Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

Goodbye to turbo power

As the Champ Cars pulled into the pits at the end of this year’s Long Beach GP and the whine from their turbo Cosworth engines fell silent, a 40-year era in American racing came to an end. Turbocharged engines have defined Indycar racing since the mid-1960s and helped make the cars number among the most powerful and spectacular on earth. The turbo’s signature high-pitched whine helped provide Indycar racing with an identity and a slightly mythical image of being among the most demanding cars to drive and race.

Now the turbo has vanished from the scene and many fans at this year’s Long Beach Champ Car swansong expressed their hopes that the turbo will return when the IRL launches its new formula in 2010 or 2011. In the paddock and garage area the feeling was virtually unanimous that turbocharged engines and big horsepower must be a feature of the new formula if it is
to inspire emotions and attract fans, engine manufacturers and car builders to what everyone hopes will be a new start to the deeply damaged world of Indycar racing.

Indeed, a massive diaspora has taken place from IRL and Champ Car over the past four or five years as drivers, engineers, crewmen, officials, hospitality workers et al have either left the sport or moved on to the ALMS, Grand-Am or NASCAR. This past winter’s late and messy unification added to this spread as many more people from Champ Car teams, the Champ Car organisation and Cosworth USA were at Long Beach to work their last race before losing their jobs. There were many sad faces and some tears.

Of course, the parlous state of Indycar racing can also be measured by the ridiculous fact that neither Paul Tracy nor Alex Tagliani have rides in this year’s unified IRL series. Tracy and Tagliani raced at Long Beach, and despite not having sat in a race car in six months both of them qualified among the first three rows of the grid. But at the time of writing, neither had any prospects for the rest of the year. We can only
hope that unification ultimately will lead to a healing of the numerous wounds and to a commercial rebirth of Indycar racing so that the best drivers can be employed to drive the best cars.

For the next year or two, the IRL’s much less powerful Indycar will race at Long Beach. The IRL car is about 150hp down and also makes less downforce than a Champ Car, so it is sure to be four or five seconds a lap slower than the most recent Champ Cars and about the same speed as the ALMS cars which race on Saturday at Long Beach these days. Throughout the weekend at Long Beach the drivers waxed lyrical about the pleasure of driving a Champ Car versus an IRL car. Pole winner Justin Wilson led the IRL race at St Petersburg two weeks earlier aboard a Dallara-Honda and was delighted to be back in a Champ Car one last time.

“It’s great!” Justin grinned after the first practice session. “It’s such a pleasure to drive. The first lap out I couldn’t resist giving the throttle a couple of extra pushes, just to enjoy the horsepower and response from the engine. And of course, the car makes more downforce than the IRL car and is beautifully balanced. I really will miss driving these cars.”

The Long Beach race was won convincingly by Aussie Will Power who led all the way, save during pitstops. Power beat Wilson into the first turn and ran unchallenged at the front after Wilson’s engine blew. But Power is deeply aware that most of the rest of the season – the ovals in particular – will be very difficult for the former Champ Car teams.

Oval tracks – especially in a car that is severely restricted in horsepower so that the driver is flat on the throttle all the way around – are all about engineering and set-up, and the existing IRL teams have years of testing, wind tunnel time and experience in dialling in the current Indycar to suit each oval. Power believes the better ex-Champ Car teams will have made some useful progress during the month of May at Indianapolis, but he doesn’t expect to be able to qualify in the front half of the field on any ovals this year.

“I’m not going to say we’re going to be up there, but we’re definitely going to close the gap,” Power said. “At the end of the year, it would be nice to be cracking around the top 12, top 10, once we get all the bits we need and I get used to the ovals. Maybe the shorter ovals also will help us because those tracks are not all about rolling speed. It’s not all about having a really good aero package and all the stuff those guys have.”

By the time you read this column this year’s Indy 500 will have been run and we will have discovered if teams like Newman/Haas/Lanigan with Wilson and Graham Rahal, and KV Racing with Power and Oriol Servia made any impression over the course of the long month of May. The theory going into the month was that the existing IRL teams would dominate at Indianapolis.

Of course, all this emphasises the point that to get Indycar racing back to what it once was the IRL must create a car and engine package for 2010 or 2011 that is not only much more aesthetically pleasing than today’s clunky Dallara-Honda but is also a truly spectacular challenge to drivers and teams, and is properly raceable on each of the oval, road course and street circuits.

Can Danica win help save the IRL?

After Danica Patrick finally scored her first IRL victory over a fuel-starved field at Motegi in Japan, many people were hoping the flyweight young lady would repeat the feat at Indianapolis. Danica’s breakthrough win was the result of clean driving and keen fuel-saving which enabled her to stay on track while others either dived for the pits and a splash of fuel or desperately backed off the throttle to try to make the finish.

Patrick, the IRL’s most popular driver, flew home for a press conference after the Long Beach GP, then embarked on a media blitz to promote this year’s unified Indy 500. But some sobering perspective on the matter was provided by Mike Bartelli, president of sports marketing agency Millsport.

“Her platform is a fraction of the size of Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon, and that impairs her,” he told USA Today. “For someone to be a marketing phenomenon as an athlete, they have to be in a highly visible arena, and she’s not. The question is whether her win can help Indycar.”

It will be interesting to see if Patrick can improve her performance on road courses and street circuits. She has yet to show she can run near the front at these tracks and was well off the pace at St Petersburg.

Swiss teen follows Patrick’s lead

As Patrick flew into Long Beach from Japan she learned that another young woman, 19-year-old Swiss Simona de Silvestro, had joined the club of female open-wheel race winners by scoring an excellent victory in Long Beach’s season-opening Atlantic Championship race. De Silvestro becomes the second woman to win an Atlantic race: Katherine Legge also won the Long Beach Atlantic race in 2005 and went on to win two more races that year.

De Silvestro ran the American Atlantic series for the first time last year, finishing 19th in the championship. Her best race was at St Jovite where she came home seventh. But at Long Beach this year de Silvestro qualified second and took the lead midway through the race when pole winner Jonathan Bomarito ran into gearbox trouble. De Silvestro went on to beat American Alan Sciuto and Canadian Kevin Lacroix, while Bomarito recovered to finish fifth behind Jonathan Summerton.

Then to cap a great month for women racers, Ashley Force, daughter of drag racing legend John Force, became the first female to win an NHRA event. She beat her old man in the Funny Car class in Atlanta.