The well worn cliche, the more things change the more they stay the same, could not be more apropos for the 2004 motorsport season. The usual suspects (driver, team and manufacturer) that have led their respective series in the past continue to look strong for the present and for the immediate future. For the sake of fan interest, let's all hope for some change in the proverbial weather. No one likes to see the same pony on the merry-go-round. So with that as a mental picture, let's take a spin around the major series in the circus of motorsport.
For those who proudly wear the red shirt of Ferrari, nothing is better than Michael Schumacher. The man owns all the major records and is closing in on Senna's magical number of pole positions. However, what may be good for the millions of Ferrari fans is not necessarily the best for F1. The first four races of the season are a perfect example--once again it is The Ferrari Show. The promises and hyped reports from the other camps of pre-season testing have failed to materialize. While the season is really just getting started, it shows just how good Maranello has been at pushing the evolution of their basic package, which hit the ground running in 2000.
Both McLaren and Williams responded with completely new cars at an enormous cost. How the MP4-19 with its new Mercedes 110Q V10 and the BMW-powered FW 26 will perform respectively over the duration of the season against the rugged Ferrari seems to be a foregone conclusion. The tire war between Bridgestone vs. Michelin has caught Bib and the boys from Clermont Ferrand off guard. Most, including F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, expected Michelin to be the better choice for 2004 based on Bib's performance from last season. So far Bridgestone has consistently outpaced its rival.
In addition, the new rules package--for instance, you race with the motor you practiced and qualified with, has been a problem along with the usual sorting out of a new car. As for the other teams with the exception of Renault and BAR-Honda, it will be business as usual at the middle and back of the grid. Sorry Jaguar, even with Mark Weber's brilliant start to the season.
FIA World Rally
One of the great injustices is the lack of a round of the world rally championship in the U.S. At least this year, the growing amount of serious fans can be thankful that Mexico played host to what may be the most gifted drivers in the world. Two of the mainstays in the championship are Citroen and Peugeot, not exactly household names in this country, which makes a round here even more remote. Subaru has translated its rally success into sales in the U.S., proving that even something as inaccessible as the WRC can provide a payoff. Rally, like Formula One, has also turned into a battle between tire manufacturers. Care to guess which two majors are the protagonists in this year's edition. A clue: One is based in Italy.
The FIA GT series is now in its eighth year, will visit Dubai for the first time and make a return to the Zhuhai circuit in Mainland China. Having abandoned the GT-1 prototypes in 1999 for the more production-based Vipers and Porsches, the series has seen steady growth, seeing introduction of some first-rate GT cars with the Lister Storm and Ferrari 550s and 575s. The second-tier N-GT class protagonists of the Porsche GT-3 and Ferrari 360 usually take the battle to the final laps. While the cars may be similar to their counterparts in the U.S., the FIA GT runs to a different set of rules from the ALMS, although the two series do meet up on occasion and at Le Mans under the auspices of the ACO's regulations.
The true success of the FIA GT can be traced to strong leadership and organizational skills with personnel dating back to the formation of the BPR series of the '90s. Ferrari has jumped out to an early lead in the championship with several wins, although the Ford-powered Saleen finally broke through with a big win at Magny Cours in France. Porsche is, once again, dominant in the N-GT class with a vastly improved GT-3 RSR against a host of Ferrari red. The fact that Weissach legend Norbert Singer has been seen at the rounds of the FIA GT confirms Porsche's intention of winning this championship.
IMSA-American Le Mans Series
The ALMS has become a victim of sorts of the very success that the series promised. The LMP category, with the open cockpit cars of the big 900 and smaller 675, are true prototypes. As almost anyone who has followed the series knows of founder Don Panoz's alliance with the governing body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the ACO and a liberal use of its rules. It is doubtful that, without the existence of the ALMS, such cars as the all-conquering Audi R8 and Pratt & Miller Corvette GTS would have ever been built. This year the ALMS will go on but with far fewer entrants in the big prototype category.
It would be easy to blame Audi for this, but in reality it is a shortage of vision within the circle of manufacturers. If you want to get to Le Mans, then the road to le Sarthe leads through the ALMS. The loss of the Prodrive and Raffanelli Ferrari 550s will greatly diminish the GTS class, and the now Michelin-shod revamped Corvette team should face little competition. In GT the bell will toll once again between Porsche and Ferrari, but look for the smaller Porsche GT3 teams to take the battle to the semi-factory effort of Alex Job Racing.
Nothing inspires an independent team more than knocking off the big boys. The 12 Hours of Sebring showed that little had changed when an Audi UK-entered R8 (along with the return of Allan McNish) claimed top spot on the podium. GT was made interesting only by the determined 3rd-place finish of the Barron Conner Racing factory-built Ferrari 575 GTC. Driven by a strong team which included Danny Sullivan, the car suffered from a lack of speed, a lack of spares but dogged on to a podium appearance, albeit many laps behind the class-winning Corvette.
Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series
The Grand Am was formed as the anti-ALMS, with emphasis on private teams and the exclusion of factory involvement with the exception of powerplants. As ownership and organization is Nascar-based, once would expect the philosophy to follow suit. Lower costs and strict adhering to a set of regulations have made the Grand Am a popular choice for many competitors who want to race in a less pressurized environment. The racing is close with its mix of amateur and professional drivers, but the Daytona prototypes have not caught on with the public yet, and the venue plays to almost empty stands. In an attempt to hype the series, several key Nascar names were aboard various cars for the Daytona 24 Hours. There is no doubt that Grand Am is growing and will be in for the long haul. However, what this really signals is the separation between the truly international sports car competitor who wants to run at Le Mans, along with the main tracks in the U.S., and the competitors who prefer a national series within their own borders. The increase of competitors in the Daytona prototype class has reshuffled the deck considerably. The Fabcar Porsche-powered Brumos coupes that came close to winning the championship last season have shown to be uncompetitive with the current crop of BMW, Lexus and Chevy-powered efforts. The current prototype class points leaders are Kelly Collins and Cort Wagner. The two teammates have been long associated with Chevrolet, Porsche, Ferrari and IMSA and are back together in a BMW-powered Doran chassis.
Speed World Challenge
In Europe they have touring car championships, and in the U.S. we have the Speed World Challenge for touring and GT production-based cars. This may be the best and most competitive racing on road circuits in the country. Last year, GT driver and manufacturer honors were captured by Randy Pobst aboard his Audi RS 6, which was constructed entirely in the workshops of Champion Motorsport. Ironically, the Champion team had a great year with its R8 prototype in the ALMS and at Le Mans, but the Speed title meant a great deal more to the team personally. A tight field competing in a 50-minute race makes for great television, and the World Challenge always delivers some spirited on-track battles. This series has been consistent in its vision and knows what both the fans and the competitors expect--although few expected to see the new Cadillac at the front of the field this season. But the fact that it is bodes well for the series. This is where road racing in America is going, not in single-seat formula cars. That may play in the rest of the world, but the show closes early here.