Champ Car Media Conference
Topics: Champ Car
ERIC MAUK: Thank you very much and thank you for joining us today on the Champ Car Atlantic media teleconference. We have a very exciting lineup here for you today as we bring on the new Ford car Atlantic program put together by Forsythe Championship Racing. We are joined by the four young men that will pilot the Atlantic cars this year, Leonardo Maia, Richard Phillipe, James Hinchcliffe and Andreas Wirth, and they are also joined by the general manager of Forsythe, Neil Micklewright. Thank you for joining us today. First of all, Neil, it's a very big undertaking. You guys obviously have a long and successful history in the Champ Car World Series, but this is a big leap in a new look Atlantic series, and not just to take one or two cars but you go in with four cars and attack this thing. Tell us about the thought process behind it.
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, obviously we're very excited about essentially the rebirth of Champ Car Atlantic; recognizing the ladder system for young drivers coming up hopefully leading up to Champ Car is very important. We looked at what an exciting series it is, what we think it can be for open-wheel racing in North America in the coming years, and decided that if we were going to get involved we wanted to get involved in the most professional and the biggest way possible. That led us then to look and see what talent was actually available out there and look for the best drivers, and it became pretty apparent that there were quite a few very good drivers out there, and we narrowed down the list of the people that we'd like to work with and ended up with four young men as opposed to two. We've been lucky enough and fortunate enough to conclude deals with them.
ERIC MAUK: Tell us about the structure of the team. It's obviously new people to handle this stable. How do you go about building this squad?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Essentially most of the people are now in place. I think obviously we're a professional race team. The Champ Car team will continue to run with its full standard personnel, so we have brought in extra people in order to run the Champ Car Atlantic program. It's a crew of about 20 people, including the engineers, et cetera, and at this point we have about 16 or 17 of those people already on board. It will run separately, will be under the same building, under the same guys, and one big happy family.
ERIC MAUK: Talk about a very compressed time frame to get this thing up and running. You get delivery of the cars, open test California Speedway, the Fontana Road Course out there the 21st and 22nd of March and then kick things off at Grand Prix Long Beach the second week of April. That's a very short amount of time.
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Certainly that is a challenge. What we were able to do, though, once we decided several months ago that we were going to get involved in Champ Car Atlantic again, we went ahead and started laying the groundwork for an awful lot of the things that were going to be necessary. Really the only thing that we're waiting for now is the new car to be delivered in early March. Later this month we'll be doing some practice at Sebring, just essentially just to give these four young men another taste of driving, try and get them in tiptop condition, et cetera. So certainly there are challenges, but as a race team that's already established in Champ Car as previous champions in Atlantic, we pretty much know what's necessary, what we need, and we've got some very good people who are working on that and are putting everything together. Right now everything is either on or ahead of schedule as far as it all coming together. Don't forget, as well, that with the experience that we've had in the past of running multi-car teams, we were operating in Champ Car as well as Indy Lights and Atlantic, so this isn't something we're just coming out of the blue. We know how to put these things together and hopefully do the best job anybody can do.
ERIC MAUK: Even more recently you ran a three-car Champ Car program and did that very well. Let's talk to the four young men that are going to be driving these cars. This is a very talented lineup of racecar drivers, each with strong pedigrees, and as Neil said, he was looking for some of the best talent out there and you've got to think that he found a good cross-section of that as we'll find out as we talk to these guys. Leo Maia is 2003 Barber Dodge Pro Series champion, six races and seven poles that year and went on to what was then called the Infiniti Pro Series in '04, won a couple of Atlantic races in '05 and spent much of the last year on the pavement in the Atlantic Champ Car paddock trying to ensure your future, and you've got to be happy with the way things turned out.
LEONARDO MAIA: I couldn't be happier. You look at the history of Forsythe Racing, and to be a part of it, it builds your confidence as a driver, makes you feel comfortable. You know that they're going to do whatever they can to help you out and to win. They're totally dedicated to winning. Really it's a situation that's really new to me where they just said you drive the car and we'll do everything in our power to make sure you win. I mean, you can't ask for anything more than that.
