Monday, March 31, 2008

All the Stars?

Ok, I realize it’s just one race and that we’ll probably spend a large portion of the upcoming season debating the ex-Champ Car team’s struggling to come to grips with their new environs… But I have a major problem with the IRL’s new punch-line. (Careful buddy, you better not say those words around some ‘Ol coot named AJ, eh?)

Although I know he’s in the twilight of his Open Wheel Racing career… You simply CANNOT say you’ve got ALL the Stars without CCWS’s biggest (mouth) name Paul “Chrome Horn” Tracy who’s currently ice fishing Up North, eh? Not to mention the talented “Bad Bobby D” (Robert Doornbos) and “TAG: (Alex Tagliani) nowhere in sight… Nor the LOSS of Simon Pagenaud, Jan “Van Hagar” Heylend and Derrick Walker!

Nevertheless, let’s take a quick look at who’s made the transition to the Indy Car World Series, as well as the entire “Rookie” class of 2009, since I’ve not heard of some of these new up ‘N comers.

Interestingly, the Champ Car refugees did exactly what was predicted of them, as they all qualified in the same zip code; mid-pack from 13th to 21st, being split only by the perky Milka Duno!

Two New Veterans

Team/Car No./Driver/Starting position/4 lap Avg.)
Dale Coyne Racing
18 Bruno Junqueira (20; 207.434mph)

Although most of us have heard of Bruno “Whiney Bags” Junqueira, it’s somewhat sad how far down the ladder “Junky” has slipped. Having originally begun in CART alongside Nicolas Minassian as The Cheepster’s compensation for letting Juan Pablo Montoya transfer to Williams Grand Prix in 2001, while Bruno having missed out on a Williams F1 drive to Jenson Button in 2000 rebounded by winning that season’s F3000 International championship, (forerunner of GP2) Junqueira then transferred to Target Chip Ganassi Racing and scored his maiden CART victory in his 14th start. Bruno’s rookie campaign was far more successful than his rookie teammates Nicolas Minassian… (Does anybody remember him?) As Minassian was sacked in favour of Memo Gidley who scored his career best second place finish that season before being dumped from the team.

With Ganassi bolting to the IRL in 2003, Junqueira moved to Newman/Haas Racing where he continued his streak of finishing as the Bridesmaid to the Hamburgular. (2002-03-04) enroute to scoring eight career victories,

After breaking his back at Indianapolis in 2005, Junky was subsequently forced to seek refuge at the underfinanced Dale Coyne Racing upon being replaced by Graham Rahal. Ironically, Bruno’s now one of the seriees veterans on the grid, being part of the trio of drivers remaining from the pre-Unification era. (Servia, Tracy) due to his, ahem… massive Oval track experience. Recall that Whiney Bags captured the 2002 Indy 500 pole and has a total of four starts at the Brickyard…

Yet unfortunately Bruno was completely off the pace the entire weekend at Homestead and opted to park the Z Line Designs car before colliding with the retaining wall, classified 23rd, +160 laps.

KV Racing Technology
5 Oriel Servia (14; 209.021)
Potentially the second most powerful ex-CCWS operation to join the Indy Car ranks, with Kevin “Smiley Face” Kalkhoven funding the way, while co-owner Jimmy Vasser does the majority of the talking.

Oriel Servia has always been fast, just never able to stay at one team for longer than one season. Yet, his best results came in 2005 as Junqueira’s replacement at Newman/Haas Racing, finishing runner-up to Bourdais along with winning his only Champ Car race at Montreal.

And while his lesser experienced teammate was busy tangling with Justin Wilson, Servia simply kept his nose clean and came home in 12th, +5 laps, the highest placed finisher of the eight Champ Car refugees.

2009 Rookie class
Team/Car No./Driver/Starting position/4 lap Avg.)Andretti Green Racing27 Hideki Mutoh (7; 210.508mph)

This 25yr old native of Tokyo, Japan has had some varying success in the lower ranks of Open Wheel Racing, albeit in Japan and Europe. Mutoh, like many drivers began his career in the ranks of karting, quickly ascending to the Honda Formula Dream program before moving to Europe to race in Formula Vauxhall along with taking part in the Formula Ford Festival twice, with a best result of third place in 2001.

Returning to Japan, Mutoh took part in Asian Formula 2000 and Formula Dream, ultimately winning the latter in his second season. (2002) He then took part in Formula 3 the following season with a best result of third place in F3 in 2004.

Next, he contested Formula Nippon and Super GT in 2006 prior to moving to the Indy Pro Series in 2007 where he scored two wins enroute to being the series runner-up prior to his Indy Car debut for Super Aguri Panther Racing at the season finale at Chicagoland where he finished an impressive 8th.

Obviously being Japanese and Honda’s desire to see a homegrown talent succeed in its Open Wheel Racing powered series, helped Hideki land the vacated seat of reigning Indy 500 and IRL Champion Dario Franchitti at Andretti Green when the Scotsman decided to depart for RASSCAR. Yet, such championship winning machinery most likely comes with a great burden for the young Japanese driver to perform. And although Mutoh was the highest placed rookie, starting 8th, (One grid position ahead of Marty Roth) he had a most auspicious race outing, overshooting his pit stall and ultimately finishing 24th, +168 laps. (32 laps down to race winner Dixon)

Conquest Racing
34 Frank Perera (13; 209.230)
36 Enrique Bernoldi (17; 208.130)

Frank Perera cut his racing teeth in the Champ Car Atlantics last season finishing runner-up to series champion Rafael Matos with three wins. Prior to his Atlantics campaign, Perera competed in the European GP2 series, the final stepping stone prior to Formula 1. Perera was the highest starting CCWS rookie and highest finishing rookie overall, coming home 14th, +6 laps in his very first Oval race.

