The first unified Indycar race of the 21st century took place last Saturday night before a modest crowd at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. There were many good things to see, including a fierce battle at the front and watching Marco Andretti drive such a strong race on a track where he has fared poorly in the past. In the end, Scott Dixon (below) showed that he and Chip Ganassi’s team will once again be serious championship contenders by taking pole and coming through to win the race with a near-perfect performance after Tony Kanaan ran out of luck in the closing laps. It was also clear that the IRL continues to be all about its three big teams – Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Penske, who entirely dominated the evening.
The tough task facing the former Champ Car teams was made equally clear. French rookie Franck Perera (below) was the fastest of this group, qualifying 15th on his debut with Eric Bachelart’s Conquest team, while Oriol Servia was the best finisher in 12th place, five laps down. Perera finished 14th, six laps down, while Justin Wilson was 15th and seven laps back in his first race with Newman/Haas/Lanigan.
These guys are expected to be in better shape on the St Petersburg street circuit this weekend, but let’s not forget that the top IRL teams have spent years and many millions of dollars in the wind tunnel and elsewhere developing, testing, understanding and dialling in these cars. With limited resources, minimal testing and a brief switch back to their Panoz DP01s for Long Beach before the long month of May in Indianapolis followed by 12 races in 15 weeks, the ex-Champ Car teams face a long and challenging season.
So after all the anticipation and white heat surrounding the unification of Indycar racing we are faced with the realisation that nothing much has changed. Ganassi, Andretti-Green and Penske are clearly on top of a spec-car series with little emotional appeal that is filled with largely faceless drivers. There are few names, no superstars, and the only notable blip the series might enjoy is if Marco Andretti were to win a string of races and challenge for the championship. And, of course, the former Champ Car teams face an embarrassing struggle, which is not likely to improve their hopes of selling any serious sponsorship, nor encourage long-suffering Champ Car fans to turn out to support them.
And what about Paul Tracy (below)? It’s ridiculous that he’s not in the field. He’s the biggest draw by far, the only guy with a real persona and a predilection to speak his mind. He may be near the end of his career on street circuits and some road courses, but like any driver he’ll continue to cut the mustard on ovals well into his forties. Let’s not forget some of Paul’s ferocious recent performances at Milwaukee in Champ Car’s final years at the venerable track, when he showed everyone what it’s all about with some superbly aggressive outside passes.
As Tracy says, he would love to go back to Indianapolis with a properly competitive car and team to attempt to avenge his loss there in 2003. With the right car, Tracy would bring some flavour and excitement to the Indy 500 that it hasn’t enjoyed in many years. But right now he’s sidelined as his lawyers try to find a way to buy Tracy out of his contract with Jerry Forsythe, who has decided not to run his team in the unified IRL series. In the meantime, the 39-year-old Canadian is a pedestrian.