sweeping change in the off-season, however, than Marlboro Team Penske. The team has a pair of new drivers in Gil de Ferran and Helio Castro-Neves, a new engine (Honda, replacing Mercedes) and a new chassis (Reynard, replacing the Penske and Lola that the team utilized last year). Team Penske is also on new tires with Firestone.
Another significant equipment change finds Player's Forsythe Racing switching from Mercedes to Ford engines for drivers Patrick Carpentier (Player's Forsythe Racing Team Ford Reynard) and rookie Alexandre Tagliani (Player's Forsythe Racing Team Ford Reynard), a graduate of the Toyota Atlantic ranks.
Tagliani is one of five rookies on the Spring Training entry list. He is joined by former Indy 500 victory and IRL series champion Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal, 1999 Dayton Indy Lights champion Oriol Servia (Telefonica Toyota Reynard) of PPI Motorsports, Shinji Nakano (AVEX Honda Reynard) of Walker Racing and Takuya Kurosawa (MTCI Ford Lola) of Dale Coyne Racing.
Among the veteran drivers changing teams in the off-season were Bryan Herta (TBA Honda Swift), from Team Rahal to Forsythe Championship Racing, and Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez Mercedes Lola), from Payton Coyne Racing to Bettenhausen Motorsports. In addition, Tony Kanaan (Mercedes Mo Nunn Racing Mercedes Reynard) has moved from Forsythe Championship Racing to drive for the newly formed Mo Nunn Racing while Roberto Moreno (Visteon Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) - who did an outstanding job as a replacement driver for the injured Mark Blundell and Christian Fittipaldi last season - has obtained a full-time ride at Patrick Racing.
One of the few FedEx Championship Series teams to have made minimal changes during the off-season was Team KOOL Green. And who could blame them following a banner 1999 campaign that found Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) and Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) finishing second and third, respectively, in the championship? Based on that performance, which included a combined five victories and 18 podium finishes - including a series-high 11 by Franchitti - Team KOOL Green deserves strong consideration as the favorite to unseat Target/Chip Ganassi Racing from its record championship run.
Spring Training test sessions will run from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and 1:15 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 9 and Thursday, Feb. 10. Spectator admission is $14.99 and includes a free membership to the CART Winners Circle Fan Club. Among numerous other benefits, all club members will receive a 10 percent discount on tickets for the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, March 24-26 at Homestead..
Spring Training test sessions will feature use of the low-downforce variant of the new Handford MkII Device, a new rear-wing package that is being introduced by CART this year to help contain speeds on intermediate ovals.
In addition to season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota (March 26), the low-downforce of the Handford MkII will be utilized at the Firestone Firehawk 500, May 13 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan; and at the Motorola 300, Sept. 17 at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill.
As usual, Spring Training will include a number of media functions, both at and away from the track. The highlight will be the announcement of the inaugural CART All-Star Team, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 8 at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla. The evening will honor the five drivers selected to the first-ever team by vote of their fellow drivers, a select panel of media and celebrity Champ Car enthusiasts Tim Allen, Anthony Edwards and Robin Yount. The leading vote-getter on the team will be presented with the Mario Andretti Trophy in recognition of his accomplishment. The evening will also include special recognition of Greg Moore of the Player's Forsythe Racing Team, who was fatally injured in the final event of the 1999 season. The event is by invitation only, but all media are welcome. FedEx, title sponsor of the FedEx Championship Series, will conduct its traditional season kick-off reception for all members of the CART community on Tuesday, Feb. 8, from 3-5 p.m. at the FedEx transporter in the Homestead-Miami Speedway paddock. Other media functions that have been scheduled at the Speedway during Spring Training include a Ford media luncheon, at noon Tuesday; a Marlboro Team Penske media luncheon, 12:30 p.m. Wednesday; a Team Rahal media reception, 4 p.m. Wednesday and a Target Grand Prix media luncheon, 12:15 p.m.Thursday. Wednesday evening's activities will feature the CART Charities Carnivale at the Grand Bay Towers in Key Biscayne, Fla, beginning at 7 p.m. The evening will honor patrons of CART Charities during 1999 and will also feature the presentation of the 1999 Nation's Cup to Team Brazil and drivers Christian Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castro-Neves, Cristiano da Matta, Roberto Moreno and Mauricio Gugelmin. Last year, Brazil became the first team other than the United States to win the Nation's Cup in its five years of existence. PPI Motorsports announced Tuesday that it signed 1999 Dayton Indy Lights champion Oriol Servia to team with Cristiano da Matta and form a two-car entry in the FedEx Championship Series this season. Both drivers will compete in Toyota-powered Reynards with Telefonica serving as primary sponsor on Servia's car and Pioneer as primary sponsor on da Matta's. MCI WorldCom will enjoy key sponsorship on both cars as well. With Servia now under contract, PPI now boasts the two most recent Dayton Indy Lights champions in its driving stable. Da Matta claimed the Indy Lights crown in 1998. Servia, a resident of Catalonia, Spain, earned the Indy Lights crown during a consistent campaign in which he put together a stretch of seven consecutive top-five finishes, including five runner-up efforts. He also finished the season with a series-best three pole positions. "Oriol has already found a home here," said Cal Wells III, owner and