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|A.J. Allmendinger has been coming on strong since switching teams.|
Heading into this weekend's Molson Grand Prix of Toronto, Sebastien Bourdais still holds a commanding 26-point lead in the championship, but his grip on the Vanderbilt Cup doesn't seem as strong as it did a month ago.
That's mainly due to the rise of A.J. Allmendinger, who switched teams from RuSPORT to Forsythe and promptly started winning races. The 24-year-old Californian has vaulted into championship contention and started to build a red, white and blue fan base. And he's got the attention of two-time series champion Bourdais.
"Basically, we now have to add another driver to the mix," observed Bourdais, who won on Toronto's challenging street course on the way to his 2004 title. "A.J. is carrying the momentum from a couple of good races, and now there is not one guy at Forsythe to beat, but two."
Paul Tracy is the other driver, but he sits 11th in the standings. Bourdais won the first four races of the 2006 campaign, but he's had to yield to Allmendinger recently.
"We'll see what happens in Toronto," Sebastien said. "PT [Paul Tracy] won there in 2003 and was running with us in 2004 and 2005, so we know they have a good setup there, and we will have to raise our game. It just makes it nicer if you can win."
A year ago at Toronto, Bourdais and Forsythe's Tracy waged a bitter battle that ended in pit-lane contact. The local hero went on to lead the next 22 laps with his Lola missing a front wing only to run out of fuel under yellow. Allmendinger also encountered grief, crashing out of second place late in the race as Justin Wilson powered to the front of the field in the final 20 laps to claim his (and RuSPORT's) first Champ Car win.
Wilson entered 2006 as the man most likely to challenge Bourdais for the title, and he has lived up to that billing despite gaining a new teammate (Cristiano da Matta) four races into the season. But he needs to add wins to his four runner-up finishes.
"We've shown a lot of potential over the first six races but haven't been able to convert that into a win yet," Wilson said. "It won't be easy, but we'll be working hard to try and repeat last year's result."
It's been a topsy-turvy season in general for the Champ Car World Series, which is reflected in Bruno Junqueira of Newman/Haas Racing lying eighth in the championship standings. Three of six races this year were deflated by multi-car, first-lap accidents, and there's a strong chance that trend could continue at Toronto.
The first turn of the Exhibition Place street course is a tight hairpin that has produced plenty of contact through the years. The rest of the track is racy in street-course terms, with a decent overtaking zone at the end of the backstretch.
"It's one of the toughest races on the calendar in terms of setup, because of the mix of fast-flowing corners and tight bumpy turns as well as the different track surfaces," Wilson said. "The balance of the car changes all the time as the track rubbers in, and that also keeps everyone on their toes."
Added Bourdais: "The winters are pretty rough there and it takes a toll on the track. You want the car as low as you can, but obviously the big bumps stop you from doing so and that's the biggest challenge."
This is the 20th running of the Toronto race, but there are significant changes, beginning with the ownership of the event itself, which has transferred from Molson Sports Entertainment to a group fronted by Champ Car co-principals Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe. Molson retains title sponsorship (and perhaps more importantly, beer-pouring rights) for the event, which has been renamed the Molson Grand Prix of Toronto. Organizers claim advance ticket sales are 20 percent ahead of recent years and are predicting a Sunday sellout.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.