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The Way It Is/ Some assessments and a few forecasts as racing's mid-season championship battles rage on

by Gordon Kirby
We're now into the second half of the racing season and the championship battles are boiling along in all the major series. In Formula One, it's a question of whether defending champions Fernando Alonso, Renault and Michelin can resist the resurgent Michael Schumacher/Ferrari/Bridgestone combination. In NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson and his Jeff Gordon/Hendrick Chevrolet team have been the stars of the season, setting the championship pace all the way and winning the series' two biggest races--the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. So far, Matt Kenseth's Roush Ford is Johnson's strongest challenger but the nature of NASCAR's championship chase play-off means any number of drivers have a chance of winning the title.

American open-wheel racing has been dominated by Penske Racing in the IRL with Sam Hornish and Helio Castro-Neves and Newman/Haas in Champ Car where Sebastien Bourdais looks likely to take his third consecutive Vanderbilt Cup title despite challenges from Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger. But there's plenty to play for before anything is resolved in any of these series.

At the beginning of the year it looked as if Alonso and Renault were going to run away with the world championship as the young Spaniard won two of the first three F1 races and finished second to teammate Giancarlo Fisichella in the other. But then Schumacher, Ferrari and Bridgestone began to make ground on Alonso and with six races to go the seven-time champion is only ten points behind. A mere four points separate Renault and Ferrari in the constructors championship and at this stage it looks like being a furious battle down to the wire in Brazil in October.

Neither of the two championship contenders needs another race like the last in Hungary, where neither made the finish although Schumacher was lucky to salvage a single point from the race after rookie Robert Kubica's underweight BMW-Sauber was disqualified. Still, both Alonso and Schumacher drove superbly in the rain and mixed conditions in Budapest. Both men started two-thirds of the way down the grid because of penalties during qualifying, but shot through the field and quickly moved to the front.

Alonso turned out to be in a class of his own on Michelin's untested wet tires and had the race won until hitting trouble with a rear wheel on his last pitstop. Based on Alonso's performance in Hungary, it's hard to imagine Schumacher beating Alonso to the title but the German certainly is capable of doing it. An important factor in all this will be how the battle between the tire companies plays out before the FIA puts an end to tire competition with the introduction of a spec tire from Bridgestone in '07.

So far this year, Felipe Massa has done a better job than Giancarlo Fisichella in playing the role of dutiful number two to his team leader. Fisichella won from the pole in Malaysia early in the season, but most of the time he's been disappointing and hasn't served as much of a back-up for Alonso. With six races to go Massa is a distant third in points, just ahead of Fisichella and Kimi Raikonnen who are tied in fourth place.

Once again, Raikonnen and McLaren-Mercedes have been a disappointment this year as driver and team have not been able to produce either the speed or finishing record to seriously threaten Alonso or Schumacher. Test driver Pedro de la Rosa came through with a good second place finish for McLaren in Hungary and it will be interesting to see if the team can make any impression over the final stages of the season.

Next year, of course, Alonso moves from Renault to McLaren. Many people ask whether Alonso has made a terrible career move but his personality and thorough commitment to the job might be just the elements needed to turn McLaren around. The key factor surely, will be Mercedes's ability to produce competitive and reliable engines.

Then of course, there's Raikkonen's move to Ferrari for '07. How will his personality fit in with the fabled Italian team and will he be able to provide the kind of leadership and commitment that's been there for so many years from Schumacher. And indeed, what will Schumacher do? Will he continue, or retire?

Winner of the last F1 race in Hungary after each of Alonso, Schumacher and Raikkonen failed to make the finish was Brit Jenson Button who drove a very good race, competitive all the way, and didn't make any mistakes. It was of course, Button's first F1 victory after 114 starts, and the first win also for Honda's F1 team which began life seven years ago as BAR. The team has gone through plenty of turmoil over the years, including the firing a few months ago of chief designer Geoff Willis, but the Hondas have looked good in recent races. Button's teammate Rubens Barrichello finished fourth in Hungary and many people believe the experienced Brazilian has had a useful effect on the team.

Nobody else in F1 has shown much or produced much in the way of results. Williams-Cosworth have been quick on occasion but disappointingly short of results. BMW has made some progress this year, cuminating in Nick Heidfeld's podium in Hungary, but Toyota, F1's big-buck team, continues to wander aimlessly in the mid and backfield. Toyota still has a long way to go if it's going to justify the cubic dollars spent over the years past and those to come. In most other forms of racing in which it has competed Toyota has been able to out-spend and drive out the competition, but this may not turn out to be the case in Formula One.