Enrique Bernoldi’s name is familiar to me, since he was the driver that caused Deeter Majestic to pull his Red Bull sponsorship from Peter Sauber’s Formula 1 team, as Sauber was in favour of a young Finn by the name of Kimi Raikkonen!

Bernoldi seemed to be outperformed the entire weekend by his lesser experienced teammate and finished 18th, +51 laps.

Dale Coyne Racing
19 R-Mario Moraes (21; 207.067)

Mario Moraes is an unknown name to me, as he’ll be part of the nine driver Indy Car rookie class this season instead of the two the IRL had last year, with some chick named Milka as one of them alongside Phil Giebler, who was Robin Miller’s feel good story of his On The Bubble video series.

Moraes comes from Brazil and his most notable racing accomplishment to date is splitting the Brothers Mansell in European Formula 3 racing, who finished 10th and 17th and will now soldier on in the Atlantics championship underneath the tutelage of the currently under fire Derrick Walker.

Thus while it appears that Mario is set to continue the tradition of ride buying in the Indy Racing League, he quietly went about his business, becoming the very first car lapped at Homestead, but finishing in 16th, +13 laps, only six laps behind CCWS star Justin Wilson.

Yet although Moraes was somewhat slower then his veteran teammate, he nevertheless managed to complete his very first Oval track outing, with a very respectable finish.

HVM Racing
(Hola Viva Mexico)
33 Ernesto Viso (18; 208.101)

Ernesto Viso is another of the unknown flock of racing drivers joining the Indy Car parade, joining fellow Venezuelan Milka Duno in Indy Car this season, along with providing much needed funding to the scrambling Keith Wiggins, who’s previous partner Paul Stoddart, former Minardi F1 team boss has bolted back to Europe instead of making the jump to Tony’s unified racing series.

Viso has contested the GP2 series the past three seasons (2005-07) as well as a brief stint as a paying Spyker F1 Racing Friday third driver in 2006 and although he was having a fairly quiet race, Viso made the headlines upon spinning into the wall and collecting race leader Tony Kanaan in the final laps of the event, being classified 17th, +17 laps.

KV Racing Technology
8 Will Power (19; 208.029)

The likeable Aussie Will Power comes to KVRT on somewhat heavily disputed circumstances as part of the current rift between Derrick Walker and Craig Gore.

Yet, Power is one of the rising stars in the series, having been one of the few drivers to actually challenge the dreaded Hamburgular last season, while taking his first two career victories. If the team can continue its forward march towards putting all of the pieces together, they could form a future championship threat. Unfortunately the Aussie had a collision with fellow ex-CCWS driver Justin Wilson in the early stages of the race which caused him to retire from the event, being classified last in 25th, +176 laps, Accident.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing
02 Justin Wilson (15; 208.757)
06 Graham Rahal (Withdrawn)

Carl Haas and PL Newman’s long running championship operation undoubtedly has the most potential of the transitioning ex-Champ Car World Series racing teams to give the IRL Big Boyzs a run for their money in the near term future, as N/H/L is only the second team in history to achieve 100 career victories, enroute to eight CART/CCWS Championships.

New recruit Justin Wilson finished runner-up to Sea Bass the past two seasons, scoring three career victories along the way and was Bourdais’s biggest championship rival. Although Wilson has five career Oval starts to his credit, he’ll struggle initially to get up to pace on the Ovals along with having to overcome being the tallest driver on the grid!

Having started alongside Milka Duno, Wilson bumped wheels with Will Power and quietly made his way home in 15th, +7 laps after having to stop for a cut down tire during his incident with Power.

Yet, I’m not too sure what to say about “Booby Ruble’s” son Graham, who’s introduction to Oval’s got off to a rocky start with the team withdrawing his entry from Homestead after his pre-season testing crash damaged the team’s only race car significantly.

Yet the 19yr old Open Wheel superstar did finished runner-up to departed Champ Car driver Simon Pagenaud, whom won the Champ Car Atlantics crown two years ago. Rahal then graduated to the top dawg’s at the tender age of 18, foregoing his High School graduation party in order to go Champ Car racing instead!

Of course everybody’s hoping that something can be made out of a Marco Andretti-Rahal 2.0 feud, a la the good ‘Ol dazes of CART’s ‘lil Al (Al Unser Jr) vs. Mikey )Michael Andretti_ heydays...

As far as I can tell? The only visible knock on the team is the POOR choice of car numbers along with Mic Dougal’s sponsoring a BLOODY BRIT! Yeah, it must be some sort of contractual thingy, eh?

Roth Racing24 R-Jay Howard (23; No Time)

Unfortunately I know very little about this Englishman, who has been fairly successful carving his way up the motor racing ladder, prior to ultimately landing a ride at the unknown Roth Racing operation.

Like many English drivers, Jay cut his teeth in Formula Ford and then went on to win the Formula Renault title in 2003. I believe he contested the Toyota Atlantics championship and ultimately going on to win the US Formula Ford Zytec championship in 2005 before capturing the 2006 Indy Pro Series title for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Having changed teams the following season, Jay suddenly found himself without a serious ride in 2007 after just three events. Jay then sat out the remainder of the season prior to getting the call from perennial back marker Marty “Turtle” Roth this past November, inviting him to join his fledgling Indy Car operation.

Unfortunately Jay crashed heavily in Homestead qualifying and injured his knee, yet somehow the team managed to rebuild the chassis in time for the first race of the season in which the team had a horrific outing with the results simply stating that Team Boss Marty Roth finished in 21st, +147 laps (Behind the leader) with Howard placing 22nd, +150 laps…