The Champ Car World Series is coming off a six-week break in the schedule. But Saturday's Lexmark Indy 300 in Surfers Paradise, Australia (11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic) feels more like an exotic holiday than a return to work.
The Australian race is the one true jewel in Champ Car's tarnished crown. Although the American open-wheel series has slipped in status and now co-headlines the weekend with the popular Australian V-8 Supercar Championship, Champ Car still earns a lot of positive press for one of the finest street-race events in the world.
The Surfers Paradise race survived only thanks to heavy government subsidies, but now that the race is paired with the V-8 Supercar event, local resident outcry has died down. "Indy week" has become the biggest moneymaker of the year for the Gold Coast region, which is known as Australia's vacation hot spot.
Given the history of the Champ Car race, it might be easier to predict who won't win this year's edition rather than who will. The
2.794-mile street course characterized by long straights and tight chicanes is one of the least forgiving of its kind in the world.
In the 16-year history of what locals call the Gold Coast Indy, there has never been a repeat winner. That would seem to rule victory out for former race champions Paul Tracy (1995), Mario Dominguez (2002), Bruno Junqueira (2004), Sebastien Bourdais (2005) and Nelson Philippe (2006).
That leaves only 12 other drivers to choose from, of whom maybe half have a legitimate chance of winning. Would you put your wager on Justin Wilson, Will Power, Graham Rahal, Robert Doornbos or Oriol Servia? Or would you bet on Bourdais?
The smart money would tend to favor the Frenchman, who pretty much clinched a record fourth consecutive Champ Car championship just by making his flight to Australia. Bourdais can wrap up title No. 4 by finishing 14th on Sunday.
Last year, Bourdais by his own admission "got a little more racy"
when he knew his third championship was in the bag, and it ended in tears when he botched a pass on local hero Power. He vows not to make the same mistake this year.
"I tried to pass Will and the maneuver didn't go right and we touched," Bourdais recalled. "It was a real shame for both of us, but these things happen when you try to pass someone. It doesn't always go right.
"Obviously it will be my last race in Surfers Paradise but not my last race in Australia," he added. "I'll just try to enjoy myself as much as possible and give the McDonald's team the best result possible. They really deserve it."
Although Bourdais' championship is pretty much a foregone conclusion, there is a lively battle raging for second place in the standings.
Wilson took over the position with a victory in the most recent Champ Car race (Sept. 2 at Assen, Netherlands), but the Englishman learned this week that RuSPORT Racing is calling it quits at the end of the season.
"They have just announced they are closing down," Wilson told Australian media. "They have just told me and the crew they don't want to carry on. [It's] disappointing, but it happens all the time in motor racing. You just have to pick yourself up and try to get into another good position."
Wilson expects to retain backing from technology provider CDW and would appear to have several options available in Champ Car, the IndyCar Series or sports cars.
"I had quite a few people inquire early in the season if I was available for next year and at that time I wasn't," he said. "Maybe now when the news gets out people will start calling up again."
With two wins, Power and Team Australia have been the best surprise of the Champ Car season. The native of Toowoomba claimed pole position for his home race last year and looked set for a podium until he was bumped off track by Bourdais in what Power called a "wanker move."
But Power sang a different tune this week while promoting the race to Australian media.
"I've taken it to Sebastien a few times this year, but in the second half of the year he's been very strong and tough to beat," he said.
"This weekend it'll be his fourth world championship, and he deserves his spot in F1 next year for sure -- if you're beating Sebastien, you know you're doing a really good job and so is your team. He's a very good driver."
Minardi Team USA's Doornbos also boasts two wins this year but his championship challenge faded in the past three races. The Dutchman is optimistic that a recent test at Sebring International Raceway will improve the Minardi team's street course setup for this year's Panoz
DP01 spec chassis.
Although no driver has won the Surfers Paradise race more than once, the Minardi and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing teams are multiple winners. At NHLR, rookie Rahal is hoping the wacky history of the Surfers race plays into his favor.
"I've done as much preparation as I can," Rahal said. "We've gone through all the prerace documentation and data simulations, I've watched tapes of previous races and it's one of the tracks that I've been able to play on a computer game, which is fairly realistic. I've also focused on my physical fitness, preparing for the hot conditions, which we expect.
"I'm with a team which has a history of success here, so there's no reason why we shouldn't be running up front and pushing for the top step of the podium."
There are several new car/driver combinations for the last two Champ Car races of the season. Mario Dominguez replaces Ryan Dalziel at Pacific Coast Motorsports, while fellow Mexican David Martinez takes over for Servia at Forsythe Championship Racing.
Servia, who ranks sixth in the point standings, landed a last-minute ride with PKV Racing when incumbent driver Tristan Gommendy had an "unresolved business situation."
Meanwhile, defending Surfers race champion Philippe makes his
2007 Champ Car debut, replacing Jan Heylen at Conquest Racing. Heylen finished a career-best second at Assen, but apparently also has been impacted by an "unresolved business situation."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.