And Scott Speed? The kid has matured as a driver. He looks comfortable in his surroundings and in the car and has produced some useful results. It looks like Speed's nationality will keep him in business next year with Scuderia Toro Rosso but the time has come for Speed to reach down and make something happen, or settle in as F1's token, backfield American.

Four races remain before NASCAR's Chase for the Championship kicks off in New Hampshire next month and Jimmie Johnson certainly has established himself as the man to beat. The 30-year old Californian is in his fifth full season in NASCAR's Cup series and has won twenty-two races in that time, more than anyone else over the same span, including Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. This year Johnson and his crew, led by the sometimes controversial Chad Knaus, appear to be operating at the top of their game.

Once again, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth is Jack Roush and Ford's strongest player. The taciturn Kenseth, 34, is a relentless racer and with Roush's cars and team he's capable of stealing the title again. Also expected to make the Chase are Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick with Richard Childress's revitalized Chevrolet team, Kyle Busch with Hendrick, Mark Martin with Roush and Kevin Hamlin with Joe Gibbs. At this stage, four races before the top ten are culled for the Chase, each of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, defending champion Tony Stewart, and NASCAR's most famous driver Dale Earnhardt Jr, are fighting to hang in there inside the top ten in points with Kasey Kahne the first non-qualiier in eleventh.

So it looks like three Hendrick Chevrolets, two Roush Fords, two Childress Chevrolets, two Gibbs Chevies and one DEI Chevy will make the Chase. Among this group, you'd have to say that Stewart or Gordon are the most likely to challenge Johnson for the title. Mark Martin remains many people's sentimental favorite while young Hamlin may be capable of springing a surprise.

Kasey Kahne has four wins, as many as Johnson, aboard one of Ray Evernham's Dodges, but is eleventh in points right now. Kahne, 26, has established himself as one of the best of NASCAR's new stars and ran in the top ten in points for much of the season. Also out of the Chase are both of Roger Penske's drivers Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Nor does Chip Ganassi have a driver in the Chase and ditto for old-timers like Robert Yates and the Wood Brothers.

And following the news about Juan Montoya quitting F1 in favor of NASCAR with Ganassi we await news of Jacques Villeneuve's NASCAR plans. Frozen out after ten years in F1, Villeneuve and his manager Craig Pollock are attempting to negotiate a deal for Jacques to race in NASCAR. It may well be that Villeneuve will start his stock car career in the second division Busch series, ostensibly to learn his new trade, but also to provide a big boost for Normand Legault's first NASCAR race at Le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

NASCAR is deadly serious about developing some races in Canada and extending their reach into the Canadian market. If Legault can put the right deal together to launch NASCAR in Canada the folks from Daytona are said to be prepared to invest in Legault's longterm lease for the use of the facility. All this means the timing is perfect for Villeneuve to make the move to stock cars. I've known Jacques for quite a while and like him a great deal, but I'm not sure he knows exactly what he's jumping into. Here's wishing him the best of luck!

In Champ Car, Sebastien Bourdais has won five of ten races run so far but after a comparatively poor race in Denver last weekend culminating in a last lap crash with Paul Tracy, the Frenchman is looking over his shoulder at an advancing A.J. Allmendinger. Bourdais is a superb driver, ridiculously spurned by F1, and with Newman/Haas he has been the man to beat the past three years. If the Frenchman pulls off his third consecutive championship this year he will go down in history and equal Ted Horne's rare achievement from nearly sixty years ago, but he's got Allmendinger and Forsythe to worry about.

Allmendinger has enjoyed a Cinderella season since he was fired by RuSPORT and hired by Forsythe two months ago. He's won four races with Forsythe and pulled himself to within 32 points of Bourdais whose only other challenger is Justin Wilson with RuSPORT. A poor race in Denver didn't help Wilson's chances but he's not to be discounted. RuSPORT should announce this week who will replace the injured Cristiano da Matta in the team's other car. Leading choices are Ryan Hunter-Reay, Patrick Carpentier and Michel Jourdain.

