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Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Updated: February 23, 8:28 AM ET
CART set to kick off 2003 season

By Robin Miller
ESPN.com

Robin Miller Defending champion, Cristiano da Matta, has moved on to Formula One and Christian Fittipaldi headed to NASCAR.

The all-time winner, Michael Andretti, bought the team he was driving for and moved it to the Indy Racing League with drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan.

Chip Ganassi, whose operation won a record four consecutive CART titles, joined Roger Penske and threw in completely with the IRL, as did Morris Nunn. Honda and Toyota are also part of the IRL exodus.

But, despite all those defections and against seemingly insurmountable odds, CART will answer the bell for the 25th straight season this weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla.

It's certainly not the same series in terms of depth or personnel as only nine of the 19 drivers that competed full-time in 2002 are back and only five of them are with the same team. There are nine rookies from all over the globe whose names will be like hieroglyphics to the American public and five new owners -- including Emerson Fittipaldi.

CART retained its turbocharged engines, but every car will be powered by a Ford-Cosworth. FedEx was replaced as title sponsor by Bridgestone and Ford. An oval track in England was replaced by a legendary road course outside London, while Chicago was dropped from the schedule and Germany got reinstated.

Traction control is gone, but the first-ever night races will be staged at Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Chris Pook
Chris Pook has done a lot of work to get CART back on track.

Yet, amid this massive makeover, CART hasn't lost its identity. With superspeedways, short ovals, road courses and street circuits it remains the most diverse challenge in the world of motorsports.

"When I started there was Mario and Michael Andretti, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy," said Jimmy Vasser, the only former CART champ in the 2003 lineup and one of only two American drivers. "Now, the old guard is Adrian (Fernandez), P.T. and myself and that doesn't seem possible.

"I don't know a lot of these new guys, but I didn't know who Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya were either, so I'm sure there's some unknown talent out there.

"Obviously, CART looks much different this year but there will be new competition and it's never easy to win this championship. It's still very challenging."

Considering all the changes, it's easy to pinpoint the preseason favorites. It should simply be a two-team battle because Newman-Haas and Player's/Forsythe sport the most experience, talent and depth.

Now in their 20th year of champ car racing, Paul Newman and Carl Haas have amassed four championships and 68 victories. They hired Bruno Junqueira, last year's runner-up, to replace da Matta and a quick Frenchman named Sebastien Bourdais to replace Christian Fittipaldi.

"I finished second last year and I want to improve and win the championship this year but I don't consider myself the favorite," said Junqueira, who won twice and was about the only driver to consistently keep da Matta honest in 2002. "I'm going to try and win every single race but I know it won't be easy.

"This is a great team so we should have good results."

Since earning his seat with an audition between three drivers last December, Bourdais has been impressive. The 23-year-old was on top of the time charts during most of the recent testing at Sebring, Fla., and may be the guy who pushes Junquiera hardest.

"I felt good about this car and team right away and they were very supportive," said the 2002 FIA F3000 champion who was thought to be a lock for F1 after testing very well for Renault. "This is a great opportunity for me and I'm not thinking about F1.

"I don't care anymore because I've got one of the best rides in the toughest series."

Player's, entering what will be its 42nd and, likely final year of funding Canadian racing because of the tobacco laws, is trying to go out on top with Tracy and Patrick Carpentier.

Tracy, who tops the active drivers in wins (19), poles (13), fines and outrageous moments, opted not to go with Andretti to the IRL and has never had a better opportunity to claim his first CART title.

I heard a lot of bad things and people said it was going to die but Chris (Pook) saved it. It bottomed out last year and now it's on the way back and I'm excited about the future.
Emerson Fittipaldi

"There's a little bit of a learning curve for Player's with a Lola chassis but I'm back with Tony Cicale (engineer) and I think we're going to have a good season," said the 33-year-old veteran from Toronto.

Carpentier, who developed into the driver everyone has been expecting in 2002 with a pair of wins, has lost a few key people but not his competitive spirit.

"There are some things that happened over the winter I didn't like and I didn't understand because we finally got some chemistry together last year," he said. "But this is still a good team and with Paul we should hopefully be in the hunt all season."

Vasser and rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay are teammates for Stefan Johansson's American Spirit Racing -- one of the all-new operations -- and will be running year-old Reynard chassis. But they have more than 150 years of champ car experience on their crew.

"We've got to keep it simple and take things one step at a time," said the 1996 CART champ. "But with the personnel on this team I think it's realistic that we can be competitive right out of the gate."

Hunter-Reay shined in Toyota Atlantic last year (three wins) and is joined by a diverse group of rookies.

Brazil's Mario Hauberfeld, Portugal's Tiago Monteiro, Switzerland's Dale Camathias, England's Darren Manning, Germany's Andre Lotterer and Frenchmen Patrick Lemarie and Bourdais all came through F3000. Mexico's Rudolfo Lavin got his education in Indy Lights and Atlantics.

Craig Pollock, who started the British American Racing F1 team and continues to manage Jacques Villeneuve's career, joined former F1 regular Johansson and two-time world champion Fittipaldi as car owners. Eric Bachelart, who competed in CART as a driver, brought his IRL team to CART while longtime Trans-Am star Paul Gentilozzi is the other new owner. And CART CEO Chris Pook laid out a financial plan to help them all get up and running.

Fittipaldi, who will campaign Monteiro out of Bachelart's shop this season, said he was worried about CART last summer.

"I heard a lot of bad things and people said it was going to die but Chris (Pook) saved it," said the 1989 CART champ. "It bottomed out last year and now it's on the way back and I'm excited about the future.

"We've got a lot of new drivers, teams and tracks. It's a fresh start."