ERIC MAUK: You drove the Atlantic car a little bit last year, drove a couple of events at Cleveland but now you attack the season with an entire new team and an entirely new racecar. Talk about the challenges and coming into a new situation with a brand new racecar.
LEONARDO MAIA: It's going to be tough but it's going to be tough for everybody. There's not going to be really any advantages other than track knowledge from the guys that raced last year. I don't know how many are coming back. Andreas will definitely have an advantage over some of the guys there. Having a new car is great, especially on our team. We have a four-car team, we can do a lot of testing between the four of us and really get it dialed in. We're at a great advantage with that new car. So far everything is looking good with it. I'm really happy and anxious to get going.
ERIC MAUK: It's got to help your confidence a little bit. You've got to knowledge of the track from 2003 when you had some success in the Barber Dodge Pro Series so you know a little bit about what you're getting into.
LEONARDO MAIA: Believe it or not, the tracks kind of change when you jump into a new car. Things happen a little bit quicker so your sight picture is a little bit different. It's definitely tough. I did the Atlantic race in Cleveland, and that was a lot tougher than I was expecting it to be. I mean, it's the same track but it's almost new because you're in a completely different car that's got so much more downforce than a Barber Dodge, more horsepower and a big step up in every respect. To be driving a new car like that on a track that you've driven before, it may sound -- I know it's the same track and car, but it actually sort of changes the track and how you drive it. It's definitely challenging, but at least I know where to turn left and right. That's the one advantage I do have.
ERIC MAUK: Joining us on the phone from Germany, he'll be coming to Indianapolis to do his testing, Andreas Wirth, and Andreas, as Leo alluded to, ran nearly the full season in the Atlantic championship last year, finished 6th in the overall championship, he's the 2004 BMW champion, 11 podiums in 14 races. Andreas missed the last two events of the Atlantic series last year after being injured in an incident at Road America. First of all, Andreas, thanks for calling in from such a distance; and B, tell everybody a little bit about how you're doing health-wise.
ANDREAS WIRTH: I am fully recovered now. I am ready to go, I am 100 percent again. I did a lot of workout in the last few weeks, and I just tried to recover as fast as possible so I can be back in the car as fast as possible. I don't know how long it took after the accident to be in good shape again, but now I'm really -- I would say I'm now in the shape that I had in Denver, so I really have to finish some stuff.
ERIC MAUK: You're in the same shape you were in Denver. That's still trouble because you picked up your first Atlantic series win at the Grand Prix at Denver, also won a pole at Portland. You've got from the Atlantic side a little more experience than the rest of your stable mates. Tell us a little bit, it might be a little early, but do you have any expectations heading into this year?
ANDREAS WIRTH: No. Like Leo already said, I think that new car, and it's new for everyone, I know that I knew the tracks and that's like a small advantage, but new cars and everyone has to get used to these cars, and I think there are a lot of good drivers around. I think it's just who gets used to the car first. I mean, it includes the driver and the team, and I think with four drivers in the team, like Leo already said, we can test as much or more than the other teams because I don't think that there's another team around which has four cars. I think with four teammates, I think we are really good guys, and I think if everyone can drive some different stuff, we've had limited testing before Long Beach, I think we must be in front of the field.
ERIC MAUK: Talk a little bit about joining a team like Forsythe Championship Racing, a team with a championship pedigree and obviously a big opportunity for you.
ANDREAS WIRTH: What can I say, that's the biggest thing that could happen this year. I'm really, really happy to be a part of that team. That's really -- when I went to the U.S. in 2004 as part of the championship with BMW and we went together with Champ Car, it was always Forsythe. I wanted to be with Forsythe sometime. Now I'm one step closer. I'm not at that place at Forsythe where I want to be, but I would say I'm one step closer, and I think that's something where I can build something up to it.
