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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Championship chasing season has arrived

by Gordon Kirby
It's September and the stretch run into the fall has begun for most racing championships, big or small. J.R. Hildebrand has wrapped up the Indy Lights championship but most major championship battles are at full tilt. Indeed, September and October are when racing championships are won or lost. For many professional drivers this is contract and sponsor fulfillment time

Despite torrid political melodramas and ongoing power squabbles Formula One continues on its merry way as the definition of global motor racing. F1 and Ferrari are by far racing's leading worldwide brands and are likely to continue in their respective roles for many years through the ultimate passing of the Ecclestone-Mosley era. Meanwhile, F1's long history of posturing and squabbling and successfully generating a global media circus will continue apace.

'Renaultgate' is F1's latest scandal wherein the spurned Nelson Piquet Jr. has told the Brazilian press that he deliberately caused a full-course yellow during last year's Singapore GP, helping Fernando Alonso secure victory. There are plenty of other questions fueling F1's continuing media circus. Will other manufacturers--most notably Toyota--follow Honda and BMW out of F1? Will the Sauber-BMW team survive in a new form, with or without Dr. Mario Theissen? Will the new Cosworth teams be capable of competing on any kind of equal footing with the established midfield teams? And will Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson's USF1 team make it to the grid for the start of the season?

The F1 driver 'silly season' is also at full boil. With Felipe Massa out for the season and Luca Badoer doing a less than stellar job in the last two races native son Giancarlo Fisichella will finally achieve his lifelong dream of driving for Ferrari at Monza, no less, through the end of the season. And of course, Alonso is said to have signed a Ferrari contract some time ago. It's believed the Spaniard will move to the red cars next year teamed with Belgian GP winner Kimi Raikkonen with Massa and Fisichella as reserve drivers. If so it will be an awfully powerful combination. With a brace of new teams and some expected and possible departures there are sure to be quite a few other driver changes announced over the fall and winter, including Nico Rosberg replacing Heikki Kovalainen at McLaren and the destination of BMW star Robert Kubica.

With the Belgian GP at Spa a week ago and the Italian GP at Monza next weekend F1 is into the height and heart of its schedule. Spa and Monza are classic circuits brimming with history and atmosphere. Spa-Francorchamps opened in 1924, originally as a nine-mile closed road course, one of the most breathtakingly fast of all-time. The Belgian GP took place there in 1925 and from 1930-'70 until it was deemed too fast and too dangerous. A new, modernized 4.3-mile circuit was built in 1979 using the upper portion of the old track and F1 returned to Spa in 1983. Despite regular threats from Bernie Ecclestone, the race continues as an essential round of the world championship drawing a big crowd this year.

Monza was opened in a royal park just north of Milan in 1922 and has been the eternal host of the Italian GP save for three years during the thirties and forties. The original track was 6.2 miles long and included a high-banked oval section, used through 1933 and again from 1955 through the ill-fated '61 race. The current track is essentially the same 3.6-mile road course as always with three chicanes added in various forms starting in 1972.

Meanwhile F1 has produced a series of unpredictable results this year. Few people expected the early-season dominance of Brawn GP and Jenson Button and it's been great to see the Red Bull team doing so well with both young phenom Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber. There's been plenty of variety in F1 this year and we certainly seem to be a long way from the Schumacher era or the Prost-Senna era when one or two drivers or teams dominated. At the same time it would be nice to see Button step up and show he deserves this year's championship, or for veteran teammate Rubens Barrichello to beat Button to the title (unlikely) or Vettel or even Webber to put on a late-season charge and win it for Red Bull.

Excellent news from Montreal is that the Canadian GP will return to next year's F1 schedule on its traditional June date. It's a great race that most fans hope will continue on the F1 calendar for many years to come. Also, the F1 team owners insist on there being a new United States GP sometime in the next few years and Chris Pook continues to work on creating a new west coast USGP at an unidentified location.

"I guess Bernard is up to his neck in plenty of other stuff right now," Pook told me this past weekend. "I'm sure he's preoccupied on many fronts but I will have a conversation with him next week. He needs to come here and meet some people and see what we have. He's got to sort his schedule out and get over here because it can't be done by remote control like it can in other parts of the world. It won't happen unless he visits us.

"In America, people want to sit down and look the other party in the eye. That's the way we do business here. I believe we have a very favorable climate to put together a Formula One race. I think the time is absolutely right for F1 to return to the United States. I think there will be a huge following and I think it will pay good money. We just need to get Mr. Ecclestone here."

A week ago in Montreal NASCAR put on a wild show on Ile Notre Dame with its now well-established Nationwide Series race. It was painfully obvious that many of the stock car regulars were unprepared for racing in the rain. Helped by an endless run of yellows, Carl Edwards's relentless pursuit and aggressive style brought him his first road course win but it was a big heart-breaker for Marcos Ambrose who dominated the day, leading all the way until hitting the curb in the last turn on the last lap. As Ambrose said disgustedly: "I made one mistake and it cost me the race."

