SURFERS PARADISE, Australia — Justin Wilson thought he had it made when he signed after last season to replace Sebastien Bourdais in the Champ Car World Series.
And then along came the announcement in February that the Indy Racing League and Champ Car, after a 12-year split, had agreed to unify.
“I had (Bourdais’) car and it was going to be great. I was thinking ‘OK here we go,’” said Wilson, who drives for the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team.
“Then the talk and the rumors started, which was a massive distraction. Finally it happens and we had to regroup and tackle something that was pretty tough.”
As tough as hitting the books again.
“It’s like walking into a class at school with the others having been studying for six years and you, three weeks,” Wilson said. “You can cram all you like but you will not know as much as they do.”
Wilson wasn’t being overdramatic. For his team, it was out with the Cosworth engines, in with the IRL’s Honda power plants. DP01 chassis? Gone, replaced by Dallaras. And those Bridgestone tires used by Champ Car were history, replaced by Firestone.
Horsepower in the cars went down to about 650 from 800. And no push-to-pass turbochargers to help out on the straights.
Most of the Champ Car teams barely had time to build a new car, let alone a backup, although IRL founder Tony George did offer the new teams help.
“Tony and the league went above and beyond, I think, to not only get the cars, but to tool us up with spare parts,” former driver and IRL team owner Jimmy Vasser said last week at the Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise.
“I commend the IRL teams that did help us out. I think they realized there was a greater goal, for the good of open-wheel racing, not to have the Champ Car teams struggle. I think that if the shoe was on the other foot, they realized the difficulty they would have had.”
Champ Car drivers also had to learn a new track at almost every race, most of them ovals. The general consensus was that Champ Car could have been up to six years and US$50 million (€39 million) behind in research and development when the two groups merged, a figure that Vasser thinks could be exaggerated.
The five Champ Car teams that moved to IRL were each connected with a “partner” team from the existing circuit, often using organizational ties to marry the two into a relationship.
The existing IRL teams were expected to provide their expertise, even perhaps some race setups, to the new kids on the block. But there could be some perceived reluctance at anyone giving a team like Newman/Haas/Lanigan, which has more than 100 open-wheel victories in CART and Champ Car, any more information than it already had.
Vasser, whose KV Racing Technology was paired with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, a team Vasser drove for when he won the 1996 Champ series title, said the situation worked well.
“If it wasn’t for Chip and (team managing director) Mike Hull and all his guys over there, we would have been in a much more difficult position,” Vasser said.
Newman/Haas/Lanigan’s two drivers were the only former Champ Car drivers to win on the IRL this season, Graham Rahal in St. Petersburg, Florida and Wilson in Detroit.
Despite his comment about having to go back to school, Wilson has no doubt the unification was a great move.
“Ultimately it is the best for everyone,” he said. “Take the pain now, suffer these first few races, but eventually this is what the sport needed to get stronger.”
Team Australia’s Will Power also said it was a daunting season.
“At the start of this year I was getting ready to win a championship,” Power said. “Then suddenly I’ve got to start again, from scratch.”
The unification’s pluses were evident: The number of teams on the combined circuit jumped from eight to 14; the average number of cars per race from 20 to 26, and the fewest number of cars to enter any IRL race was 24, up from 18 in 2007.
At the Champ Car race at Surfers Paradise last year there were just 17 cars, this year, in the expanded IRL, 24.
The IRL said in a statement there were more spectators at 12 of the 16 races on the schedule, television ratings were up about 10 percent and there was a 25 percent increase in merchandise sales.
Erik Berkman, the president of Honda Performance Development, the engine-building arm of the company, said from his standpoint, the transition went “seamlessly and successfully,” adding that Honda engines ran nearly 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) during the 2008 season “without a single in-race engine failure.”
In 2009, the IRL has scheduled 18 races, 10 on ovals and eight on street courses. It is expected that the ratio might be 10 and 10 in the future if new races are added.
For now, it’s onward and upward, says Vasser, as the open-wheelers continue to try to make inroads in the tremendous popularity enjoyed by NASCAR.
“I welcome the challenge,” Vasser said. “We need to keep giving good value to our sponsors. And just keep our heads down and put out a good product for the fans.”