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Newman/Haas/Lanigan struggles to adjust to unified open-wheel racing

Justin Wilson’s crew prepares his car for the Indy 300, the first race in a unified IRL/Champ Car league. His teammate, Graham Rahal, crashed during a test and will not race in the opener.

\uFEFFAssociated Press

Justin Wilson’s crew prepares his car for the Indy 300, the first race in a unified IRL/Champ Car league. His teammate, Graham Rahal, crashed during a test and will not race in the opener.

HOMESTEAD — Graham Rahal's first (and so far only) IndyCar arrived in a box at Newman/Haas/Lanigan's race shop three weeks ago. It left the Homestead-Miami Speedway racing surface Tuesday on a flatbed, after the 19-year-old great-American-hope-in-waiting spun in a corner during a test and hit the wall.

Last year his team would have rolled out a new car, probably another really good one. But this spring is different. A team that won four consecutive Champ Car titles with former St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais had its dynasty snapped when Bourdais went to Formula One and the Champ Car series folded, melting into the rival Indy Racing League.

Now the eight-time champion is on a crash course to relearn how to race ovals (it hadn't contested one since 2006), and a special test for new teams before the IRL season opener ended with, well, a crash.

Such is the new reality for a team that amassed 105 open-wheel wins in 25 Champ Car seasons, second only to Team Penske. With a shortage of parts and cars, Newman/Haas/Lanigan was forced to pull Rahal's entry from Saturday's season opener and focus on his teammate, Justin Wilson.

It was yet another obstacle in a process rife with them in just three weeks of unified open-wheel racing.

"You reset your goals," general manager Brian Lisles said. "We'll be happy if we finish on the lead lap at Homestead."

Rahal's team was already retrofitting his car — changing brakes and suspension parts — to race April 6 in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"Maybe it's a blessing in disguise," Rahal said. "I don't know if I was maybe prepared enough to go and do this, really with no experience whatsoever. We really wanted to get some time in testing, and truth is, we really didn't get much at all."

The incoming teams have gotten some help from IRL veterans, but there are limits.

Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, said he wasn't asked by his son's team to use one of his backup cars, but doubted it would have been feasible anyway. His spare is already set up to run at St. Petersburg and might be needed at Homestead if Ryan Hunter-Reay crashes in practice or qualifying.

"You're not going to know if you need (the backup) until Friday night, so it would have been a thrash," Bobby Rahal said. "We've obviously tried to help Newman/Haas as a team all the way. We've loaned them all kinds of things and tried to be as much assistance as we could."

Still, Newman/Haas/Lanigan chief mechanic David Hoevel, in his 23rd year with the team, said he "won't catch up until December," roughly two months after the season is over.

Just a few data systems and sensors can be harvested from the year-old but now-obsolete DP01 cars, meaning teams have to completely relearn how to go fast. But such was the shortage of cars and parts that Newman/Haas/Lanigan was unable to undertake a special road course test for transitional teams last week at Sebring International Raceway.

It was a blow to a team, like most of the Champ Car expatriates that hope to be competitive more quickly on non-ovals, specifically the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first street race after reunification. Adjustments are many, from the Panoz DP01 chassis, Cosworth engines and Bridgestone tires to Dallaras, Hondas and Firestones.

The divergent types of ovals run by the IRL — short tracks such as Richmond, 2.5-mile flat ovals like Indianapolis, sweeping 1.5-mile speedways like Texas and Kansas — mean different ways to build a car, rules for each and the need for many more parts.

"It's not the way any of us like to do business, but it's just what you have to do," Lisles said. "You've just got to know it's going to be hard because quite frankly we're obviously not even going to be remotely competitive at Homestead. … Quite frankly, we're in a position of being last in the field, which is not something we particularly relish."

Not in the field at all is even worse.

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan struggles to adjust to unified open-wheel racing 03/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 10:22pm]
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