Champ Car season review

There were two big stories in the 2004 Champ Car World Series. One was the dominance of Newman/Haas Racing, with Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira securing the team's first 1-2 finish in the points standings in its illustrious 22-year history. The other, potentially even more significant, development was the manner in which Champ Car's new owners, Kevin Kalkhoven, Jerry Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, rescued the series from bankruptcy and, step by step, laid the groundwork for its renaissance

Champ Car season review

It is still too early to say whether the "Three Amigos" will succeed in recapturing Champ Car's mid/late 1990s heyday, but major progress has already been made and recent announcements - Kalkhoven and Forsythe's purchase of Cosworth Racing and confirmation of much-improved domestic and international television packages for 2005 - give further grounds for optimism. At the very least, the patient is now off life support and on the road to recovery.

Given the financial and political clouds hanging over the series last winter, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the 2004 season was that there was a Champ Car World Series at all. Granted, the talent pool wasn't as deep as it had once been, but there wasn't much wrong with the calibre of drivers in the first two-thirds of the grid - especially one bespectacled Frenchman who was invariably at the sharp end.

Quite simply, Bourdais was the class of the field. A variety of untimely misfortunes meant that he didn't clinch the championship until the season finale at Mexico City, but it would have been a travesty if the title had gone to anyone else. Bourdais' record speaks for itself: seven wins and eight poles in 14 races, every one of which he started from the top three.

Junqueira equalled Bourdais' total of 10 podium finishes to stay in mathematical contention until the very end. But he could boast only two wins, and ultimately that was the most telling statistic; Bourdais was simply faster more often, and thus more able to control his own destiny rather than await the outcome of complex points scenarios or his rival's mistakes.

Bourdais has a smooth, clinical driving style and a cerebral approach that ensured he meshed well with his engineer Craig Hampson and exploited Newman/Haas' trusty set-ups and superior shock package to the full. If anyone doubted that he is also a true racer, they were won over by his virtuoso performance at Denver, where, after being tipped into a spin following contact with Junqueira at the first corner, Bourdais carved through the field to win - setting fastest lap on the penultimate tour for good measure. As team co-owner Paul Newman admiringly observed, "Now that's style!"

Much to his chagrin, Junqueira found himself consigned to the bridesmaid's role in the championship for the third consecutive year. The Brazilian generally wasn't far from his team-mate's pace, but on several occasions (notably Vancouver and Laguna Seca) left himself with too much work to do on race day after crashing in practice or qualifying. Early on, Bourdais gained the psychological upper hand, and Junqueira rarely beat him in a straight fight all season.

Unlike in 2003, Forsythe Championship Racing was unable to challenge
Newman/Haas on a consistent basis, and reigning champion Paul Tracy had a largely frustrating time. He did, however, salvage two victories, the second of which, in Vancouver, reminded everyone of how brilliant he can be. After being informed that he would have to make an extra pit stop because a refuelling glitch had left him several gallons short, Tracy reeled off a sequence of blistering laps which built him enough of a cushion to emerge still in the lead.

Overall, however, Tracy's season was forgettable, and he was narrowly outscored by team-mate Patrick Carpentier. The French-Canadian's campaign was destabilised before it even got underway, when he was dropped and then rehired by Forsythe during the winter. But he amassed a solid tally of eight top-five finishes - highlighted by victory for the second year in a row at Laguna Seca in September - to finish third in the points table, matching his career-best result from 2002. The damage to his relationship with Forsythe had already been done, however, and, dismayed by the lack of attractive offers from other Champ Car teams, Carpentier decided to seek pastures new in the IRL.

Mario Dominguez continues to improve with time and cemented his reputation as one of Champ Car's most combative racers in 2004. The Mexican scored a trio of podium finishes but never climbed the top step. More often than not, he overshadowed his more highly-rated Herdez Competition team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay, although RHR had the consolation of victory at Milwaukee, where he was peerless and left the rest of the field for dead.

Meanwhile another young American, AJ Allmendinger, made a big splash with the first-year RuSPORT team, earning Rookie of the Year honours and sixth place in the overall standings. After winning Barber Dodge Pro Series and Toyota Atlantic crowns in successive seasons, Allmendinger took to Champ Cars like the proverbial duck to water. Almost as impressive as his speed was the refreshing candour with which he owned up to the inevitable rookie mistakes; if Carl Russo succeeds in tempering his protégé's raw aggression, Allmendinger is potentially championship material as soon as next year.

First, however, he will have to beat his new team-mate Justin Wilson. The Brit did an excellent job for Eric Bachelart's small Conquest Racing squad in 2004 and now joins a team whose budget is more commensurate with his ability.

Speaking of underdogs, Oriol Servia deserves a mention for his sterling efforts for Dale Coyne Racing, the Champ Car equivalent of Minardi - a plucky, hard-trying outfit run by a true enthusiast on a shoestring budget. The likeable Spaniard frequently embarrassed better-funded rivals and became the first driver in the team's history to finish inside the top 10 in the points standings.

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