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.Servia, Junqueira and Tracy should not be substitutes. For one thing, it's unfair to drop any driver into a car at the last minute and expect him to perform at 100 percent of his ability. (Tracy found that out at Watkins Glen, Servia at Mid-Ohio.) Secondly, all three bring so much more to a team than just an ability to safely gather points. There is speed, knowledge, experience – and the familiarity of names that actually strike a chord with the public.
Given that our trio comprises a Brazilian, a Canadian and a Spaniard (sorry, a Catalonian), some might argue that U.S. drivers should take priority. (It's something I don't agree with, personally – the best drivers available should be in the cars, and I only get angry when talented U.S. drivers lose out to rich European mediocrity.) However, Junqueira, Servia and particularly Tracy have all raced in the U.S. for long enough that they're virtually adopted as home boys, and their abilities and achievements count for far more than their passports.
I'm convinced that 99 percent of sponsors agree with me. Sure, they'd love to be sponsoring an American, but the priority is to have their name associated with winners and therefore on TV as often as possible. Penske and Ganassi employ drivers from New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Brazil because they were the best available: it's no coincidence that these teams have the most firmly established sponsorship deals in the IndyCar paddock.
Nor should the drivers' ages matter. Junqueira is 32, Servia is 35 and Tracy is 40. But so what? Jimmy Vasser was 40 when he last ran a full season in 2005…and, as teammate to 2002 CART champ Cristiano da Matta, he outqualified him more often than not.
If, as Vasser has said, Mario Moraes could be the next Juan Montoya (no doubt, the kid's very quick, and increasing in much needed patience) then we've seen enough comparisons between M.M. and P.T. to suggest that Tracy could be the new Vasser! Not quite as swift on one flying lap, but still a great racer. And what P.T. lacks in engineering nous compared to a Vasser or Servia, he more than compensates for with his near- peerless ability to create overtaking opportunities where others see none, and a phenomenal ability to find grip when others can't.
Junqueira is not as incisive a racer on a street course as Tracy, but he can coax a tremendous amount of speed from an ill-handling car on a natural road course, and has a real technical feel for then improving the car. This serves him equally well on the ovals, and it's a shame he never got to work again with Bill Pappas. Bruno would doubtless have boosted Dale Coyne Racing's progress this year, and sped Justin Wilson up the learning curve in establishing what he needs from a good oval car.
And Servia? Well, he combines elements of both Tracy and Junqueira. He can be hard as nails in a wheel-to-wheel situation, but his degree in engineering means he also can give his team real guidance with great feedback. He's also probably the best of these three at keeping his team's morale high whenever they encounter difficulties.
Alex Tagliani, whose non-employment last caused me to sound off in a column like this, appears to have landed on his feet for the first time since 2000, and his FAZZT race team should have its first test in December. But now here are three more open-wheel veterans who still have much more to give. And look at how many single-car teams could use their skills: KV, Dale Coyne, Panther, Vision, Luczo Dragon…
I've tried to steer clear of their personalities in this column, because their driving skills alone should be enough to attract the teams. But for the sake of the IndyCar Series, I believe Tracy, Servia and Junqueira have much to offer outside the cockpit too. Their presence could help to get the general public to care about this beleaguered branch of U.S. motorsport once more, and attract TV viewers and spectators who (rightly or wrongly) know little and care less about a Conway or a Doornbos.
It will take a little money to get this trio in cars for next year, but it will also take common sense. Team owners must recognize that, for what they bring to a team, a sponsor, a race promoter and the IndyCar Series, Tracy, Servia and Junqueira are absolute bargains.
Even Mr. X agrees, these days.David Malsher is the Editor of RACER magazine.