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The Way It Is/ Champ Car's new era arrives next weekend in downtown Las Vegas

by Gordon Kirby
Champ Car kicks-off its new era in Las Vegas next weekend with its Panoz DP01 'spec' car. The teams have pulled together a field of eighteen cars, led by three-time champion Sebastien Bourdais who will be partnered this year at the renamed Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing by exciting, eighteen-year old rookie Graham Rahal. Other top contenders include 2003 champion Paul Tracy and Mario Dominguez with Forsythe Racing, rapid Brit Justin Wilson and veteran Alex Tagliani with the merged and renamed RSPORT team, last year's rookie of the year Will Power and Atlantic champion Simon Pagenaud with Derrick Walker's Team Australia, and talented Swiss rookie Neel Jani with PKV Racing.

Half of this year's Champ Car field are rookies but none of them are slouches. In fact, the overall level of driving talent looks pretty strong while the new Panoz is quick and by all accounts a pleasure to drive. All the teams and drivers expect the field to be very close and believe the new car has achieved, to some degree at least, a levelling of the playing field.

But everyone also knows Champ Car faces a tough road to success. The series has lost so much traction and market credibility and enjoys precious little national media recognition or coverage so that it's very difficult for the teams to sell sponsors. Champ Car's big hope is its latest, longterm TV deal with ABC/ESPN which the series bosses hope will bring much better ratings and recognition than in recent years when the series was telecast first on Spike TV, then primarily on Speed with an agglommeration of some races on CBS and NBC. But it's going to be an uphill push for Champ Car to pull ratings when it's so unknown and unrecognized in America and has fewer name drivers and less identifiability than even Tony George's rival IRL series on the same network.

The immediate challenge for Champ Car however, is to put on a trio of reliable and competitive, back-to-back-to-back street races in Las Vegas, Long Beach and Houston over the next three weeks. The trio of street races is sure to be a test both for the teams and for Panoz who have to produce all the components and pieces required to get a representative number of cars to the checkered flag in each race.

Building and then developing the fleet of DP01s into reliable and raceable cars has been a monumental task. The work list continued as the teams loaded up and headed out to Las Vegas for the season-opener. Last week, for example, everyone's reworked underbodies had been shipped back to them from Panoz, but all the teams were still awaiting the arrival of their refuelling hardware and systems. "It's bad, but it's not a disaster," said team owner Derrick Walker. "I've seen worse, and we'll make it happen. That's what we do."

Forsythe Racing's veteran team boss Neil Micklewright worked for Ensign, Hesketh and Lotus F1 teams in his formative days where he learned about applying creative ideas in practical and effective ways. Micklewright has lived and worked in the United States the past twenty-three years, starting with the Bignotti-Cotter CART team, then joining Doug Shierson Racing where he rose to become team manager. He joined Jerry Forsythe's team in 1994 as vice-president of operations and continues thirteen years later in the same role. Micklewright is pleased to see that all the basic elements of the new Panoz Champ car are in good order so that the DP01 is capable of producing record-setting lap times as it did at Laguna Seca last month.

"The car is instantly quick," Micklewright said. "That part is very good. There's no problem with the basic package. The balance is there and it's a pretty good car. It's clearly quicker than the Lola by a not insubstantial amount. It seems as though we're becoming more and more reliable as the first race rushes up to us. So hopefully, it'll be a good weekend."

Micklewright is satisfied with the progress made at Panoz in curing the various reliability and detail problems that were revealed in Champ Car's three official winter tests at Sebring, MSR Houston and Laguna Seca.

"They seem to be getting on top of some of the niggling issues we had in the first couple of tests, bit by bit," he said. "Certainly, as they're finding those they seem to be addressing them in a fairly forthright and timely manner. Some other people may not feel the same way, but that's a given.

"I think they've got some work to do on the steering geometry," Micklewright added. "Even our big boy [Paul Tracy] is getting worn out in a day because the steering's a bit heavy.

"But it seems to be fairly strong and stout. And the big thing is that tests you try on the car are repeatable, which tends to give you a good idea of the overall integrity of the car and chassis. In the old days, with the Marches for example, every time you tried something you got a different reading."

Newman/Haas's general manager Brian Lisles started his career with the Tyrrell F1 team thirty years ago and has worked for Newman/Haas since 1989. Lisles knows a lot about building and developing race cars and has been a leading critic of the Panoz 'spec car' program. He says given the severe limits on testing and development placed on Champ Car's teams under the Panoz concept, the DP01 is nowhere near as well-prepared for the start of the season as previous Champ cars.

"Had the car been delivered to us ten years ago under the rules that were in operation at that time where we could test and develop as much as we liked, I would say it would be a very satisfactory starting point," Lisles commented. "But it hasn't been delivered under those circumstances. It's been delivered under circumstances of a spec car where the teams effectively are prevented from fixing a number of problems on the car because you're not allowed to alter parts.

