The Hypothetical Champ Car World Series Drivers’ Club of 2014

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On this date in 2004, Indianapolis bankruptcy judge Frank Otte ruled in favor of a bid placed by the collective of Gerry Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven, and Paul Gentilozzi – known as Open Wheel Racing Series, LLC – to acquire the assets of what was known, from 1979 to 2003, as Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Their bid was accepted over a competing bid from Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League (IRL) owner Tony George, which would have effectively ended the American open-wheel racing split that had been in existence since the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1996.

I thought about this anniversary yesterday, of all things, when the upstart Formula E series added eight new names to their pool of available drivers known as the Formula E Drivers’ Club. And looking at the list of freshly added talent that includes five IndyCar Series drivers, ten former Formula One drivers, and one driver from GP2, it didn’t look that impressive to some people. Zero F1 victories between all sixteen drivers, and out of them, only Takuma Sato won a race in a major series this past year. But I looked at it closer and thought to myself, “You know, this roster looks like the lineup for a reboot of the Champ Car World Series.”

And it’s not hard to see why – CART/Champ Car had a knack for attracting a lot of ex-Formula 1 talent and decent prospects from the European open-wheel ladder, and turning them into stars. Not just former F1 champions like Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi, or future F1 winners like Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya. Drivers like Alex Zanardi, who washed out of F1 before going onto mega-stardom in CART, or the likes of Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran, and Sebastien Bourdais, all accomplished drivers who all cut their teeth in the European ladder only to be passed up by F1 teams when it came time for them to move on, were a major part of the lifeblood of CART/Champ Car in the 1990s and 2000s.

So I thought to myself, “What if there was a reboot of the Champ Car World Series? And which active drivers from today would I place in the series’ pool of talent?”

I went out to pick twenty drivers (OWRS-era Champ Car, for all of its strengths, could never push the car count above 20) for a hypothetical “reboot” of the Champ Car World Series. My strategy for selecting drivers was to focus primarily on younger talent with loads of upside, both within the IndyCar Series and elsewhere. Only five out of the twenty drivers in this hypothetical drivers’ club are either in, or will be in their 30s by the end of 2014, and none are above the age of 35. I ensured that I had to pick at least six drivers that competed in at least one IndyCar Series race last season, and I had to pick at least one person in the second-tier Indy Lights series. I stayed away from anyone currently in F1 that wasn’t a race driver or a primary reserve driver. I could pick anyone I wanted under those parameters.

Click the link below to read my selections and my rationale for each.

From the IndyCar Series…

Sebastien Bourdais

The series’ only four-time champion, that has also had success at Le Mans, continued to shine in the current IndyCar series despite not having the best equipment, and just won the Rolex 24. He instantly legitimizes the series with his presence alone.

Conor Daly

Despite impressive performances in the GP3 Series and a great overall track record that includes a start at the Indy 500 this past year, the American-born son of Derek Daly finds himself struggling to land a full-time ride in IndyCar this year, and he lacks the funding to continue in the European ladder. It’s a perfect opportunity for Champ Car to swoop in and secure a very promising star of the future.

Simona de Silvestro

Sorry Danica, Switzerland’s Iron Maiden is the single best woman in racing right now when it comes to overall ability, by a large margin. De Silvestro has labored through seasons with bad teams, like the Lotus-powered slugbox she drove in 2012, but with a solid team like the KV Racing squad she drove for in 2013, has shown genuine, race-winning capability. A product of Champ Car’s former developmental territory, the Atlantic Championship, De Silvestro has genuine F1 aspirations.

Luca Filippi

Six years of laboring through GP2 and Auto GP (the flat Faygo of junior single-seater series) finally parlayed into a part-time Indycar ride last year for Bryan Herta’s team, where he showed glimpses of brilliance, but no really impressive results in limited opportunities. He’s come closer to a shot in F1 than most young Italian drivers recently, and coincidentally, he’s at the age Alex Zanardi was in his rookie year of CART (29). He’s worth the risk for any team.

