If there is a Champ Car season in 2004, the "driver to beat" may not be the defending titleholder or his runner-up. While Paul Tracy poses a formidable challenge any time he's on a race track (or near a microphone) and Bruno Junqueira has shown moments of brilliance over the past three years, neither of them is my pick for glory next year.
Rather, I pin my hopes on Michel Jourdain Jr., the handsome, soft-spoken Mexican ace who will mark his ninth season on the Champ Car trail, provided the OWRS guys on white horses can actually rein in this monster.
Born into a distinguished Mexican racing family in 1976 both his father Michel and uncle Bernard have competed in Champ cars Jourdain became the youngest driver to contest a Champ Car race in 1996 at Long Beach (19 years, six months, 12 days). Driving for Team Scandia, Jourdain got his baptism in five races that year with a nondescript best finish of 16th in Vancouver.
Until 2002 Michel Jourdain Jr. languished in "Wankersville" with teams that had a lot of heart but little funding. He became intimate with both Reynard and Lola chassis. He learned all about [flawed] Mercedes-Benz motors and later of Ford-Cosworth engines.
Michel skipped from backmarker to backmarker during that time and spent his formative years with Payton-Coyne and then [Tony] Bettenhausen Motorsports, the group now known as Herdez Competition.
Things began to change for Jourdain in 2001 when he earned his first podium, third at Michigan in an entrancing photo finish ending for him, Dario Franchitti and winner Patrick Carpentier on the two-mile oval. It would be his second and final year with Herdez-Bettenhausen, as the team moved to distance itself from the Bettenhausen family after Tony B's untimely death.
Joining Team Rahal in 2002 was likely the best professional move of that year for any Champ Car driver. Michel Jourdain Jr. finally had all the essentials that had eluded him in the early parts of his career. Finally, there was a real, well-informed engineering staff, a well-conceived test schedule, proper financial backing from Mexican grocery star Gigante and an exemplary teammate in Jimmy Vasser.
Jourdain earned the sobriquet Mr. Consistency in 2002 by scoring points in 17 straight races (his streak snapped at Fontana). He led nine laps in the Mexico City finale to cheers from his countrymen.
Michel scored more points 105 in that one year than he had in the previous six seasons combined (61) and took tenth place in the championship battle, a finish that belied Jourdain's accomplishments.
It wasn't enough for Jourdain, who thought the team's qualifying stats needed some upgrading and it sure wasn't enough for Team Rahal, even as the squad became a one-car Champ Car team for the 2003 season. Jourdain with his Gigante and Office Depot-backed Rahal group came out of the box on fire last February in St. Petersburg.
Two second-place finishes from fifth place starts in the first two races showed Jourdain and Co. worked on their qualifying abilities and made marked, appropriate improvements. At Long Beach, they earned their first pole position together and the lead Jourdain had opened up over eventual winner Paul Tracy when the transmission said "no mas" on his final pit stop, well, that was indicative of what was still to come.
(When Jourdain DNF'd at Long Beach and took a 15-place finish, it would be one of only two non-points-paying finishes. Michel failed to complete the very crazy, wet and wild Road America round won by Junqueira, suffering the kind of poor luck that once defined his career.)
Jourdain and engineer/team manager Ray Leto had to wait until Milwaukee before finally wending their way to Victory Lane in Champ Car's first night race, held under extremely cold conditions. It appeared the entire paddock stood and cheered as Jourdain grabbed his initial win. Stripped of pole position in Monterey, CA on a technicality, Jourdain rumbled to fourth, turning in an astonishing, fierce race. Another memorable drive at Portland fell prey to Tracy's punting abilities in the Festival Curves and Michel finished 12th.
He took another competitive seventh at Cleveland in the second night race, was second to Tracy at Toronto and fourth to him at Vancouver, earned another fourth at Mid-Ohio and then snookered the competition once more in Montreal with a well-deserved second victory of the year. Some called Jourdain's win at the third Canadian race a "theft' but that's not so he simply built his momentum through that race meeting weekend and peaked just before the checkered flags fell.
Michel Jourdain Jr. might have had a chance to pip Tracy for the Vanderbilt Cup and Junqueira for the runner-up slot, but for the whims of weather. He was in the lead at Surfers Paradise, set to be the penultimate event of the year when race control decrees meant Michel had to settle for fourth place behind a trio of Reynard drivers who had pitted earlier than the leaders.
Had the finale been held at Fontana a week later, Michel Jourdain would have been poised to fight Junqueira, who fell out of the Australian race after an uncharacteristic driving error. Tracy was too far ahead to catch for the title. But again weather scotched his progress and Jourdain had to settle for third in the title fight when wildfires caused California Speedway to be used as a staging point for rescue operations, not as a racing venue.
Two wins, one pole position, six podiums and an absurdly high level of consistency in both qualifying and racing became hallmarks of Michel Jourdain Jr.'s 2003 Champ Car season. If he gets the opportunity to compete for a title in 2004, the young Mexican veteran has to be touted as a favorite.
This former resident of "Wankersville", that place where drivers and teams of little promise reside, Michel Jourdain Jr. is now poised to earn both victories and titles. That he remains a truly nice guy makes this story another Christmas miracle.