"Again, the car as delivered is a perfectly satisfactory customer car," Lisles continued. "But it has problems, and just because we at Newman/Haas have a problem with something doesn't mean that Panoz are going to rush off and fix it and produce however many sets they need to produce to give it to everybody. They're going to wait until everybody has the problem and as quite a few of the cars haven't completed many miles, some of the problems have not become apparent across the grid because a number of cars aren't going quickly enough to encounter the problem."

According to Lisles, everyone at Newman/Haas is feeling frustrated that they are no longer masters of their own fate. "Our biggest worry is reliability," he remarked. "We have had some reliability problems and we don't know if we're going to get the pieces which will bring the car to the kind of reliability that you need to win races and have a shot at the championship. When you have something that you think is marginal and you are not allowed to fix it and then it takes you out of a race and maybe a championship, that is extremely frustrating. So our biggest concern is that our reliability will be hostage to something that's out of our control.

"We still have issues," Lisles added. "There is no substantial proof that what we ended up with when we finished testing at Laguna is actually a longterm viable, reliable solution to some of these problems."

Micklewright agrees with Lisles in general terms, but is less critical about Panoz's reponse to fixing the DP01's development problems. "It's not as easy to work on in some ways as the Lola was," Micklewright commented. "But there are areas we can improve on as long as we get permission from Champ Car to do those things. Some of it is the guys getting used to a new way of doing things and new systems and so forth. But certainly some of the things I anticipated being big issues have turned out not to be and some of the things I didn't think would be an issue have been. I think that's to be expected, to a certain degree, with any new racing car.

"There are some areas here and there that could have been thought through a little better," Micklewright added. "We're looking at those areas with the experience of running the same car for five or six years. But I think for a car that was designed, built and put together in a very short space of time, it's pretty good. It's going to evolve. I would say it's ninety-five percent there. Some of the other five percent is going to have to come from the teams and some of it is going to have to come from Panoz."

Most team bosses agree that Champ Car didn't push the prototype DP01 hard enough in initial testing last summer. They believe some of the problems encountered in recent winter testing could have been fixed earlier by doing more performance testing with the prototype.

"I'm not sure the amount of development they did with the car prior to pulling the trigger for the mass production was an awful lot of benefit," Micklewright said. "I don't think they beat on it hard enough. They didn't give it enough performance testing. It's like anything else. You can develop it until you're blue in the face, but until you actually use it an anger and thrash on it you don't find some of the things that are going to be issues."

All the teams are in constant dialogue with Champ Car's technical chiefs Scot Elkins and Tony Cotman as everyone tries to use their skill and experience to make the car as bullet-proof as possible going into the first three races. But Lisles points out that race teams and car manufacturers have very different and often conflicting priorities.

"Typically with a race team, as soon as you have a problem you make the basic assumption that if you have it once, it can occur again at anytime," Lisles said. "So you go ahead and fix it. You don't wait for it to occur again to prove that statistically you have a one-in-four chance of it happening. If it happens once, you assume it's going to happen again, unless there's some clear and obvious reasons why it happened and it won't happen again.

"But this is always the problem of any series where you have these shared, common value items, particularly where fixing the problem may cost somebody a lot of money who really isn't affected if the problem occurs every now and again. To us, one failed gearshift could cost us a race. To a supplier, it's just a failed gearshift.

"So we have very different priorities," Lisles continued. "And it's been extremely frustrating to have to stand by when it's pretty clear that things needed to be done with gearshifts that don't shift fast enough, failures in the shifting hardware, and very slow response on the software. We would have had programs written back in the shop and fixed it ourselves. But now, we're just completely living on blind faith that somebody's going to turn up and give us stuff that's going to work.

"It can be extremely frustrating when we know there's a better solution, or one that actually could be a lot less expensive. In several cases we've been stuck with solutions which are actually going to potentially cost us a lot of money when a decision made in a slightly different way would have been much more straightforward and cost effective.

"We all understand the reasons for the concept of the spec car," Lisles added. "But I think they could have made it a lot easier and better for everybody without changing the cost effectiveness of what they're trying to do."

Lisles debunked theories that the new Panoz was going to drive down budgets. He reports that Newman/Haas will spend $2 million more this year than last. "The unfortunate result of the whole program that we find ourselves in is that our budget this year is hugely more than last year because, A, we have to buy cars, and B, although we're not buying a lot of spare parts we have to have a few spares on hand and of course, we can't use any of the old Lola spare parts. C, the rules were written so that the data system we used last year is not legal this year and the new data system is massively expensive. And then D, they made us buy new dampers [shock absorbers] and clutches as well. So our budget for this year is more than $2 million than last year!"

And Lisles is convinced that the restrictive spec-car concept will result sooner or later in an outbreak of NASCAR-style cheating in Champ Car. "Basically, they're putting the squeeze on creativity in certain areas," he complained. "Obviously, we're working hard on the areas we're allowed to work on. But even all that is subject to the thinking that, yes, this is free, but you can only use these components. They'll let you clean it and polish it, but you can't change the shape. So I think there are going to be some difficult times ahead as the teams work harder and harder to get the best out of what they have."

