The first test session for any brand-new racing car is always a tense and exciting affair.
This week's open test for the Champ Car World Series is particularly important because not only will teams and drivers be learning the basics about the new Panoz DP01 spec car, they have very little track time to do it.
The prototype DP01 has racked up thousands of test miles at Sebring International Raceway and made demonstration runs around the world, all in the hands of veteran Roberto Moreno and a neutral test team.
The group test from Tuesday through Thursday at Sebring will be the first time the production cars will appear on track, but with the open-wheelers set to share the Sebring test facility with the American Le Mans Series for the first two days, they'll have to make the most of the 15 hours they get to spend on the track.
With private testing banned until after the start of the season, the only additional open tests will be held at MSR Houston (including an hour of standing start practice) and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
So what are the key things to watch for when the 2007 Champ Car season roars to life -- for the first time ever using on-board starters?
1. How many cars will appear?
Elan Technologies (maker of the Panoz) has delivered more than 15 cars to the 10 teams that intend to field entries in 2007, and most if not all of them should be on hand to log miles at Sebring.
2. Who will drive them?
Ah, now there is the key question. Only five drivers have been officially confirmed, and that number includes three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais, who could still conceivably end up on a Formula One grid in 2007 with Scuderia Toro Rosso.
The other wheelmen who are certain of Champ Car seats are Paul Tracy (at Forsythe Championship Racing), Will Power (Team Australia) and rookies Alex Figge and Ryan Dalziel with transplanted sports car team Pacific Coast Motorsports.
Newman/Haas Racing has all but confirmed that rookie Graham Rahal will make his first public appearance with the team, an announcement that Justin Wilson will be driving the lead RuSPORT Racing entry is imminent and PKV Racing is set to name Neel Jani for one car. That brings us to eight -- leaving a host of incumbent and prospective drivers to compete for a dozen seats over the next two months.
Three former Champ Car race winners (Oriol Servia, Mario Dominguez and Nelson Philippe) are on the market, with Philippe rating as the hottest commodity. He is likely to spend time in a Minardi USA car at Sebring to provide continuity, but team owner Paul Stoddart's driver lineup is completely in flux. Dutchmen Robert Doornbos and Jos Verstappen are in the frame, along with Katherine Legge, who is unlikely to return to PKV Racing.
Forsythe is another possibility for Frenchman Philippe, 20. Jerry Forsythe tested half a dozen drivers in the offseason but recently said he won't run a second car alongside Tracy unless sponsorship is found. That could come from Simon Pagenaud, who brings the $2 million prize he earned as the 2006 Atlantic series champion.
Two seats remain open at Dale Coyne Racing: Rocketsports Racing and Conquest Racing. Alex Tagliani looks probable to return to Rocketsports (for whom he drove in 2003 and '04) while Jan Heylen is set for another season with Coyne. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess and it will be interesting to see who appears in the Sebring paddock.
The lack of drivers to promote "does make it difficult for us," admitted Champ Car president Steve Johnson. "There's only so much we could control, and I wish I could control that piece but it's kind of out of my hands right now.
"There's more drivers than there are teams out there and people are in the middle of negotiating right now. Somebody has to be piloting those cars around Sebring."
3. How will the new car function?
Because the Panoz has undergone a rigorous test program, it should generally prove reliable.
"We had absolutely no issues with the suspension and steering, and the engine and turbo did absolutely what they should without any problems," said Simon Marshall, who led the Panoz design team. "Nor were there any surprises on the aero performance."
But because the car is built to a completely new formula, there will be a bigger learning curve involved for the teams than in recent years when they would simply adapt to the latest, lightly upgraded Lola or Reynard. Many teams like to produce their own suspension components and wings, but that practice is banned for 2007, at least. Teams will still want to make what legal modifications they can to reduce the possibility of component failure through heat or vibration.
After the first test, Champ Car will solicit feedback from all teams in an effort to fine-tune upcoming production cars. The series is planning for 35 cars.
"Right now, everybody's view of the thing is based on kind of a virtual state, anticipating what they're going to have," remarked Champ Car technology director Scot Elkins. "When you have 20 or so of these cars out there running, that's when we'll start getting the real input.
"We're not going to hit the nail on the head with everything, but we're being realistic," he added. "We just have to be able to react to whatever issues come up, and do that in a very logical, reasonable way."
4. Will the Panoz be faster than the outgoing Lola?
Eventually, but probably not during this first test. In development, Moreno regularly lapped Sebring about a second slower than the lap record, but the test team never did a low-fuel run on new tires to really go after a lap time. It will be significant if anyone breaks into the 50-second bracket at Sebring this week; the track is very susceptible to changing conditions and the outright Champ Car lap record is a 50.3 seconds.
5. Will there be any other major announcements?
Apart from the three driver announcements (Rahal, Wilson and Jani), Champ Car recently revealed plans for a pair of European races in September. But the slate could be reduced to 16 events if the Grand Prix of Denver gets the ax. Currently without a promoter, the five-year-old Denver race is already facing the prospect of a new date for 2008 because the Pepsi Center that anchors the track will be used by the Democratic National Convention.
"We have some challenges that we have to solve for the event, from the promoter to the sponsor to even the event date," Johnson told the Denver Post. "We are in contact with a number of people to see if we can pull this off."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel Racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.