The slow process of crowning the 2006 Champ Car World Series champion will begin to unfold this weekend at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. Four races remain, beginning with Sunday's Grand Prix of Montreal, but they will be spread over 13 weeks and four countries before the season concludes in Mexico City in mid-November.
There's a good chance the last couple of races might not even matter in terms of the championship, because Sebastien Bourdais holds a handy 33-point championship lead over A.J. Allmendinger and, barring a disastrous weekend or two, is headed for his third consecutive Champ Car series crown. Justin Wilson, coming off a disappointing eighth-place finish in Denver, is the only other title contender and the Englishman arrives in Montreal 35 points behind Bourdais.
The Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is one of he few Champ Car venues where the Frenchman has not won, though not surprisingly, he has often been fast on the 2.794-mile road course that also hosts the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix. Last year a slow final pit stop relegated the two-time series champion to a fourth-place finish at Montreal.
"It was pretty upsetting because we definitely worked really hard to get up there but I guess it's always been my story in Montreal," Bourdais stated. "We've always been quick but never could put it together so hopefully this year will be different."
Since joining Forsythe Championship Racing in mid-June, Allmendinger has matched Bourdais point for point and his four victories rank second to the Frenchman's five. But Allmendinger's teammate Paul Tracy might be even more motivated to win this weekend; PT is at his best in the kind of hostile environment he expects from the French-Canadian crowd in the wake of his controversial collision (and subsequent fistfight) with Montreal native Alex Tagliani at the recent Grand Prix of San Jose.
Tracy is winless in 2006 and his bad season got worse two weeks ago at Denver when he and championship leader Bourdais crashed out on the last lap while disputing second place behind Allmendinger. But the Forsythe team stood by their man: General manager Neil Mickelwright called Tracy's drive "heroic" and owner Gerry Forsythe was impressed enough to pay Tracy a bonus equivalent to the one he gets for winning a race.
"I have to conclude that Denver was a great event for me," Tracy wrote in his online column. "I lost just three points in a [terrible] season where my points mean nothing anyway. On the plus side, I've just been given a sizeable bonus and I got to piss off the guy I hate."
Tracy's M.O. of using what he calls the "Chrome Horn" to bump competitors out of the way hasn't changed much, but 16 years into his Champ Car career, he's changing his driving style. After analyzing Allmendinger's data, Tracy decided to teach himself to left-foot brake, and he expects the technique to be especially helpful at Montreal, a track consisting of fast straights broken up by hard braking into chicanes.
Newman/Haas and Forsythe have excelled on similar circuits this year, whereas Wilson's RuSPORT team has often struggled. The RuSPORT cars don't have the same traction out of slow corners and tend to burn off their rear tires.
For the second race in a row, Wilson will fly the RuSPORT flag by himself because the team has not nominated a replacement driver for the injured Cristiano da Matta. Wilson and RuSPORT principals recently visited da Matta at the Wisconsin hospital where he continues to recover from head injuries sustained when his Champ Car struck a deer while testing on Aug. 2.
"We did well in Montreal last year and were in a position to win, but unfortunately, it didn't work out," Wilson noted. "We'll see what we can do to put a good result in, although we'll miss having Cristiano there with us."
Nelson Philippe has risen to fourth in the Champ Car point standings, and he and CTE Racing teammate Dan Clarke have often led the second tier behind the series' three top teams. Other drivers to watch this weekend include local favorites Tagliani (Team Australia) and Andrew Ranger (Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing), defending race champion Oriol Servia (PKV Racing) and Bourdais' teammate Bruno Junqueira, who won at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in 2004.
This is likely to be Champ Car's last appearance in Montreal, thanks to some political machinations by Normand Legault, whose contract as the race rights holder for the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve was recently extended. The city of Montreal permits only two races a year at the island track that winds around the site of the 1967 World Expo -- the F1 GP is safely locked in as one of them -- and Legault has openly shopped the Champ Car date to the Indy Racing League and NASCAR. It is believed that the NASCAR Busch Series will replace Champ Car in 2007.
Last year, Legault was accused of sabotaging the Montreal Champ Car event by limiting the number of grandstands erected and generally doing a poor job of promotion. Promotion for this year's race has been taken over by Alain Labrosse, the former agent for Patrick Carpentier who now represents Champ Car driver (and Quebec native) Ranger.
Advance ticket sales for this year's race have been boosted by a distribution deal with Wal-Mart, and the highly publicized San Jose fistfight between local favorite Tagliani and Tracy has no doubt raised the interest level.
"The grandstands are back and they will be filled with people," declared Labrosse. "That's what happens when you have a motivated promoter. I know Champ Car wants to come back here because they love the track and it's a great market for them."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.