ERIC MAUK: We'll talk to James Hinchcliffe, James a young man that chased Andreas for most of the year for 2004, finished 2nd at BMW, won four poles, last year's Mazda series, finished top five in the last eight races of the year. James, a big opportunity for you. Tell us a little bit about how you feel.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, I mean, it's pretty obvious. I think we all have the same feeling right now. Kind of like Leo and Andreas have already touched on, this is the caliber of team that every driver wants to race with at some point in their career. I don't think there's a single driver who's looking at Champ Car Atlantic right now who didn't dream about or try to get on this team. So to be one of the four drivers selected is just amazing. The team has got a great history with drivers; many of my heroes have come through this team and driven on this team, so it's a dream come true.
ERIC MAUK: Tell us a little bit -- it's a new deal for all of you, a very big undertaking four-car team, but you raced against Richard last year, you've raced against Andreas, you seem to know each other, seem to get a long pretty well. Seems to be a good atmosphere. Do you think that makes things easier?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: As much as you want to beat everyone on the track, it's also really important to work together. If you get along off the track, then the work you're going to produce is going to be ten times better and be more efficient and more effective. I've raced against both Richard and Andreas in the past, and I'm just getting to know Leo now, but we all seem to be getting along really well. When you know your teammates better and know the guys you're racing against, it improves everybody's game. I think we're going to be able to push each other in a friendly but a competitive way. I mean, four teammates when everyone is learning a new car, I think we've got the advantage going into the season now. No other teams -- the two days of testing before Long Beach, we're going to get four cars with data where a one-car team is going to be at a disadvantage. It's a great formula for the series coming up, personnel, all the guys on the team we've met and been working with the last few weeks getting the deal together have just been phenomenal. You really need a family friendly atmosphere to make a successful team. The minute you walk in the shop you can understand why these guys have been so successful, because they have that formula and they have that feeling around the whole shop.
Q. Richard Phillipe, the 2005 Formula BMW champion, three pins, six poles, ten top 5s last year making a big jump into Atlantic and you're definitely ahead of the curve making this jump at such a young age. Tell us how you feel about this opportunity.
RICHARD PHILLIPE: First of all, going with Forsythe was the best deal possible. Like James said, there's not -- every driver wants to be with Forsythe or to sign with Forsythe. I've driven the car, and it's quite a step, but I'm eager to learn. I need a challenge, and I'm ready to take this challenge.
ERIC MAUK: Your expectations to this year, have you thought about them long enough to set any goals for yourself?
RICHARD PHILLIPE: My goal this year is pretty simple. There's one thing I want to do, and it's win. These guys, my teammates, are going to be competitive and tough, but if I drive to be competitive, I'm not going to drive.
ERIC MAUK: As most people on the call that will be listening know, you're the brother of Nelson Phillip, who's entering his third season in the Champ Car World Series. You spent time in the Champ Car paddock, seeing the track, just been in the atmosphere. Does that help at all, make you a little looser, take the pressure off you?
RICHARD PHILIPPE: It's a little easier. I've been hanging in the paddock for two years watching Nelson and everything, most of the teams. Learned a lot just by watching. I don't know the track. I've only been to two of the tracks. I've only driven on two of the tracks. So learning the tracks is going to be one more challenge, but a lot of drivers are going to be on the same page as I am. I'm sure that Nelson can help with that. It's going to be a good season, and we can walk the track together.
ERIC MAUK: Good luck to all four of you guys. We look forward to seeing you on the racetrack this year.
Q. Congratulations to you guys. Great opportunity for all four of you. I wonder if each of you could tell us a little bit about the end of last season going into the fall and winter and what your goals were. Were you focused on getting rides in formula, did you have other options, were there other series you were looking at? What was your approach and how did this thing come together from that point of view? If Leo would start and we could go through each guy.