Young Canadian star Andrew Ranger was an impressive third followed by Jacques Villeneuve in fourth while Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani were also in the field. With a fleet of French-Canadian ex-open-wheel racers and a few Cup ringers like Edwards, Kyle Busch and Ambrose the race is sure to continue as a strong event, a perfect second summer show to the revived Grand Prix for le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

At the high-banked Atlanta Motor Speedway this past weekend the Sprint Cup series started its thirteen-week run to the end of the season at Homestead-Miami in late November, the weekend before Thanksgiving. At this stage, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are the favorites to win this year's premier NASCAR title.

Nobody else has been consistently as strong as Stewart and Johnson. Jeff Gordon led the points for a while and has hung in there with teammate Johnson but it seems unlikely that he will be able to beat either Stewart or Gordon over the Chase for the Cup's ten-race play-off. Nor does anyone else--Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, etc--look capable of pulling off such a feat. And of course, NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Jr., has had a very unsatisfactory season, never figuring as a potential Chase contender.

As we all know, this has been a tough year for NASCAR with crowds down by a third or more at many races and TV ratings also in decline. NASCAR has its problems but it's still way ahead of any other form of American racing and much of its strength lays in its ladder system and grass roots reach.

Open wheel and road racing will never come close unless IRL, ALMS, Grand-Am, etc. work together to begin to develop a defined, well-promoted and marketed ladder system like NASCAR has manufactured over the years. NASCAR's broad-based ladder system comprises a dozen different championships, all with sponsors, and these grass-roots series bring a massive base of drivers, teams, car and engine builders, sponsors and media to NASCAR. It's a true ladder system in a class of its own.

This year's IRL IndyCar series has been dominated by the Penske and Ganassi teams. With just two races to go the only non-Penske or Ganassi winner has been Justin Wilson at Watkins Glen in July with Dale Coyne's renowned little-guy operation. Ganassi's drivers have led the points through most of the year with defending champion Scott Dixon and new teammate Dario Franchitti winning four races apiece. But Ryan Briscoe has edged ahead of them with three wins and a string of seven second places.

After a couple of unsuccessful years in the IRL series Aussie Briscoe joined Roger Penske's ALMS Porsche LMP2 team in '07 and was promoted last year to Penske's Indy car team. Briscoe won three IRL races last year and finished fifth in the championship but this year he's been Penske's lead driver as Helio Castroneves recovered from his income tax evasion trial. Can Briscoe win his first Indy car title? If he pulls it off it will be Penske's second IRL championship and 13th overall in Indy cars.

Castroneves has had a turbulent year with his trial, anxious acquittal and return to action at Long Beach. Helio then enjoyed a dreamlike month of May qualifying on the pole and winning his third 500. But the rest of the season hasn't gone so well. Castroneves has endured a series of incidents and accidents and often he's not been quite able to match Briscoe. Meantime Penske's new third driver, Will Power, showed his stuff by winning at Edmonton in July only to crash in Sonoma two weeks ago, breaking three vertebra. Power is out for the year, compelled to wear a back brace for the next four months.

As we all know, this has been a tough transitional year for the American Le Mans Series following the pullout of the Audi and Penske/Porsche teams. This year's ALMS had featured the pair of Acura ARX-02a LMP1 cars run by Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports. The Acuras have dominated, dueling among themselves well clear of the rest of the field, but there will be plenty of competition at Road Atlanta's Petit Le Mans at the end of the month. Each of Peugeot, Audi and Oreca have entered two cars which should make for an exciting and interesting race.

ALMS boss Scott Atherton announced last month that his series will combine the P1 and P2 categories next year. Detail changes will be made to minimum weights, air restrictor sizes and fuel capacity to attempt to equalize the P1 and P2 cars. The new Formula Le Mans Oreca spec car will also be permitted to race in the ALMS. Atherton says as many as four Formula Le Mans Orecas may be on the grid next year.

The ALMS's GT2 category has gotten stronger this year with the addition of Rahal-Letterman's BMWs and now the new GT2 Corvettes. Both teams scored their first GT2 wins in August, the BMWs at Elkhart Lake and the new Corvette at Mosport and there's no doubt that Porsche vs Ferrari vs BMW vs Corvette is a pretty good draw.

The Grand-Am series has produced another tight battle with three teams in the thick of the fight. 2007 champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty's Gainsco Riley-Pontiac leads the championship by just five points from Max Angelelli/Brian Friselle aboard Wayne Taylor's Dallara-Ford and defending champions Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas's Ganassi Riley-Lexus, these two teams tied for second at this stage. Two Grand-Am races remain at Miller Motorsports Park in two weeks and Homestead-Miami next month.

In Atlantic, young Swiss lady Simona De Silvestro has led the series all year. De Silvestro has won four races and leads the championship by eight points over John Edwards with Jonathan Summerton another four points back in third. Both Edwards and Summerton have scored three wins and Summerton is said to be a favorite for one of the USF1 seats.

I'm happy to note that this is the 200th ‘The Way It Is’ and it's been invigorating to enjoy an engaged, growing group of readers over the past three and a half years. The sport has many problems these days but it thrives thanks to a large competitor and fan base across a wide range of different categories and persuasions. And despite our miserable record in international racing over the last twenty or more years it's great to see kids like Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi showing what they can do overseas in the best spirit of the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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