Bruno Junqueira, Oriol Servia and Paul Tracy are race-winning Indy car talents who (surprise, surprise) - haven't a clue what – or even, if – they are going to be racing next year. RACER editor David Malsher believes this is a crazy situation.
First of all a history lesson from the fairly recent past. It starts at Champ Car's Spring Training, Laguna Seca, March 2007. It was the third official test session with the new Panoz DP01-Cosworth, and the first day at Monterey saw Sebastien Bourdais, Paul Tracy and Justin Wilson occupying the top three slots on the time sheets. Consequently, I remarked to one of the senior figures in pitlane – let's call him Mr. X to spare his embarrassment – that the new car may be faster than the old Lola, but it was still the same names at the top.
“That's just their teams' experience showing through,” replied Mr. X. “You journalists have new storylines now. This season, Champ Car is going to be all about the best of America – Graham Rahal – and the best of Europe – Neel Jani – taking on Bourdais, the champion.”
The logic of omitting Wilson, Will Power and Tracy from his list of contenders seemed non-existent to me. Maybe I was too kind, but a month later, I resisted reminding Mr. X of his comment when Power and Tracy wrapped up the front row for the opening round of the season in Las Vegas. It was difficult to restrain myself, however, when I noted Jani, Rahal and Bourdais had lined up ninth, 10th, and 16th on this, a new circuit for everyone.
That summer, Tracy scored a wild win in Cleveland, but his season as a whole went south as Forsythe Racing got its setup for the Panoz upside down and back to front. (So much for the “team's experience,” huh?) Oriol Servia, who had subbed for Paul while he recovered from his spinal injury incurred at Long Beach, became Tracy's teammate and, when the car was at its worst, Oriol proved better at hauling it up the grid. P.T. came to the fore when the cars worked and was usually the slightly stronger racer – though also the one more likely to get involved in incidents. But they both did well in severely trying circumstances, while watching drivers of lesser talent having a far easier time of it.
Yet toward the end of the season, Mr. X, commenting on Forsythe's problems, laid the blame at the feet of the drivers. “Paul and Oriol – their days have past,” he said. “Forget them: this is a young man's sport now.” Now, I like Mr. X, despite his misguided beliefs, but I'm afraid this time I did laugh in his face. In the course of my derisive retort, I said, ‘If you think experience is so unimportant, how do you explain Bruno's performances?'
This was reference to Bruno Junqueira, who had lost his ride at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at the end of 2006, and had joined Dale Coyne Racing. The Brazilian, three times championship runner-up, had therefore gone from the most successful team to one of the least successful. However, he and the team gelled and together they got a handle on the new Panoz (a damn sight quicker than Forsythe) and, as one of the feel-good stories of the season, eventually took three consecutive podium finishes.
The last of these came in Surfers Paradise, but owed something to good fortune, for two cars ahead of him had elevated him from fifth to third. And they were the cars of Servia and Tracy. Although Oriol had lost his ride at Forsythe (team owner Gerry Forsythe needed David Martinez in the No. 7 car for the Australian and Mexican rounds), he was drafted into KV Racing to replace Tristan Gommendy whose money hadn't turned up. Servia was fastest in Friday qualifying at this most daunting of street tracks, guaranteeing himself a front-row slot and, until clipping a wall, seemed destined for a podium finish.
So too did Tracy. With chief engineer Tom Brown now on board, the Forsythe cars had been radically adjusted, and P.T. was back to his confident best. He was second fastest on Saturday (behind, inevitably, Power) and on Sunday he would have finished third but ran out of fuel on the final lap. Things went better for both drivers at the final round, two weeks later, as Servia and Tracy finished third and fourth respectively. Their days were past? Yeah, right.
OK, first part of history lesson over. Why did I start there? Because 2007 was the last time Tracy had a fairly complete season in open-wheel racing. I use “fairly” with some emphasis, because he did miss two races. Last year, sadly, he missed all but one IndyCar Series race having never found a full-time ride in the now unified U.S. open-wheel world. By contrast, Servia and Junqueira were employed throughout 2008, remaining at KV Racing and Dale Coyne Racing respectively. But now they, too, have gone a season of not much action.
Most ill-served was Junqueira, who did a stunning job for Conquest Racing to qualify for the Indy 500 with so little preparation, gave up his start to appease the race sponsors on teammate Alex Tagliani's car, and has not reappeared in an IndyCar.
Servia did a great job in the one-off Rahal Letterman Racing entry at Indy, and after a slowish start with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at Mid-Ohio, and a frustrating mechanical issue at Infineon during practice, came on ever stronger, culminating in his fourth-place finish at Motegi. As Graham Rahal commented in his latest column here on RACER.com, Servia made a huge difference to the N/H/L team. Yet now the Catalan has been replaced for the final race.
Tracy had six races this year – five with KV, one with A.J. Foyt Racing. His efforts are well chronicled on this site [click here], but just to remind you, only the Penske/Ganassi quintet beat him in Edmonton, and his drive at Toronto should have resulted in at least a podium, maybe even a win. There are perhaps four other drivers in the IndyCar Series capable of P.T.'s drive that day – and not all four of them would have even tried. So now, in two seasons of open-wheel racing, Paul's had eight races. We're talking here of a former champion, one of the legendary talents of the U.S. open-wheel scene over the last two decades.