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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/ Champ Car in the streets of Las Vegas

by Gordon Kirby
It wasn't much of a race as many teams ran into refuelling or electrical or gearbox problems with the brand new Panoz DP01 spec car, but it was great to see Will Power score his first Champ Car victory in Las Vegas on Sunday. The 26-year old Australian--last season's Champ Car rookie-of-the-year--drove an almost perfect race, winning from the pole after an early battle with Paul Tracy as Power showed he will be a serious championship threat this year. It was also nice to see Derrick Walker's outfit--Team Australia as it's now known--get its first win in eight years since Gil de Ferran won at Portland in 1999, and to do it on Walker's birthday.

Also impressing was 25-year old Dutch rookie Robert Doornbos who finished second for Minardi Team USA. An F1 test driver for the Red Bull team, Doornbos qualified an excellent third and drove a very good race to beat Paul Tracy into second after Tracy ran into refuelling trouble.

The other winners from the weekend were promoters Dale Jensen and Jim Freudenberg and Champ Car's street track construction manager Chris Kneifel who produced the best new street circuit since Surfers Paradise made its debut back in 1990. The track surrounds Las Vegas's traditional Strip and is the longest, fastest street track in the United States constructed from top quality walls and fences with plenty of run-off in most corners. The Vegas track is a vast improvement on the narrow, bumpy street tracks we've seen recently in places like San Jose and Houston.

Las Vegas resident Paul Tracy was effusive in his praise of the new 2.4-mile street circuit. "This a first class facility and it's an awesome feeling to be right here, downtown," Tracy commented. "It's a very fast and technical track and there are some places to pass. You carry a lot of speed and the corners are quite a bit quicker than many of the traditional street tracks that we go to. It's kind of like a combination of a road course with some fairly quick corners and some tight, traditional street track corners. It's a very quick track and obviously it's a lot of fun to drive. I think it's one of the best temporary tracks I've ever raced on."

Three-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, who is quick to criticize if he believes any aspect of the sport is not up to par, was as positive as Tracy about the Vegas track. "We've got ninety degree corners and you've got serious, proper run-off where if you have a brake failure, you're in much better shape," Bourdais observed. "I think it's new standard for safety in street circuits in Champ Car and it's a long one, too, so it's really got it all. Between the length of the track and the width and the run-off and the grip, it's going to be a first-class track all-round."

Tracy said he was very skeptical when he first heard about promoter Jensen's plan to run a street race in downtown Vegas. "When they first said they were going to have a race in downtown, I said, Man, there's no way you could have a race down there. The roads are so rough, you can hardly drive a nice car on them. But the city got behind the race. They made the track beautifully smooth. We had one small issue with a bump on the track and they came in and worked all night and fixed it. We had a problem with the track and they didn't just try to band-aid to fix it. They tore the whole intersection out and repaved it and that's great.

"A lot of the tracks we go to, the city wants to have a race, but they don't want to give up too many streets," Tracy added. "They want to limit it to an area where there's not a lot of traffic. A lot of the tracks we go to are compromised tracks. They're in parking lots or on streets that aren't used and they make the tracks short. Most of the street tracks are a mile and a half to 1.7 miles, which is a fairly short lap for these cars. Other than Australia, this is the longest street track we've ever raced on and they've done a perfect job."

Tracy made the point that access for the teams and fans must be improved next year. "Talking to a lot of friends here, there are no complaints about anything except it's a very long walk to get back and forth from between the hotels on Fremont Street to the pit area and the lines for the shuttle bus were very long. I would say that's probably the only thing that I heard people complain about."

For Power the race was a perfect way to begin pursuing his goal of winning this year's Champ Car title. "This is the first of a long marathon because we really want to win this championship," Power remarked. "It was a pretty cruisey race, really. We had a good car. It handled well all day. The only issue I had was a really long brake pedal at the end of the race. But we had an 18-second lead, so we just brought it home and brought Derrick Walker his second win since '99 and it's his birthday. So a pole and a win, I think that's a pretty good present for him."

"It was just one of those days when you've got a good car and if you just do a good job and get all the pit stops--we did actually have a bit of a moment in one of the stops. I knocked the right-hand guy over because the brake pedal was so long, it just locked up. We lost a fair bit of time there. It still wasn't an issue."

Power explained what occured during his pit incident. "The brake pedal became really long. I went to hit it and it just went to the floor and locked the wheels up. I went in on an angle, hit the guy on the front right and knocked him over. Then it was really hard to get fuel in and it was hard to get that front tire off. We probably went ten seconds longer than normal."

The final laps were the longest for Power. "The toughest part of the race was probably the end when the brake pedal was getting long. You just want it to end. (Derrick) kept saying, '15 laps to go. There's no one pressuring you.There's no one to attack.' You're just sort of cruising around hoping nothing is going to go wrong."

Power is a quiet fellow, a man of few words who is clearly on a mission. "I set my mind for three races," he commented. "I'm not really celebrating heaps because it's the start of the championship. I'm not going to go out and celebrate tonight or anything. I just want a good night's sleep and focus on Long Beach, because I want to go there and do the same thing. You don't want to have a big high and then have a big downer. I'm just going to keep on going about it. It's great for the team. We're going for the championship. We just got to keep doing same thing every weekend."

Champ Car's teams continue to thrash with the new Panoz. Power's teammate Simon Pagenaud encountered a leaking fuel cell in the raceday morning warm-up and everyone had trouble with the DP01's refuelling hardware which arrived last Wednesday for installlation in the Las Vegas garage area. There were also quite a few electrical problems and failed coils. But it was also far from the horror show many people expected.

"I think it's like any new car," Tracy observed. "I've been in the series long enough to know we went through a stage where we ran the same car for six or seven years, and everything was dialed-in on them. The cars handled perfectly. They rolled off the trailer with the thing perfect all the time because you knew all the numbers on it.

"But back in '99, '98, '97, we had a new car every year and we'd have these niggling problems every year. You would have a gearbox issue. You would have this problem, wheel bearing problems, all kinds of things that you'd have to work your way through. So that's part and parcel with working with a brand-new car. I think the racing is good. Obviously we've been able to get our car figured out for the most part mechanically. It's just today our fuel rig didn't want to put the fuel in the car. That's just one of those things that we need to work on."

Power was equally upbeat about the DP01. "I think this car is a lot quicker than last year's car," Power said. "It's got a lot more downforce. Like Paul said, there's always little niggling problems but, all in all, it's pretty good. It's surprising how little problems there are. I think after the first three races for the rest of the season I'd be surprised if anyone has any problems. I really enjoy driving it. It's a really nicely-balanced car when you get it set up. I think Panoz did a real good job with a one-make series."

Tracy said he believes the DP01's aerodynamic package has also made it possible to race a little closer as theorized. "I think it's great, the bigger tunnels in the car," Paul commented. "With the Lola on a track like this where the corners are all kind of medium speed and aerodynamics are important, I don't think you could run as closely as Will and I ran together in the beginning of the race without really destroying your tires and disturbing the car a lot.

"When Will made the pass on me we came out of the tunnel and through a fifth-gear 160 mph, blind sweeper corner that's pretty tough to do flat when you're in front. He was tucked right up behind my gearbox and that's the benefit of having the ground effects--the tunnel--doing the work instead of all the wings. I think it's created much better racing."

Here's hoping all this optimism is well-founded and Long Beach next weekend will bring us a better race. And of course, expect Bourdais and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing to bounce back and recover from last week's uncharacteristically fraught weekend in Las Vegas.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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