LEONARDO MAIA: Well, at the end of last year I wasn't really racing. I was looking really to drive anything. But I was focused on Atlantic because I went to every single Atlantic race. I had been talking to all of the teams, sort of really focusing on the whole Champ Car organization, like the Champ Car World Series and the Atlantic then. Really I just did everything to get on an Atlantic team. I knew with the new car coming that everyone would sort of start on the same page. I talked to John, who's the manager for the Atlantic team here at Forsythe, and we just started talking about each of us and about next year, and that's when I knew I pretty much had to be on this team. I had to be in Atlantic next year. The $2 million driver incentive is something huge and something I don't think motor sports has really seen before. It's just something that definitely closed the deal, to focus on Atlantic, and I just really have to say thank you to Forsythe and all the people that really got behind the series and really made it possible to sort of bring back the lower formula in open wheel in the U.S. because I think that has been struggling for a long time. Other than that, that's about it.
ANDREAS WIRTH: Well, at the end of the season actually after Denver I tried to win the championship, but it came different. I don't really know what to say about that now. After Road America or after the accident at Road America, it was definitely my goal to go into Champ Car if I finished let's say the top two or top three. But everything came different, so I knew after the accident that I would do the Atlantic series again because of the $2 million incentive, and I think that that's the biggest help a driver can get from a series. Like Leo said, I think that's something which is new to motor sport. That's one thing which makes it so attractive for all the drivers for this year. But I really think that I did the right decision now, and I'm really looking forward to starting the season off.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Last year ran really well for us. We had a good streak at the end of the season, and are basically going into a season where the competition is. Once the new package for '06 was announced for Champ Car, the interest in the series was just instant and it was overwhelming. There was sure that there was going to be a lot of talent in the field, a lot of good teams coming in. You want to come and drive against them. So it was really a no-brainer for us. And then from that point on, it was just trying to narrow down who would give us the best opportunity to succeed in this series, and we made a short list of teams, and we happened to land ourselves with the No. 1 choice. It put us in good position for next year The team is capable. I'm very confident in my own abilities and I've got great teammates backing me up, so we have no excuses for next year.
RICHARD PHILLIPE: Well, after the 2005 season ended, after winning the championship, I was for sure clear that I wasn't going to go another year in BMW, so we looked straight ahead at Champ Car Atlantic. It looked to be the best, the most competitive. The $2 million was for sure very attractive for the possible 2007 season in Champ Car. Same with most of us, you know, we spoke to a lot of teams with my manager, and put down a couple of teams on a list, and Forsythe was No. 1. We ended up having to deal with them, so I'm very pleased and can't wait to get in the car.
Q. Ambitious I don't think is too strong a word to use, an ambitious effort. I guess maybe I'd focus one question toward sort of the elder statesman of the driving crew, Leo. The last few years have really kind of been -- I think as you are sort of living proof, a difficult car for young drivers in America, what with the sort of the demise of Indy Lights and obviously the Infiniti Pro Series hasn't really taken off in any meaningful way, and as we saw in the last couple years, the Atlantic series was sort of in decline, at least in terms of numbers, just in terms of the costs and everything, a lot of reasons behind that. But can you talk about the new Atlantic series just seems -- certainly in your case and probably in a lot of other guys like you, it really seems to be the right series at the right time, does it not?
LEONARDO MAIA: That's exactly right. It's just perfect timing. In my case, I was able to -- I don't want to say luck into it, but it's just everything sort of fell right in the right spot, and I had been having such bad luck the last couple of years that I was sort of on the verge of giving up. One thing happened and then another thing happened and then the dominos started to fall. Now I'm sitting here talking to you, which really is what I was dreaming for since the beginning.
Q. Could you maybe talk a little bit about how difficult it was and maybe what some of the obstacles were to getting a full program together the last couple of years?
LEONARDO MAIA: It's been really, really tough, to be honest. To make a long story short, about a year ago, I was in the middle of downtown Torino in Italy and ended up handcuffed to the side of a car, and now I'm sitting here talking to you. Things change in a hurry. I just want to say don't give up; if you have something you want, chase after it. I'm proof that it can happen. You'll get there.
