INDIANAPOLIS, November 25, 2003
One thing the 2003 open wheel racing season has not been is boring. This year was no turkey so let's give thanks for that.
From the moment it began this racing year was all shook up.
In Formula One, expecting Michael Schumacher to dominate and finding the two McLaren drivers atop the Far East podiums instead was a wake-up call. A joyous one at that.
McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya both gave the [now] six-time champion a points-gathering alarm. The duels this trio waged caused many of us who might otherwise sleep through F1 races to get up and watch with eyes wide open.
Rules changes implemented this year begat more compelling qualifying and racing in the rarified world of Grands Prix. Not knowing what strategy each team was taking meant the grids were topsy-turvy and even a Minardi or Jordan driver had a chance (albeit not much of one) to be at the sharp end of the field.
Fun reigned, particularly when Fernando Alonso was involved. Lift a toast to his youthful exuberance and be grateful for that. It might never happen again. Formula One is supposed to be serious business. Alonso could get muzzled in 2004!
Of course it'll be interesting to see the politics at play at Williams in 2004, where Montoya has already announced he's leaving for McLaren at the close of the season, whether or not he wins the title. The Colombian's change of teams reeks of staleness, not money grubbing.
Here in the USA, actually having a St. Petersburg Grand Prix in February was a revelation as many peoplethankfully not race fans who flocked to the waterside street circuitexpected CART to be dead in the water, not fielding 18 [mostly] capable cars and putting on an entertaining event on the West Coast of Florida.
The 18 green-to-checkered flag contests the 18-19 Champ Cars put on were, on more occasions than not, fun to watch. In particular, strangely enough, races at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz and Milwaukee ovals were spellbinding in their competitive intensity.
This year in CART there were old, new and retread faces to watch. Everybody was there because they wanted to be. With half the field made up of new drivers, the Champ Car grids were not only different; they were gripping.
A plethora of F3000 veterans arrived to make their marks on American soil with experience, not all of it in the genteel racing mode most North American open wheel racing series employ. F3000 has, in the past, shown itself to be a contact sport, and folks like Mario Haberfeld, Darren Manning, Tiago Monteiro weren't lax about mixing it up.
Paul Tracy, Bruno Junqueira and Michel Jourdain Jr. waged a great 18-race battle, but they were shadowed the whole time by the wonderful Sebastien Bourdais, who claimed three wins, five poles, Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year and Greg Moore Legacy awards, which he surely merited. Kudos to Carl Haas and Paul Newman for picking the Frenchman; he's a comer.
Now, of course, we're waiting to see if the poverty-stricken Championship Auto Racing Teams, which used its entire war chest to stage the 2003 season will survive into 2004. A vote on December 19th will either take the company private and allow new owners Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) to decide its future or will take CART into the past.
If you're a racing fan, you've got to hope CART continues, but if you're a history student, you've got to know the company caused its own demise by going public. A few profited; many were left behind. I'm thankful CART had its 2003 season; I'm hoping it has many more, but with racing-knowledgeable and enthusiastic management.
When the Indy Racing League convened for race #1 at Homestead-Miami Speedway the week after St. Pete, it was a startling paddock. The gathering resembled (gasp) a CART grouping from the mid-to-late nineties. There was Honda, there was Toyota, and there was Chevrolet, playing the part of Mercedes-Benz, who banished themselves from CART by building a rank engine.
Whoa, deja vu.
Chevrolet tried really, really hard to play that M-B part but Bernard Ferguson and his good group at Cosworth Racing wouldn't let them just lie down and die. No, Cosworth and the Gen IV Chevy Indy V-8 get my Oscar for best supporting role in the IndyCar Series this year. Thanks, Bernard.
But look at the newer cast of characters in the IRL. There's Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, Team Rahal, Mo Nunn, Andretti Green Racing and Fernandez Racing. The list of drivers is incredibly familiar too. Michael Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Gil de Ferran, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Kenny Brack, Bryan Herta, Alex Barron have all been on a Champ Car grid within the last two years. The IndyCar Series put on the most breathtaking batch of 16 races in the sport. Probably the least enticing were the first three at the formerly flat Homestead circuit, at Phoenix and Twin Ring Motegi, but they sure got wicked better from there, didn't they?
Seeing Sam Hornish Jr. give his all to try and garner a third straight IRL title despite being saddled with Chevy's Gen III boat anchor until Michigan made me a believer. Having five drivers numerically capable of the championship heading into race #16 was incredible.
Scott Dixon merited his title with consistency, speed and, yes with results. Sure, it's risky to go that quickly on oval circuits, but it's also amazing to watch. And they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.
So I'm thankful for the great competition I've witnessed this year in open wheel motorsports and I'm hoping for more of the same next season. While most people won't be admitting their appreciation for competitive racing at the Thanksgiving table this Thursday, I sure will!