Transition from Champ Car to IndyCar anything but smooth for NHLR

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Indy Racing League regulars have as much as a five-year head start on most of the "transitional" teams moving from the Champ Car World Series to the IRL IndyCar Series.

Surprisingly, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is even further behind.

NHLR was one of the first Champ Car teams to commit to switching open-wheel formulas, yet the transition has gone anything but smoothly for one of the most experienced and successful teams in American open-wheel racing.

A dispute with Honda Performance Development over terms of the engine supply contract was a significant factor in NHLR missing the first IndyCar acclimatization test for Champ Car teams two weeks ago at Sebring International Raceway.

NHLR made it to the initial two-day oval test for Champ Car teams, but the cars ran only a few laps on the first day before Graham Rahal crashed heavily near the end of the second day. The team withdrew Rahal from last Saturday night's Gainsco Auto Insurance 300, citing a lack of spare parts -- despite the fact that at least three competing IndyCar Series teams offered NHLR whatever it needed to put Rahal's car on the grid.

IndyCar Series management arranged for Newman/Haas/Lanigan to receive up to three hours of track time Tuesday at Sebring during a Firestone Indy Pro Series test session, but rain restricted NHLR drivers Justin Wilson and Rahal to a shakedown run and about 10 laps apiece.

"It was good to get to run the cars on the road course at Sebring," said Brian Lisles, NHLR general manager. "Of course we would have liked to have been able to run much longer, but unfortunately the weather didn't allow us to take advantage of the fact that the IndyCar Series officials kindly arranged this track time for us."

"We didn't get to try too much before it started to rain -- just the baseline and ride height," added Wilson. "It was all over too quickly, but we have a better idea of what to do now, and it was good to work through that before we get on track in St. Pete."

The Sebring rainout probably affected Rahal more than it did Wilson. The 19-year-old son of three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has only one year of top-level open-wheel experience -- the 2007 season, where he finished fifth in the Champ Car World Series standings as a rookie for Newman/Haas/Lanigan.

He and Wilson, who competed for more than two years in Formula One before racing Champ Cars for the past four years, are particularly lacking in oval racing experience. Saturday night's event at Homestead was the sixth ever oval race for Wilson, while Rahal has started only one event on an oval track, and that was in a training formula Star Mazda car three years ago.

Wilson finished 15th in Saturday night's 300-mile contest, losing several laps after bumping wheels with fellow transition driver Will Power.

The ex-Champ Car teams are expected to fare better this weekend on the St. Petersburg street course. But they still have a steep learning curve in terms of learning the characteristics of the IndyCar Series Dallara-Honda, which is slightly bigger and heavier than a Panoz Champ Car, and features a higher center of gravity and more rearward weight bias thanks to its larger engine.

The normally aspirated IndyCar engine also has different drivability characteristics and about 150 fewer horsepower than the turbocharged Cosworth Champ Car engine. At Sebring, the Champ Cars circulate about three seconds per lap faster than the IndyCars.

"At the end of the day these are still quick machines," Rahal said. "Until you actually get in it and feel it, it's tough to tell. But if you look at test times at Sebring, certainly these cars aren't too far off, and for a car that was meant to be an oval car that's been transitioned to a road-race car, I think they've done a great job."

The challenge now for NHLR is to figure out how to extract the maximum from the same package that every other competitor in the IndyCar Series runs. There's a huge difference between a standard Dallara-Honda and one that has had the benefit of years of wind tunnel and seven-post rig development.

In other words, the established IndyCar teams have the same kind of advantage over Newman/Haas/Lanigan that NHLR used to enjoy in the Champ Car series.

"Obviously, since we've gotten these cars late, we certainly don't expect to be the quickest," Rahal related. "It's going to be very tough for us to contend with the Penskes and Ganassis of the world and Andretti Green Racing, but as time goes on it will get closer and closer. Obviously on road courses we feel more confident that we can be close and hopefully contend for wins there.

"The main thing is that it's obviously a great thing that the two series have come together."

The merging of the two competing open-wheel series has forced Rahal to adjust his goals for 2008. With a solid rookie season under his belt that included four podium finishes, Rahal expected to contend for race wins this year and maybe even the championship.

Now with the prospect of nine oval races ahead of him, Rahal basically has had to return to the classroom. But he feels that with the help of his team as well as his father, he will adapt quickly.

"Hopefully we can fight for the rookie of the year award; I think that's the most we can do at this point," he observed. "I feel that if it had stayed as Champ Car, obviously there maybe would have been a shot for me to win some races and challenge for the title. But now we look at it in a different light, and we need to go out there and learn and do our best.

"My dad had a lot of success in his career, whether it was oval racing or road racing. So to learn from him certainly is quite the advantage. But obviously we're competing against him, so I don't know how much he wants to do that, at least in front of everybody else. Maybe if I ask him at home, maybe he'll give me a couple of tips. As a kid I never really liked it, but the more I grow up the more I understand the advice I've received from him is definitely the best advice."

Rahal hopes to put the disastrous start to his IndyCar career behind him and make some serious progress this weekend at St. Petersburg. With a new car, new competitors and a new form of racing to learn, a top-10 finish would be a worthy goal.

"The car characteristics are similar to what we are used to, but certainly you can feel the extra weight and higher center of gravity," Rahal said. "We have got some work to do, but I feel better about going to St. Pete after getting some time -- however little -- in the car."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.