Meanwhile, Tracy has been feeling the heat from Allmendinger's searing pace. At 37, Tracy is entering a new phase of his career with a new, five-year contract with Forsythe and it will be interesting to see how the slowly aging Tracy adjusts and performs in the years to come as he approaches his fortieth birthday. He showed the level of his motivation by switching in Denver last weekend to left-foot braking after Allmendinger's data demonstrated that the technique was faster. Tracy then typically threw some excitement into the race by spinning on the opening lap, driving through the field, then crashing out Bourdais on the last lap while trying to regain second place from the Frenchman.

Nobody else has made much of a mark in Champ Car this year. The most impressive of the rest have been CTE-HVM Racing's Nelson Philippe and Dan Clarke, both showing impressive bursts of speed in some races. Andrew Ranger and Mario Dominguez have also done well to wring speed and results out of tightly-budgeted machinery. Ranger, still only nineteen years old let's not forget, has kept himself well-placed in the points all year.

Champ Car's revitalized Mazda/Cosworth Atlantic series has been a pleasure to watch this year with full, competitive fields and plenty of talented, young guys giving their best. French rookie Simon Pagenaud, a protege of Bourdais, leads the championship with two races to go. Pagenaud, 22, has been competitive everywhere and finished third in Denver last weekend so that he currently leads the championship by sixteen points.

The most impressive Atlantic driver this year is Bobby Rahal's seventeen-year old son Graham who has demonstrated speed, poise, aggression and maturity by taking four poles and winning four races, more than anyone else. Rahal will test a Newman/Haas Lola Champ car in September and looks likely to be offered a ride with the team for next year. German Andreas Wirth, 21, has won two races and is only a few points behind Rahal. Others who've looked good this year include, Brazilian Raphael Matos and American Jonathan Bomarito.

Roger Penske's team has dominated the IRL this year with Sam Hornish and Helio Castroneves. On an equal footing with everyone else this year--all Honda-powered--Penske's cars have been the ones to beat in most races. Hornish finally got his first win at Indianapolis this year and he and Castroneves have combined to win eight of twelve races run so far and are one-two in points with two races to go.

There's no question that Hornish is a very good oval racer, but he's been less impressive in the IRL's few road/street races. It would be great for the sport to see how good Hornish really is by testing him on all types of tracks against Bourdais, Tracy, Wilson, Allmendinger, et al. and until that happens, Hornish will remain an unquantifiable element of Tony George's dystopian vision.

Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon with Chip Ganassi's team have been able to keep championship pressure on Penske's pair. Wheldon probably is the IRL's most impressive, most aggressive driver who also should be racing against Bourdais, et al. Vitor Meira also has done a great job this year in the IRL with the Panther team. Meira is a good tester and good racer and is a solid fifth in points with two races to go. He's done a great job to out-point all of Andretti-Green's fleet of four drivers and Bobby Rahal's trio of cars.

At this point, AGR's Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Dario Franchitti are sixth, seventh and eighth in points ahead of Tomas Scheckter and Danica Patrick. It's been a disappointing year overall for AGR while Patrick has had another steady but unspectacular year. Patrick and her supporters hope her move to Andretti-Green for next year will re-ignite the spark and gain her that elusive first win.

In sports car racing the Audi R10 turbo diesel, winner at Sebring and Le Mans, is all the rage, even though the car races rarely. The ALMS series also takes pride in this year's arrival of Penske's LMP2 Porsches to be joined next year by Honda under the Acura brand with teams from Andretti-Green, Adrian Fernandez and Highcroft Racing (owned by historic and sports car racer Duncan Dayton and Danny Sullivan)

Jimmy France's GrandAm series plugs along, growing steadily with full fields but few fans. Even name drivers like Scott Pruett and Max Papis and teams like Chip Ganassi's have done little to raise much interest in the series, but France's commitment means the GrandAm will be around for many years to come. Of course, sports car racing needs a pair of dueling series even less than open-wheel racing, but like the Champ Car/IRL split there seems little if any chance of a cessation in hostilities.

In drag racing Doug Kalitta and Melanie Troxel are fighting for the NHRA's top fuel title while Ron Capps and John Force are duelling for the funny car championship. Meanwhile, the IRL season comes to a close in the middle of September but everyone else runs much later into the fall. F1 and Champ Car don't finish their seasons until late October while, as ever, the NHRA and NASCAR keep racing until just before Thanksgiving. There's plenty of rubber yet to burn this year.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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