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There is no debate about who enters 2007 as the prohibitive favorite. The new Panoz DP01-Cosworth might be an additional variable to work with, but all signs point to Sebastien Bourdais emerging with an historic fourth consecutive Champ Car series championship. At 27, the Le Mans, France native is in the prime of his career, and being able to work on the development of a new car should provide Bourdais with plenty of motivation.
Vying for the title will be a familiar cast of returning characters and a pair of promising rookies, including a can't-miss prospect who is the son of a three-time series champion. Here's how the race for the 2007 Champ Car World Series crown is likely to shake out (as voted by yours truly, ESPN.com motorsports writer Terry Blount and motorsports editor K. Lee Davis):
1. Sebastien Bourdais
Champ Car detractors say that Bourdais hasn't faced any real competition in his four years in the series. While the modern field doesn't have the depth of CART in the mid-1990s, the fleet Frenchman has been kept honest by a revolving cast of characters, and three championships in a row is a mighty achievement by any standard.
What to do for an encore before hopefully finally getting a chance in Formula 1 in 2008? Bourdais would like to prove that he can lead the development of a championship-winning car on his own; some like to credit his achievements of the last four years solely to the Newman/Haas team's setups honed over the years by Michael Andretti and Cristiano da Matta.
Sebastien's stunning, record-setting lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca shows that he and Newman/Haas clearly have figured out how to get speed out of the new Panoz-Cosworth package, and the cars are likely to be reliable. In short, it will be a major surprise if anyone other than a Formula 1 team boss is able to end Bourdais' championship streak.
2. Paul Tracy
Which Paul Tracy will answer the bell for the 2007 season? The consistently dominant 2003 series champion, who also won multiple races and contended for the title throughout the '90s? Or the increasingly desperate racer who slipped down the grid and failed to win a race in 2006?
Tracy's many fans are hoping it's the former for one of the most popular drivers in the Champ Car series. Either way, the 37-year-old Canadian is bound to have fun and raise the hackles of his rivals (notably Sebastien Bourdais) on a weekly basis.
Tracy's task will be tougher because of team owner Gerald Forsythe's decision not to run a second driver throughout preseason testing of the new Panoz-Cosworth. Mario Dominguez, who left the Forsythe team in semi-acrimonious circumstances in June 2006 after crashing Tracy out of two races, is back for the first three races of '07. But the team's development of the car lags behind rivals like Newman/Haas/Lanigan and Team Australia.
One thing is for certain: Tracy will be exciting to watch, whether he's racing for first or 10th place.
3. Justin Wilson
This thoughtful Englishman was Bourdais' closest competition the last two years but he's coming off a stressful winter. RuSPORT Racing changed owners and jettisoned one car before new boss Dan Pettit announced a plan to work in technical partnership with Rocketsports Racing. The merged R-SPORT team will at least provide Wilson with a proven teammate in the form of Alex Tagliani.
The addition of Tag's deep knowledge of Champ Car racing might be the edge that Wilson needs to gain an advantage over Bourdais. With the exception of a brief period when former series champion Cristiano da Matta drove the second RuSPORT car, Wilson's teammates always have had relatively little experience. For much of that time, his benchmark was A.J. Allmendinger, who went on win several races when he transferred to Forsythe Championship Racing after generally being outpaced by Wilson when they were teamed together at RuSPORT.
So in a sense, Wilson is forced to prove himself all over again this year. Will he be able to produce performances like the Mexico City 2006 season finale where he pushed Bourdais to the limit?
4. Graham Rahal
Opportunities don't come any better than this one. How many 18-year-old rookies get the chance to step into a multiple-champion team to learn the ropes from the most dominant driver of the last five years?
Not many. But then not many up-and-comers have the pedigree and speed of Graham Rahal. The youngest son of three-time Champ Car series champion Bobby Rahal showed a clean pair of heels to the Atlantic Championship field in 2006 and only a pair of first-lap accidents not of his own making prevented Rahal Jr. from claiming the series title and a $2 million prize.
However, had he done that, it's unlikely that Graham would have wound up driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, the top team of Champ Car's modern era. With maturity rare for his age and as much testing as possible under the rules, Rahal has shown that he will be a regular frontrunner in 2007, and he could score a rare rookie race win. With almost two years to turn the trick, count on him becoming the youngest winner in series history.
5. Neel Jani
When PKV Racing announced 21-year-old Swiss Neel Jani as its lead driver, pit-lane pundits figured the Red Bull sponsorship package he brought was payback for Red Bull's termination of its Cosworth Formula 1 engine program.
Then Jani drove the Panoz-Cosworth Champ Car, and finished in the top three at Sebring testing. And Houston testing. And Laguna Seca testing. In short, the kid has been fast at every new circuit he's been to, all while impressing the PKV team with the technical savvy developed over the last two years as a Formula 1 test driver.
Whether Jani can pick up the racecraft needed to win a 200-mile Champ Car race with multiple pit stops remains to be seen, as does PKV's ability to put together race-winning strategy. But don't make the mistake of calling Neel Jani just another foreign-pay driver.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.