Lisles also believes Champ Car is seriously understaffed and draws a comparison in this regard with NASCAR. "One of the problems is there have been so many questions put to Champ Car regarding rule interpretation and the use of parts," Lisles observed. "Our team alone must have averaged one question a working day since we got our first car. I think to a degree it's overwhelmed that part of Champ Car, as you can imagine. If you look at another national spec series that is actually less spec than our series, which is Cup or Busch racing, and you look at the number of engineers working for the sanctioning body compared to the number that Champ Car has, you can see there's a big difference.

"The work load and pressures on the guys at Champ Car are huge. If you have a vast amount of work to do you can't give it as much thought and time as some of the questions maybe deserve and you make decisions without necessarily researching it as much as you would like to."

Micklewright says the fact that the DP01 is a 'spec car' shouldn't devalue the level of engineering that's gone into the car and will also be required to get the best out of it.

"I don't think I'd say it's a return to basics," he said. "It's certainly quite an involved car as far as the geometries and the aero package and so on. It's right up there on the cutting edge. I think the difference now is our inabilty to fine-tune beyond a certain point.

"Any car we've raced in the past has been fairly well-evolved and you had much more open opportunities to change things around. So I think one of the tasks that's there for all of the teams is, first of all, to fully identify the areas that need to be addressed, but more so the areas that can be addressed and to find the best compromises given those constraints.

"Anybody who might think it's a dumbed-down or brainless piece just because they're all the same is missing the point. We all have the same equipment, but it's equipment of a very high degree of sophistication."

Micklewright believes it will be difficult for the likes of Newman/Haas and Forsythe to be able to find much advantage over the less well-resourced teams.

"At this point, it's certainly had a levelling effect on the playing field," Micklewright observed. "I think there are gains to be made, here and there. What size those gains might be is a bit of a question. I think for the most part we'll see the grid line up pretty much the way it always does, whether it be driver talent or engineering support and resources available to the teams. But I think the gap between the quickest and the slowest is going to be significantly closer than it has been in the past. It really will be a case of getting the last thousandth out of it."

Lisles takes confidence for the future from Champ Car's new TV package. "Potentially in the longterm, and hopefully there is a longterm, the reorganization of the TV is a terrific step forwards," Lisles said. "I applaud the series owners for getting that done and getting it done relatively early compared to recent history and getting it done for a number of years. Unfortunately, it will take time for that to be something the teams can use to raise sponsorship because the reality is we need to have more people watching us to sell the kind of sponsorship we really need to run these cars.

"Obviously, being on network TV guarantees you a minimum audience that is much larger than a less than premium cable network. But we need more than that to justify the numbers we need from sponsors and it will take time to build that audience."

Lisles is a great believer in big prize money serving as a lure to drivers, teams, fans and sponsors as it does in NASCAR and used to at CART's height and in the heydays of the the Indy 500. He believes multi-million dollar purses are what's really required to revitalize Champ Car.

"I don't know how much the series owners have spent," Lisles remarked. "But I'm not sure that it would have been more cost-effective for them to have put that entire amount of money into a prize fund and just let market forces do the rest for them. If there was a million dollars to win every race and $10 million to win the championship, we'd have so many cars on the grid it wouldn't be true, and you'd get a huge amount of publicity. Sport is supposed to be about man on man, but the fact of the matter is as soon as you put big money on the line you get a lot more headlines and fan interest.

"We saw that happen in the Atlantic series. The reason they had such a big grid last year was not because it's such a wonderful series but because there's a $2 million carrot hanging there as a way to move up."

Finally, Lisles and the entire Newman/Haas/Lanigan team are motivated this year not only to go after their fourth consecutive championship with Bourdais but also to produce a strong rookie season for Graham Rahal. Young Rahal's deal to drive for the team has taken all winter and more to put together, another indicator of Champ Car's lack of sales power. Despite the poor commercial situation, the team has enjoyed working with their latest rookie over the winter and every one of them is eagerly looking forward to going racing.

"I have to keep reminding myself that Graham has only just turned eighteen," Lisles said. "When we first tested him we had to be very careful in our assessment because not only was he very young but his experience was also pretty small. We're used to testing new drivers who typically come from Formula 3000 or GP2 and usually have raced for two or three years at that level and are very accomplished with that kind of performance level. Many of them have been Formula One test drivers as well, so they have a lot of experience.

"Graham had none of that behind him and it's a big jump from an Atlantic car to a Champ car, so we had to make accomodation for that. For Graham, it's a huge opportunity because he's able to compare himself to somebody who is as good as it gets within the series and that has certainly accelerated his learning process. But he has responded very well. Everything we've asked him to do, he's responded and done it for us.

"It will be very interesting when we actually go racing to see how he handles it. We're very, very pleased with him, and he's a very nice young man. He's a credit to his mother and father."

In many ways, as one of only two Americans in this year's field, young Rahal is Champ Car's great white hope. Let's hope Lisles is wrong in many of his more pessimistic assessments so that Champ Car's teams can get down to racing and the world can begin to find out how good drivers like Rahal, Jani, Power and Pagenaud really are. But either way, Champ Car faces a steep, uphill battle.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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