James Hinchcliffe

This young man should have been Champ Car’s brightest star, and he’d get that chance here. A vibrant personality that evokes memories of Greg Moore and Paul Tracy, this Canadian driver has delivered the goods for Andretti Autosport in the last two seasons, getting his first career victories in 2013 on road, street, and oval tracks. In 2014, he’s expected to be an Indycar title favorite. He’s an absolute must-get for a rebooted Champ Car.

Charlie Kimball

Kimball was racing in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series with some kid named Vettel until a Type-1 diabetes diagnosis set his career back a bit. Now entering his fourth season of IndyCars, Kimball finally notched his first win at Mid-Ohio, and is now one of the best role models in all of sports, especially for young people who have been dealt a cruel hand of chronic illness in their lives. Who could say no to a talent like that?

Josef Newgarden

He could have been the first Tennessee native to reach F1, but sidestepped back to the American circuit due to a lack of funding and in 2013 experienced his first real successes in IndyCar with Sarah Fisher’s team, recording his first podium in Baltimore and a handful of top-10s. He’s a funny, bright young man, and he’s a noted Nashville Predators fan, which should justify his acquisition by itself.

Simon Pagenaud

The last of the tenured IndyCar veterans was also Champ Car’s final Rookie of the Year winner (2007). Then he left for endurance racing, enjoyed success with Peugeot’s LMP program and in the American Le Mans Series, and went back to IndyCar in 2012 having lost absolutely none of his open-wheel prowess. He could have won the series championship last year, but he’s a favorite to win it all in 2014 at the age of 30. Unquestionably talented, and I’d want him back in Champ Car in a flash.

Outsiders/Newcomers/Returning

Daniel Abt (GP2 Series)

Sure, his 2013 GP2 Series season was nothing short of abhorrent, but Abt has enjoyed success before in Formula 3 and GP3 Series competition. He also carries backing from Deutsche Post, so at the very least, you’re getting an incomplete driver with some money, but also a driver with a lot of potential to excel in a good situation.

Jaime Alguersuari (ex-Formula 1)

23 is too young an age for Alguersuari to have been sitting for years in auto racing purgatory, and it’s time to fix this injustice. Alguersuari was a star in F3 competition before coming to F1 in 2009, where he drowned at first, but started swimming along nicely in 2011 before being dropped by Red Bull/Toro Rosso all together, and has yet to get back onto the grid. There is still massive, untapped potential to be found in Alguersuari. Not to mention he can spin records at pre-race parties.

Sam Bird (GP2 Series)

Four seasons of stellar driving in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 Series weren’t enough without a title to show for it, and at age 27, some think Bird is too old for an F1 rookie these days. Will Buxton had said on NBC’s F1 broadcast in Brazil that he should be racing for Williams F1 Team right now, and it’s astounding that no IndyCar team has picked him up yet despite his interest in the series. No matter. Champ Car would be glad to take him.

Johnny Cecotto Jr. (GP2 Series)

Now we might have a problem with this pick, because the son of the former F1 journeyman and motorcycle world champion has been criticized for stubborn, rough driving in GP2 and sticking around mostly due to sponsorship rather than results. But he’s not a slow driver like many of GP2’s other lackluster pay drivers, and his bull-headed attitude will at least make for some must-watch television at the very least. Champ Car needs a crazy, batshit insane wildcard, and the man they call Johnny Amadeus Cecotto Jr. would be perfect in that role.

Gabby Chaves (Indy Lights)

I selected just two Indy Lights drivers, which probably meant I picked half of the field from last season (cue rimshot). Chaves is the first selection, narrowly missing out on the title to his teammate despite recording podium finishes in ten of the last eleven races of the twelve-race season. That’s some very impressive consistency even in a small field. I’d let IndyCar keep one of their rising Colombian stars (Carlos Muñoz) as long as I could get the other one, and Chaves does not seem like a bad fallback option.

Timo Glock (DTM)

Another former Champ Car Rookie of the Year (2005, Rocketsports Racing), Glock is now racing in the DTM series following a promising F1 career that ultimately fell short at Toyota, and stagnated with Marussia. But he just seems like the type of driver that wants to be back in a high-powered, open-wheel machine. He won’t turn 32 until March, so he still has more than enough shelf life. Welcome back to Champ Car, Mr. Glock.

