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The Way It Is/ It's refreshing to see Derrick Walker's Team Australia racing to win this year

by Gordon Kirby
One of the good things in American open-wheel racing this year is the emergence in Champ Car of Derrick Walker's Team Australia as a race winner with Will Power. When the 26-year old Australian won this year's Champ Car season-opener in Las Vegas it brought an end to an eight-year victory drought for Walker's team. Since then Power has been a frontrunner in most races, leading convincingly in Cleveland and winning his second race of the year in Toronto.

Power was out of luck in Edmonton last weekend, failing to finish after again running at the front. But thanks to a series of good runs by Power and teammate Simon Pagenaud at Mt. Tremblant, Toronto and Edmonton, Team Australia was able to win Champ Car's Canadian Triple Crown trophy. In an age when former CART teams Andretti-Green, Target/Ganassi and Penske dominate the IRL, and Newman/Haas and Forsythe have been equally dominant in Champ Car, it's refreshing to see another team back at the front on a regular basis.

Walker, of course, is a former Penske team manager who has been in business as a team owner for seventeen years. His team's glory years came in 1997, '98 and '99 with Gil de Ferran driving. Because of de Ferran's excellent testing abilities--he was the best test driver by far Honda has encountered in modern times--Walker's team ran Honda's development engines during those years when CART was at its money-generating height for the teams with four engines manufacturers--Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Ford/Cosworth--spending like never before, or since, on development and teams.

Unlike most CART team owners, Walker didn't have any other businesses to supplement his income and I'll always remember how shell-shocked he was in 2001 and 2002 when the team owners were arguing other whether or not to adopt the IRL engine rules and the engine manufacturers were beginning to make it clear they were leaving CART for pastures new. Walker's team was supported by Honda for five years and by Toyota for one, and since those days he's struggled to recreate and rebuild his team.

"Of course, the guy who really put us where we are now is Craig Gore," Walker said. "Without the passion Craig has for Champ Car and the commitment he's made to it we wouldn't be here. Craig and I work together very well and we're very strong as a unit. I'm pretty happy to be in this place at this point in time."

Walker has nothing but good things to say about his drivers Power and Pagenaud. "I think we have the best driver line-up in the field," he declared. "Our two drivers drive very similarly and they push each other and push us. We've got experience with Will in his second year and Simon is a quick study. He gets up to speed very quickly and gives Will a lot of good confirmation and ideas because we try different things on each car.

"A lot of teams don't have that solid combination or at least didn't come out of the box with it. We did. We came out with two guys who were right on the money together and that was really a big help to the team and the engineers."

Walker believes both of his drivers possess the right mix of passion and discipline. "I actually think these are two of the best drivers I've had," he went on. "I haven't had a two-car team for a long time that was as good as these two guys. I like them personally and I like what they do. I think we're going to get just stronger and stronger. My job is to make sure we continue that way.

"I think they're very normal drivers in the sense that they care about what they do," Walker added. "They're very passionate and get upset when it doesn't work and they calm down and focus when they know it's time to do that. I want to see them be with us next year and continue on from there. I've got nothing but praise for them. We've all got our shortcomings but I think collectively working together we are a very strong unit."

Walker's operation is led by team manager Rob Edwards, a longtime Walker employee, plus chief mechanics Les Channen and Neil Brown, and engineers Mike Pawlowski, David Faustino and Brenden Cleave.

"We have a young team in some respects but we also have a good balance between experience and youth," Walker commented. "They do an excellent job. Some of the employees have been with me for a long time so this is a real payback year for them to be running up front and winning races because there have been a lot of years where we haven't. From drivers to engineers to mechanics the team is just a great working unit.

"I'm quite happy with the way things are going and it's good that they're reaping the benefits of it. It's rare that you get everything so good in one year and it all comes together. I couldn't be more happier. We just need to keep getting the results to keep reinforcing that they're doing a good job. The only measurement I know is you've got to get the results to convince everybody and yourself that you're doing a good job."

Walker tips his cap to his team manager Rob Edwards. "My right hand man Rob Edwards is a real anchor of the team," Walker remarked. "He's the centerpoint of the team and Rob, as always, is doing a really good job. He has a tremendous amount of respect within the team and is part of what's pulling the team together."

Team Australia did a good job of quickly getting a handle on Champ Car's new Panoz spec car. "I'm very happy that we came out of the box and figured out the new car pretty quick," Walker said. "Now, everybody else has sort of caught up a little bit, so we need to find some more gains to get ourselves back there and not lose too much momentum. So far, at mid-season, we're not bad, but we've got a bit more to do yet."