Q. I guess sort of a general question to all four of you, the drivers, and Neil, as well, you're looking at -- I don't know, I've sort of lost track of the actual numbers here, but I think we're looking at probably a good -- let's say a good 30 serious drivers and cars at a minimum, at least at the start of the year, and just what it means to a driver in terms of his pedigree, if you will, to a driver who's able to win a championship above and beyond the $2 million prize money, somebody who beats two dozen or maybe as many as three dozen other really talented drivers? That's a pretty big feather in his cap in terms of moving up to Champ Cars.
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: I'll take that one happily. It is a major challenge. You know, the program that we've put together is very ambitious, but we're looking forward to that. I think in terms of getting out there for all of these young men, certainly we intend to give them the best equipment possible. The nice thing from my perspective is they're still fairly impressionable. I feel that myself along with the other team members of Forsythe Championship, we can bring a lot to the table in terms of helping their skills and helping them to be the best they can be. Certainly if we go out to a race and there are a total of 36 cars out there, first of all, we've got to beat the other 32, and then these guys worry about beating each other. I think that with the type of attitude that they're bringing to the table right now, which is very professional and quite pleasing to me, it's going to be a very interesting season. I think it's going to be quite sporting with the level of competitiveness that everybody is going to show, and I certainly believe that we've got the group of people to make the very most of the opportunities.
Q. Speaking again as not just the vice president of Forsythe Racing but as a guy who's been around the sport as a team manager or in a management role for a long time, again, a guy who wins -- not just a guy who wins a championship, but even guys who win one or two races, I think, correct me if I'm wrong, that pretty well singles them out as being pretty serious talents if they're beating, as you say, 24 or 36 other pretty decent drivers.
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Absolutely it does, and I think that the way that the new Champ Car Atlantic is heading, I think we're going to perhaps see a return to the heady days of the late '70s and early '80s where it is very much the breeding ground for the majority of the very best drivers. I think the series will get an opportunity for the very best to shine. I probably anticipate each of these four young men winning races in this coming year, and at least one of them being the champion.
Q. Neil, you didn't have the opportunity to test these drivers as far as I know. How did you go about selecting these four young men?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Yeah, you're correct, we did not have the opportunity to test them. I'm not altogether convinced that had we been able to test them that we would have learned anything that made it any easier for us to make our decisions. In view of the fact that the car we're going to be using is brand new, that puts everybody pretty much in the same situation. So what we did was to take a very close look at the past performances and what we viewed to be the future potential of these of the people that we selected. It was not an overnight thing. We also had lists that we narrowed down, and I'm just overjoyed that they were able to get what I viewed as being the best four up-and-coming drivers in the world right now.
Q. Other than the series being good, a good place to be and to help Champ Car, as far as for your team itself, what is this Atlantic program going to do for your Champ Car team?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, there's a great deal of synergy obviously between the Atlantic team and the Champ Car team. I think that the level of support that the owners of Champ Car have put into the Atlantic team, the interest that they've generated I think needs to be looked upon as an indication of their thoughts about the future. From a team point of view, that commitment is also the same. We've had a reasonably successful Champ Car team that we hope will be for successful in the future, and we're doing our bit not only to be supportive of the new series but also to build relationships with drivers, with mechanics, with engineers, and essentially the ladder system isn't just for drivers; it's for all people that are involved in motor racing. So it gives us an opportunity to eventually get young engineers, for instance, up-and-coming mechanics, all of who are just as important as anyone else in the overall team. So it essentially becomes a system for the Champ Car team as well as being its own entity.
Q. Any sponsorship announcements on the horizon for these four cars, and will there be any team orders?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Let me answer those questions in reverse order, if I may. No, there will be no team orders, with one exception; I don't expect them to run into each other. And with regards to sponsors, there will be some announcements in the coming weeks, but nothing that we're at liberty to announce at this moment.