Ryo Hirakawa (Super Formula)

The second-youngest of the drivers’ club, Hirakawa had an IndyCar test for Dale Coyne Racing in mid-2013, but never raced last season. Not even 20 years old yet, Hirakawa has already won Japan’s F3 championship and Porsche Carrera Cup series, spent only four years karting before moving up to single-seaters, and is one of the best drivers in the Super Formula championship. To put it simply: he’s projecting to be the next Japanese star of open-wheel racing.

Sage Karam (Indy Lights)

It seems likely that Karam, the youngest driver of this field at age 18, will land an IndyCar ride at some point this year. The reigning Indy Lights champion has the best oval track skill of any of the rookies, having won twice on ovals last year – but he’s still a more than capable road/street course driver, proving so in the recent Rolex 24 for Chip Ganassi’s prototype racing team. Also a member of the “cool name fraternity” with Alguersuari and Glock.

Jolyon Palmer (GP2 Series)

Wow, another GP2 driver? Palmer has shown to be an aggressive racer and a good overtaker, which will certainly make him a favorite to fans in America. He comes from a racing family (his father, Jonathan, is a former F1 driver), he’s won races in GP2, and he carries a bit of sponsorship with him through his family’s racing promotion. Entering his fourth GP2 season next year, Palmer has a real shot at winning that championship even if it is more the result of tenure, but he’s not inept by any stretch.

Alexander Rossi (GP2 Series)

The only driver currently in a reserve F1 role, Rossi currently slots behind Robin Frijns on Caterham’s depth chart – meaning Frijns will likely get promoted up to F1 should the team sack one of their drivers. Where does that leave Rossi? He’s won titles and races in the European ladder, and is the best American prospect for F1, but if that falls through, Rossi is on the record as saying: “For me in the late nineties growing up I watched Champ Car and for me that was the best championship that there was, for me it was even better than F1. But when they split it ruined it and they lost a lot of fans and people got confused and then it just kind of slid.”

That’s all the convincing I’d need.

Bruno Senna (FIA WEC)

Finally, a Brazilian driver! And one from a legendary racing pedigree at that. Okay, yes, Bruno wasn’t anywhere close to being as successful as his legendary uncle in Formula 1, but he was a consistent, if unspectacular, point-scorer with Williams in 2012, scoring points in half of his twenty starts. He also nearly won a GP2 Series title in 2008 and has been a solid endurance racer, but has been considering a switch to American competition in the future. He’d be a solid “get” even if it was just for the surname and the sponsorship he carries.

Robert Wickens (DTM)

Finally, it’s another Canadian talent, and one of F1’s most overlooked prospects – simply because he’s racing in DTM, which has only produced two future F1 drivers. Wickens was a former Red Bull prospect, like Alguersuari, and is a former Formula Renault 3.5 series champion (2011). He broke through with a first DTM win last year that should have been two, and he’s a driver that should be at least an F1 reserve…but Champ Car would be glad to have him.

Let me just say that it was tough to leave off former Champ Car drivers like Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Justin Wilson, and Graham Rahal, as well as Takuma Sato, who would have fit in nicely into the series, or Andre Lotterer, a former Champ Car cameo runner who has two overall victories at Le Mans with Audi and, who in my view at least, is the best circuit racers who will likely never compete in Formula 1. It came down to factors such as age, contracts with big-time IndyCar teams who surely wouldn’t want their top drivers going to the “competition”, injury risk, or in Rahal’s case, being young enough and having won before but having an inconsistent pattern of progression over several seasons. I wanted to include third-generation hotshot Pietro Fittipaldi, Emerson’s grandson, but I feel that he’s too young to immediately debut in a rebooted series – maybe in a year or two down the road. But I still feel that this is a great lineup of drivers that could slug it out somewhere like Road America or Laguna Seca and put on a hell of a show for the fans, a mixture of a wealth of youth with a healthy dash of experience to balance it out, and some colorful personalities that already have, or will have, a great following.

It’s purely hypothetical and will never, ever happen in the post-unification era of American open-wheel racing, but it’d be cool to see these twenty drivers power down the streets of Long Beach in something akin to the Elan DP01 chassis that only competed for one season before Champ Car went away.

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