Walker adds that a key element in his team's success this year was his engineering team's decision last winter on where to spend their limited development budget. "There's not a bottomless pit when it comes to money," Walker remarked. "So I sat with the engineers and said this is how much money we can spend on development, which was more than last year, and asked them what are the most important things we should do with that money to get a handle on the car. Mike Pawlowski and Dave Faustino came up with a list of what they wanted to do and then they started to execute it and it turned out to be the right approach."

Power has shown great speed and aggression this year. He's a man of few words, unassuming and uncomplicated, but completely committed to life as a race driver. "I knew Sebastien is kind of tenatitve in the wet," Power remarked after winning a messy rain race in Toronto a few weeks ago. "So I attacked. It's all about being aggressive at the right time without hitting anyone."

Team manager Rob Edwards is impressed with the effort Power has put into improving his driving. "He's taken on board each of the areas where Bourdais was better than him," Edwards observed. "And he's applied himself to improving his performance in each of those areas."

Power is confident of having the speed to race to win in all of this year's remaining Champ Car races. "We've been really quick everywhere," he observed. "Portland aside, the car has been pretty much quick out of the box pretty well everywhere we've been. The car is very similar to last year's car. There's not as much you can change but I'm enjoying it.

"Last year you could run different shock absorbers and different diffs but as far as driving the car it's a very similar feeling to the Lola because you're on the same tires with the same engine. There's probably a liitle bit more downforce, but not much. I don't think any of the setups from the Lola transfer over to this car. The Lola was a lot more pitch-sensitive and had a lot more front wing, but driver-wise, it's a very similar driving style. They're the same basically."

Teammate Pagenaud raced his way into Champ Car with Walker's team by winning last year's Atlantic championship and a $2 million bonus to underwrite his rookie Champ Car season. The 23-year old Frenchman has been quick in most races, qualifying on the front row in Cleveland.

"Since the beginning of the season we have been there in qualifying," Pagenaud says proudly. "The average qualifying we had this year is almost exactly the same as Sebastien. So I guess that's pretty good for a rookie.

"The team is working really hard," he added. "We are always trying to improve and we have been leading races and running at, or near the front, and I really think we can have a great season. Maybe we haven't had a lot of luck yet, but we've been quick and it will happen one day. You can't always have bad luck. It's part of racing. You've got to have some hard times to get better."

Pagenaud could not be happier to be pursuing his life's dream and racing a demanding, top-line open-wheel car. "It's so enjoyable to drive such a good car with some really good power," he enthused. "This is the most powerful car I've ever driven and we have some good tracks to race on. I'm having lots of fun and I've never been so happy in my life on every part. And I just hope we will have a good end to the season."

All the Champ Car drivers and teams say this year's Panoz spec car is a little tricky to deal with as conditions change. "It's not an easy car to set up," Pagenaud commented. "I'm quite surprised how much the car changes from track to track. The car changes a lot with the weather and track conditions. You really have to do a new setup for each track and make sure it's going to suit your driving style, but I think we're getting there.

"We have some quite good knowledge about the car now," added the French rookie. "We know what to change to make it better or make it like I want it. I really like having a very responsive car which was not the case at the beginning of the season. But the whole team has been very responsive to what I need."

Walker worries about keeping his team's momentum going through the end of the season. "As you know, in every championship, results count, but momentum is key," Walker observed. "For whatever reason, it doesn't take long to lose momentum and that happened to us for a few races before Toronto and even during the weekend in Toronto. The train leaves the station without you very quickly in this business.

"We always say that what we do as a team in racing has a shelf life of about a day, if you're lucky," he added. "It has almost no value tomorrow because you've got to do it all again. You've got to keep chasing it, which is part of the fascination of racing. It is an endless pursuit of excellence."

I wish Walker and his team the best of luck. He's one of the few CART team owners who remained faithful to Champ Car and has hung in there through some very difficult times. And of course, you've read Walker's comments recently, here and elsewhere, about his worries over the lack of a plan, or leadership, in open-wheel racing.

Like many of us, Walker is hoping against hope that some real leadership emerges from American open-wheel racing's murky soup so that he and his team can continue to operate into the future as a professional entity and not have to try to make a move to NASCAR. This is the bottom line Walker shares today with every other IRL and Champ Car team owner.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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