Despite not taking up the challenge of switching to the 'new' IndyCar Series this season, Rocketsports Racing has confirmed its participation in the last-ever Champ Car World Series event by naming a two-car line-up for next weekend's Long Beach Grand Prix.
Former driver Antonio Pizzonia will return to spearhead Paul Gentilozzi's effort, and will be partnered by newcomer Juho Annala, who steps up from F3 and Formula Master to make his debut in the United States.
Pizzonia will pilot the #9 Panoz-Cosworth as he returns to the Champ Car series for the first time since 2006, when he debuted on the famed 1.97-mile Californian street circuit. That race suggested that the Brazilian would have a future in Champ Cars as he made his way into the top five after 30 laps, before being forced to salvage a top-ten result following an on-track incident. Despite the promise, however, Pizzonia went on to make just three more starts with the team that year.
“I am very excited to return to Rocketsports Racing and to run in Long Beach, a track that I know,” he said, “The car will be a surprise for me, as I ran with the Lola in 2006 but haven't had the chance to drive the new DP01. My [Nextel Stock Car Brazil Series] schedule will not allow me to have a chance to test either, so I will be going straight into the race weekend with no previous experience in these new cars.
"It will be a challenge, but I am confident that things will come together as I am a quick learner and have driven a Champ Car already. The team and I will be building on what we started back in 2006, so it is exciting to get back working with engineers and crew members that I am already acclimated with. I am just so happy that Paul Gentilozzi invited me to race for the team in this event. I hope that it all pays off by having a good weekend working together again.”
Annala, meanwhile, will run with the team at the MSR Houston road course later this week, getting his first taste of a Champ Car as he attempts to follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen JJ Lehto and Mika Salo. The Finn brings recent experience of front-line open-wheel series in Europe, including a stellar 2006 season in the British F3 series, where he finished third overall.
“I have always liked Champ Car a lot, and always wanted to race one," Annala admitted, "It is disappointing that the series will be no longer running after the Long Beach event, but the unification is good news for open-wheel racing here in the United States.
"It is just unreal for me to believe that I will be getting into a 750+ Champ Car this week - dreams really do come true when you work hard and believe. I only tested a Champ Car Atlantic car at Sebring in early February - which was a fantastic opportunity - but I was looking at the Champ Cars and dreaming of the day I could climb into the cockpit of such an amazing race car. I am really excited about this opportunity and am definitely going to make the most of it. It is just ! a great opportunity for me to get behind the wheel of a bigger, faster, race car this season and expand my experience and knowledge, not only for this one race, but the future of my career.”
Although Rocketsports representatives attended February's unification announcement, Gentilozzi's focus remains on the final Champ Car event. The Long Beach race will be run as part of the unified IndyCar Series, with an equal amount of points awarded to finishers in both California and the clashing IRL event at Motegi, but will feature the DP01 as opposed to the Dallara that teams making the switch have already run at Homestead and St Petersburg.
“It will be one to remember, and we are going to give it our all to put on a great show for all the Champ Car fans, not only in Long Beach, but all over the world," he insisted, "It is will be a bittersweet time during the race weekend, as a long tradition of amazing Champ Car competition comes to an end, but it is also the start of a new era for open-wheel racing in the United States.
"It is just an honour to be a part of such a historical event, run two great drivers, and showcase Champ Car's great product one more time as a 'thank you' to all our supporters over the years.”