president of PPI Motorsports. "His performance during our initial testing was outstanding, and he's shown a consistency and focus that complement our team perfectly. We're fortunate and very proud to have two Indy Lights champions in our fold now, and I'm personally very excited about the possibilities for our team this season." Said Servia: "After watching how well Cristiano did last season, I am looking forward to making this transition to Champ Cars. Representing Telefonica [the largest supplier of telecommunications services in the Spanish- and Portuguese- speaking world] is a special opportunity for me because they are based in my native country of Spain. I have already tested with the team at Homestead and Sebring and I was able to get used to the Champ Car very quickly. It's different from the Indy Lights car, but I was more prepared than I expected. I still have a lot to learn, but we'll be testing quite a bit before the [season-opening] Miami race." The PacWest Racing Group will present "Fire and Ice," highlighted by the unveiling of its cars which will compete in the FedEx Championship Series, on Monday, Feb. 7 from 7-10 p.m. at Firehouse Four in Miami. At approximately 8 p.m., the covers on the cars will be electronically lifted, and the new color scheme of Mark Blundell's Motorola Mercedes Reynard and the primary sponsor of Gugelmin's Champ Car will be revealed to media, sponsor representatives and race officials. The unveiling will also be simulcast on the Internet at www.pacwestracing.com. Team Rahal owner and three-time FedEx Championship Series driving champion Bobby Rahal will be among a trio of heroes from the world of sports who will be honored on Thursday, Feb. 10 at the annual Champions and Heroes Charity Banquet presented by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami. Rahal, one of only two drivers to win three FedEx Championship Series driving championships (Rick Mears is the other), will be honored along with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall and golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Miami. A mini-preview of CART's fifth annual Spring Training took place at Phoenix International Raceway last week, as four of the top six finishers in the 1999 FedEx Championship Series championship were among those recording test times on the one-mile oval. Participating at various times over the three days of testing were defending series champion Juan Montoya, third-place finisher Paul Tracy, fourth-place Michael Andretti and sixth-place Adrian Fernandez. Other participants included 1996 series champion Jimmy Vasser, Mauricio Gugelmin, Mark Blundell, Bryan Herta, Patrick Carpentier, Roberto Moreno and Richie Hearn. Montoya tested a Toyota Lola package for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing last Thursday, after Vasser had also spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing for the team. "Juan settled right into the car," said Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Team manager Mike Hull. "This is his first time at Phoenix and the first time in the Lola on an oval. So, although it's all new to him, he's adjusted great and the car is responding well. The Toyota has been great for us also. We've gotten great technical support from the Toyota team and it's made for a very cooperative effort. We've been chasing the track a little today, which is normal for Phoenix, but we have really started to use the last part of the test to get ready for Spring Training." Unofficially, Andretti, in a Ford Lola, emerged with the fastest time of Thursday's test, which also included Montoya in a Toyota Lola, Gugelmin in a Mercedes Reynard, Herta in a Honda Swift, Patrick Carpentier in a Ford Reynard and Richie Hearn in a Toyota Reynard. Andretti was clocked at 19.7 seconds. Gugelmin and Carpentier were both timed at 20.3 seconds, Hearn at 20.6 seconds and Herta at 21.0 seconds, an improvement of nearly a second from his best time of a day earlier. "Although my analytical side tells me not to get too excited about testing times, since they are not too relevant because of different tire compounds available at tests, it's hard not to get too optimistic about our results to date," said Peter Gibbons, race engineer for Andretti. "Ben Bowlby has done a superb job with the Lola car and the Ford-Cosworth engine continues to run like a clock. We will continue to work on every aspect necessary and will be ready to compete for the first of hopefully many wins when the season begins in only 58 days." Tracy, meanwhile, completed 350 laps during two days of testing last Tuesday and Wednesday, recording a best time of 20.5 seconds. He was very complimentary of the short-oval configuration of the new Handford MkII Device, a new rear-wing package mandated by CART to help contain speeds on short ovals. "The added downforce [produced by the Handford MkII] makes the car feel a lot like it did when we last raced at Phoenix in 1995," Tracy said. "You can take different lines and the car 'sticks.' I ran behind a couple of other cars and the turbulence didn't upset my car very much. I think they'll create a lot better racing on the short ovals this year than we had in 1999." Motorola announced today that it had signed on as primary sponsor of the Aug. 18-20 FedEx Championship Series event at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., now titled the Road America 220. "Many experts believe Elkhart Lake is one of the really great race tracks of the world and it is with pleasure that we have signed this deal," said Joe Guglielmi, executive vice president and president of Motorola's Integrated Electronic Systems Sector. "Champ Car racing is an excellent proving ground for Motorola's embedded electronics." Blundell, who campaigns the Motorola PacWest Mercedes for PacWest Racing in the FedEx Championship Series, said, "There is no doubt that Road America is a very special place and a circuit at which I feel very much at home, because it is so similar to the European tracks on which I learned to race. I hope to have a couple of wins under my belt by the time we get to Elkhart Lake this year, but it certainly would be nice to win the first-ever Motorola 220."