This weekend's Centrix Financial Grand Prix of Denver could
potentially be the turning point in the 2005 Champ Car World Series.
As the ninth race of 14, Denver comes at a critical time in the championship
battle between Sebastien Bourdais and his rivals.
For his part, the Frenchman
knows a repeat of his spectacular victory in the Mile High City last year could go a long way toward his winning a second
consecutive series title over chief challenger Paul Tracy.
Newman/Haas Racing is 3-for-3 since Champ Car racing returned to the
streets of Denver in 2002. But most of the team's success on the
1.657-mile street course has come at the hands of now-sidelined driver
Bruno Junqueira, who led 215 out of 296 laps at Denver while racking
up two wins and a third-place finish. Oriol Servia, who is subbing
for Junqueira while the Brazilian rehabilitates his injured back, also has
performed well at Denver, leading 30 laps and finishing third in
2003 while driving for Patrick Racing.
The question is whether Servia or anyone else can beat Bourdais, who
hopes to build on the current two-race win streak that has put him 28
points ahead of Tracy in the championship sweepstakes. Last year,
Bourdais came out of a first-turn skirmish with Junqueira
in 13th place. But in a comeback drive befitting
Alex Zanardi, Bourdais blazed through the field to truly earn the
most memorable of his 13 Champ Car wins.
"For me, it was obviously a great race in Denver last year for the
McDonald's team," Bourdais recalled. "It was a huge performance, the
best drive I think I have ever done, and I had to make it happen on
the racetrack, not in the pits."
A number of things conspired to allow Bourdais to pull off his
audacious win. He made the most of his Push-to-Pass, those 90 seconds
worth of extra horsepower Champ Car drivers can go for in times
of extreme need. The nature of the Denver course, with a 180-mph
straightaway and as many as three places to pass, certainly helped, as did
a timely full-course caution that eliminated Tracy's 11-second lead.
"Push-to-Pass was everything last year for me here," Bourdais
admitted. "Everybody said that it was impossible to pass in Denver,
and we made it happen. Hopefully, we won't have to use it this year."
Servia has finished on the podium in five of six races since taking
over Junqueira's seat at Milwaukee in June, but he still hasn't taken
his first Champ Car race win.
"Last year, the PacifiCare finished on
the podium again, so there is no reason why I can't put the PacifiCare
car on the podium again this year," he said. "Hopefully on the top
step of the podium."
Tracy will have to re-acclimate to a Champ Car after logging a two-
day NASCAR Nextel Cup test at Michigan International Speedway with
Richard Childress Racing. The Canadian led 40 laps at Denver in 2004
but ultimately ceded the win to Bourdais. Tracy should get strong
support this year from Forsythe Championship Racing teammate
Mario Dominguez, who twice has finished in the top five at Denver.
The local team has to be counted among the favorites, as well. Based
in nearby Loveland, RuSPORT Racing has enjoyed a breakout season with
Justin Wilson winning in Toronto and A.J. Allmendinger coming close
to winning on two other occasions. The American has failed to finish
the last three races, missing out on at least two podium finishes.
"Overall, for me, it has been a disappointing season due to mistakes
I've made over the past few races," Allmendinger said. "Going into
Denver, I'm just trying to forget about the mistakes I've made, learn
from them and move on. If we do that, I think we'll have a good
chance of being there again."
Alex Tagliani, a regular podium threat in 2005 with Derrick Walker's
revitalized Team Australia, will celebrate his 100th Champ Car start Sunday.
"It seems like years ago that I made my debut [actually
2000], but I am actually pretty surprised it has been 100 races
already," the French Canadian said.
PKV Racing tested on the California Speedway road course last week,
and the team hopes that transpires into an improved street course
setup for former series champions Cristiano da Matta and Jimmy
Vasser. Meanwhile, in the race within a race for Rookie of the Year
honors, Timo Glock's sixth-place finish at San Jose helped the German
eke out an 11-point lead over Ronnie Bremer, with Andrew Ranger and
Bjorn Wirdheim also still in contention.
Coming on the heels of a very strong month for the series, the Denver
event has a lot to live up to, in terms of its own history and its
role in Champ Car's revival under its new ownership. Denver was the
"most improved" race on the Champ Car schedule in 2004, and local
officials are confident that even bigger improvements are on tap for
Prerace ticket sales have tripled for an event that drew
an announced 112,000 over three days in 2004. Corporate suites have
been upgraded dramatically, and the presence of seven
spectator bridges means fans won't have to cope with the long lines
they faced two weeks ago in San Jose.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.