Franchitti, Wheldon, Meira debut with new teams at Australia's Gold Coast

The non-championship exhibition race at Surfers Paradise, Australia, was a good news/bad news situation for the IndyCar Series.

It provided a chance for several IndyCar Series teams to work with new drivers in racing conditions to get a head start on the 2009 season.

But more than five months will pass before they get to do it again in the 2009 season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dario Franchitti made his return to open-wheelers with Target/Ganassi Racing after a year away, which prompted fellow former series champion (and Andretti Green Racing alumnus) Dan Wheldon's move to Panther Racing. That in turn led to Panther incumbent Vitor Meira signing with A.J. Foyt Racing, and all three drivers debuted with their new teams on the streets of Australia's Gold Coast.

As former series and Indianapolis 500 champions, most of the attention was directed at Franchitti and Wheldon. Franchitti walked away from IndyCar at the end of 2007 to pursue a NASCAR career with Ganassi's team. After limited success, Chip Ganassi cut back his NASCAR operation and offered Franchitti the chance to return to open-wheelers, an invitation that Dario quickly accepted. Wheldon announced his alliance with Panther less than a week later.

After about two dozen stock car races, Franchitti adapted quickly back to the familiar Dallara/Honda Indy car and his new team, qualifying fourth before a midrace spin relegated him to a 16th-place finish.

Franchitti did get the satisfaction of turning the fastest lap of the race, and he got to start a working relationship with engineer Chris Simmons.

"First weekend back, it's gone a lot better than I expected,"
Franchitti said. "I knew coming to the team [that] the car would be fine. It was like, 'OK, am I going to be able to come out of the box this first weekend and be competitive?' I wasn't sure.

"I didn't really put any expectations on myself, and it was surprising to be in the top three in every session and qualifying fourth."

Wheldon started his IndyCar Series career with Panther Racing in 2002, so it was a homecoming of sorts for the Englishman. He had the benefit of a pair of tests with the team prior to the Australian race, but like many, he was caught off guard by a prequalifying rainstorm and finished 10th, gaining two positions on the final lap.

"Obviously, we're happy to be able to leave here with a top-10 result," Wheldon said. "This weekend for myself and the Panther crew was a very tough baptism -- the Australia track is a difficult one for people who have never been here before, and we pretty much lost the first three practice sessions with a few little problems that put us on our back foot for a good part of the weekend.

"But we're in a much better position now as a team than we would have been if we hadn't been able to run here."

It's pretty tough to defend a title. Winning is tough, but to defend is harder, and last time we tried it [in 2004], it didn't work out too well.

-- Scott Dixon

With Franchitti returning to Indy cars, four former series champions will be on the grid in 2009 -- Dixon, Franchitti, Wheldon and
2004 titlist Tony Kanaan -- and can be expected to vie for another crown. Team Penske drivers Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves bring the number of drivers who represent legitimate championship threats to six, while Andretti Green's Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick could be long-shot contenders if they are able to up their games.

Dixon was happy to have the opportunity to work with Franchitti over the course of a race weekend to jump-start his championship defense.

"It's pretty tough to defend a title," Dixon remarked. "Winning is tough, but to defend is harder, and last time we tried it [in 2004], it didn't work out too well. But obviously, next year I think the team looks very strong. The development has been good in the offseason already [and] the car is super fast. Having the two last 500 championships and the last series champions makes a very good team."

After spending 40 laps staring at Briscoe's rear wing during the Surfers Paradise race, current champ Dixon tapped Briscoe as potentially the biggest obstacle between himself and a third series title.

"Briscoe definitely is a huge talent, and we saw that today," Dixon said of the Surfers Paradise winner. "The guy is very fast, he can hold races together and he is going to be tough to beat. Helio's always very tough to beat. No matter who is in Penske's cars, they are always fantastic drivers.

"I think next year Ryan, Dario, Helio and even Ryan [Hunter-Reay] are going to be pretty tough to beat, let alone [Justin] Wilson and a bunch of others, too. But I'd say Briscoe will be at the top."

Riding a wave of confidence after his pressure-packed homeland win, Briscoe looked like he wanted the 2009 season to start in five days rather than five months.

"This year has been very good for me -- especially the second half -- so I do have a lot of momentum behind me. I really want to carry that into 2009," he said.

"Indy cars are on the rise as a series globally and just getting stronger and stronger all the time, and next year we will see one of the strongest-ever seasons of IndyCar racing."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.