Q. Well, my question for the gentlemen is you excited about the new type car, the series, the way it's going? I just can't believe what is in store for the '06 season for the Atlantic series.
LEONARDO MAIA: Well, obviously we're all incredibly excited. At least for me, I can't wait to get going. There's a lot of hype around the series right now, a lot of the sort of chat rooms I've been looking at says it's even going to be better than the Champ Car series, and I think it will be. We're going to have an enormous amount of talent that we race against in pretty much every event. So it's going to be tough. You could possibly have a different winner in every single race. That's how competitive I think the series is going to be. I'm looking forward to a really, really tough fight. I know I've sort of armed myself with the best people and equipment possible, and I just hope we can come out on top.
Q. Do you feel that a multi-car team is more of a hindrance, or would you prefer to be on like a one-car team?
LEONARDO MAIA: To be honest, it depends on the situation. With this situation here at Forsythe and with the new car and with the Atlantic program, it's a huge program to have more cars just because the testing is so restricted in the series that any extra time or any extra data you can gather is going to be an advantage. There aren't too many situations where it's a disadvantage. There's no downside to it. It's just more for the team, more data, more everything.
ERIC MAUK: Talk about what you do to stay sharp between now and when you get in that Atlantic car in the middle of March. James, where are you headed?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Obviously it's going to be a step up between driving last year and Champ Car Atlantic next year. There's going to be a pretty intense workout regimen. Every day it will be something, a lot of cardio, weight training, especially working on my neck a little bit. Also getting into a go-kart. Shifter carts are great training tools. They are remarkably quick and they keep your reaction times up, keep you on the ball because we don't get the new cars until late March. So it'll definitely be a lot of sweating going on before we even hit the track.
RICHARD PHILLIPE: Well, I have a trainer that we got from Europe to come over just for a few months from now until the first race. So basically when I'm home, I do an hour -- a session of cardio and a session of weight training every day. Cardio goes from biking to swimming, running, go-kart, and weight training is always at the gym. You know, the go-kart I haven't been able to do too much of unfortunately, but to keep my driving technique sharp, I think I street race illegally without a license (laughter).
ANDREAS WIRTH: I mean, workout definitely every day, and I would try to do a lot of mental training between when the season starts because I think that's 50 percent of everything is in your head. I think that's important, that's very important, too. That's just something you can do before the season because I think after the season starts, there's not that much time to do that stuff or to work with stuff like that. So I try to do as much as I can before everything starts mentally, and physical-wise, so I will definitely be ready.
LEONARDO MAIA: I'm going to cut my alcohol intake from a 12-pack to a 6-pack. That should be enough (laughter). You know, go-karting obviously is I think the best way to stay in shape. I like to go go-karting every day. Unfortunately that's not possible. If I can't go-kart I'm on a bike or running or swimming obviously. That's the best way to stay in shape for me.
Q. I guess this is another question for Neil. There's that $2 million pot of gold sitting out there at the end of the year for somebody to take. A four-car super team, your odds of winning that are pretty good I would say. Have you thought about what -- I'm not sure exactly who gets the money, whether it's the driver who gets the money, but he has to use it to get the Champ Car ride if I understand correctly. Have you thought about if one of your drivers were to win, using that money and put that person into driving the Champ Car?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: Well, it's an interesting question. I think that the $2 million accrues to the driver that wins the championship and is there and needs to be spent on a Champ Car ride. We have options on all these young men going toward the future, so hopefully depending on how things work out, we could consider in the future running a third car in Champ Car. Who knows what the future brings. But certainly we've got them on board now because we think that they're the wave of the future, and whichever one of them wins the championship and the money that goes with it, then certainly we'll bend over backwards to make sure that they get a top quality ride with somebody in Champ Car.
Q. You've now announced your four-car team. Any plans to make some announcements in the near future to finalize your Champ Car team?
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT: There's no specific plans in place right now, but I do anticipate in the next few weeks being able to make the announcement after it's finalized.
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