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After a winter marked by silence, discontent, rumor and speculation, the Champ Car World Series finally gets the focus back on racing this weekend with the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix. While NASCAR, Formula One and the IndyCar Series already have had people talking for weeks about who's doing what on the track, Champ Car followers have been left wondering about seemingly simple things like how many cars to expect for the season opener.
|Sebastien Bourdais is chasing his fourth consecutive Champ Car World Series title.|
A busy month of March bumped up the numbers, and it appears Champ Car will enter 2007 with the same number of cars it has fielded for the last four years -- 18. The difference, according to series boss Kevin Kalkhoven, is that none of those entries are tapping the sanctioning body for subsidies.
Kalkhoven might also point out that every one of those cars on the 2007 grid is a brand-new Panoz DP01-Cosworth, a car that is faster and more forgiving than the outgoing Lola that served the series so well since 2002. The Panoz suffered the usual new-car blues, especially with its paddle-shift system, but by the final preseason test, most teams declared themselves ready to race.
"This year we have new cars, we have new teams and we have a series that is not being subsidized," Kalkhoven remarked. "This series is here for the long-term."
Kalkhoven is also fired up about a heavily revised race schedule that includes no fewer than six new events. Champ Car once again will try to crack the European market, with races at Zolder, Belgium, and Assen, Netherlands, and the series is set to make its first foray into China.
In North America, Champ Car's Quebec event has been transferred to the Mont Tremblant road course, while inaugural street races in Las Vegas and Phoenix will bookend the season.
Races at Denver and Monterrey, Mexico, have been dropped from the slate.
"The most important thing to me is to use '07 as a building block for '08 and the future," Kalkhoven said. "This is one year in which we have more new races than historically we have ever had. It's a sign of the strength of the series, not the weakness, and we're looking at new dates already for '08 and '09."
It's nice that Kalkhoven and company are taking a long-term view, but some observers still wonder how Champ Car will get through the first 17 days of the 2007 campaign. Only 24 examples of the new Panoz have been built (meaning there are a total of six spare cars to serve the entire field), replacement parts are at a premium, and the year kicks off with attrition-filled street races on three consecutive weekends at Las Vegas, Long Beach and Houston.
Then comes a six-week gap in the schedule, which should give the teams and Panoz some time to regroup. But will anyone notice when the action resumes at Portland on June 10?
There's likely to be another six-week gap in the fall, and the season drags on until Dec. 2, later than even NASCAR. Kalkhoven says the future schedule is a work in progress, and Champ Car would be wise to start and end the season earlier to avoid conflicts with the major stick-and-ball sports -- not to mention other racing series.
The 2007 Champ Car field will look mostly familiar. Three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais is back to defend his crowns and prove that he's capable of developing a car other than a Lola, but Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is adding some excitement to the mix by running rookie Graham Rahal in its second car.
Justin Wilson (of R-Sport) and Paul Tracy (of Forsythe Championship Racing) are likely to be Bourdais' chief championship challengers, but Rahal should be in position to win races. Other young drivers to watch include second-year man Will Power (Team Australia) and rookie Neel Jani (PKV Racing). Meanwhile, veterans like Mario Dominguez, Bruno Junqueira and Alex Tagliani hope the new Panoz levels the playing field and helps them return to the winner's circle.
Champ Car believes a new partnership with the ESPN family of networks will result in improved television ratings and increased sponsorship opportunities. The Atlantic Championship feeder series is also a source of optimism for the future, with 30 cars entered for the season opener at Las Vegas.
The question is whether Champ Car can stage three clean events to start off its season, weather the opposition's best shot (the IRL's Indianapolis 500) and still remain relevant heading into the summer.
"Looking at it objectively, I think you could say that the series has made significant steps forward as a platform for '07 and beyond," Kalkhoven said.
Will that be enough?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.