Motorsport Thoughts

Friday, February 01, 2008

Champ Car and it's place in the market

Firstly, hello. I don't usually post in here, but as you can see I'm a Mod so I do look in here and know the state of play and who's who. [, Champ Car area]

And a quick summary of my motor racing supporting background: F1 in 1994 (shortly after Imola) started me off watching racing, then British Touring Cars from later that year. CART came in about late 1996 although I'd seen some IndyCar in 1994 when Nigel Mansell was racing. At some stage in between then and now I've watched just about all forms of racing in varying amounts. From 2000 onwards it's been all about MotoGP, World Superbikes and still Brit Superbikes – unsurprisingly you'll find me over in the Motorcycle Racing forum as the resident Mod. My second love is GP2 which superceded F3000 of course, and I'm also getting into the World Series by Renault and A1GP gradually. I race karts in my spare time too.

I've followed CART/Champ Car for over ten years in detail now and obviously am aware of the current situation as well as having read a lot of this forum despite staying quiet. In case you're wondering, it's not because of the people – I've barely missed an F1 race in 14 years – despite it being racing-wise, pretty dull! - but have never made a single post in there either. Many of the points about what has gone/is going wrong in Champ Car don't need to be re-stressed, so I won't do.

But a few thoughts have struck me since watching some A1GP yesterday. Champ Car's on-track decline has been since 2001, where the racing was still brilliant. You still get some half-decent bits of action these days, but in 2001 I mean it was the best (open wheel) car series on earth for pure racing. In my humble opinion GP2 has had that honour for the last few years, and Champ Car certainly isn't second behind it. Which is a crying shame.

Off-the issue of the series management is extremely well-covered on this forum - things such as the lack of manufacturer backing (not helped by Reynard surprisingly going belly-up in 2001, plus the pop-off valve saga starting the process of alienation for the engine manufacturers). Penske's move did hurt a lot too, since he took a lot of heritage and track connections with him.
The off-track stuff has led to probably the decision which is doing much of the damage to Champ Car, and that's the decision to take the series in the direction of GP2, A1GP and WSbR and specifically the European focus. The thing that excited me about CART when I started watching was the ovals, the variety, and the insane speeds the cars could get to. (Gil de Ferran's quali lap at Fontana, anyone?) In a way, being a Brit and thus having started out with F1 and all that surrounds it, the CART way of doing things was so refreshing and exciting. Since 2002 those things have gradually disappeared from Champ Car, along with half an entry list.

Many people have said that taking Champ Car to Europe is good because that's where the passionate fans and the sponsors are. Well, in a way that's correct but the fact also is that the European market is crowded with other series for the fans to get worked up about. F1 clearly has a higher European presence than it does in America, likewise all the bike racing series. GP2, WSbR and A1GP are – despite the Asian A1GP races – primarily focused around Europe. Then there's the F3 Euroseries, national F3 series and downwards through the pyramid of motorsport plus all the touring car and GT series – which, NASCAR aside, outnumber the US equivalents by a massive amount. If you step into a crowded market and you're not up to the task, you'll get found out and slayed. There's nowhere to hide in European motor racing, and no easy money either.

As I've got older – I'm 26 – other things come into play and motor racing has probably been trimmed down a little in my interests, simply because of other responsibilities. Part of growing up, really. Anyway, it means that I follow some series with a passion and many others – which aren't bad per se – have become marginalised and I don't have time to catch up with any more. So a series has to be stunning for me to sit in front of a TV and watch it even though I live and breathe racing.

By Champ Car moving into a position where it's competing in the middle of the GP2/WSbR/A1GP melee (in car spec terms, they're ranked in that order with GP2 at the top), it's lost what was special and unique about it. Technically I don't think it's up with GP2 anymore, when the late-nineties CART missiles were way ahead of stuff like F3000. And since that edge is lost, you then look at the grid size – 26 GP2 machines vs 17 Champ Cars, a no-brainer there. There's no area where logically Champ Car scores higher. Last season there were thirty WSbR machines on the grid (the FIA trimmed it to 26 for 2008, boo!) which is nearly twice the size of the Champ Car 2007 field – again you'll obviously get more 'bang for your buck' with WSbR. Personally I think part of enjoying a race is that it just 'feels' right when you're sat in front of the TV or at the track, and Champ Car just doesn't have it anymore for reasons like that.

With the move to Europe also comes the push for European drivers. Now as a European, I knew who Neel Jani and Tristan Gommendy were before they set foot in a Champ Car, but guys in the USA don't. And they're certainly not 'household names' in Britain for one (neither, may I add, is Justin Wilson). To be honest, barring Valentino Rossi and a select few others, there are very few household names outside of the F1 grid in motor racing in Europe. GP2, WSbR and A1GP can accommodate the quick changing of bums on car seats, because the first two are career-path series with big manufacturer backing (Renault in both cases) and A1GP is nation-orientated as opposed to driver-orientated. They are also more traditionally footed within the European (and Asian) market for sponsors. Champ Car dies on it's arse by not holding onto drivers and building their reputation in the US amongst its core fan base. The fact that they're European isn't the problem – it's that the US only sees them for one season. Alex Zanardi (absolute hero, that man) worked out pretty well in the past, yes? And Oriol Servia has gained fans with time, but the likes of Bjorn Wirdheim, Ronnie Bremer, Ricardo Sperafico and Antonio Pizzonia to name but a few – all talented drivers who could have gone onto big things given a decent run in a car – disappeared without trace within a season.

I feel I could write on for ages here, but I think the point's been made. Champ Car's identity crisis isn't the only thing wrong (certainly not), but it's a big part of the problems. If Europe is to be where the focus is – not entirely sure why people would think that, American fans are passionate and enthusiastic as you can see at a NASCAR race, along with knowledgable as you can see on this board – Champ Car needs a massive overhaul to get it anywhere near GP2, WSbR and A1GP. Unless that happens, I can't see how Europe will be Champ Car's saviour.
I usually wrap up with a positive endpoint, but that would require another lengthy explanation!


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