LONG BEACH, Calif. Justin Wilson isn't just competing with the rest of the field at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, he's racing against a driver who isn't even here.
When Sebastien Bourdais left the Champ Car World Series at the end of the 2007 season to race in Formula One, he walked away with four straight series championships to his credit four of the series-leading eight titles accumulated by the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team over the past 25 years.
Into that void stepped Wilson, taking over a ride that brings with it high expectations.
"There is always some pressure when you're replacing somebody who has won a championship four years in a row," Wilson said Saturday after winning the pole for the last-ever Champ Car race. "But it's more so here and more so in qualifying than at any other time. I feel that now I've proven myself and it's getting easier every day."
Still, he's got some work to do, since Bourdais also won the last three Long Beach races, the last two from the pole.
The lanky Englishman, the series runner-up each of the past two seasons with the now-defunct RuSport team, started the day on the provisional pole, but Champ Car veteran Alex Tagliani, driving for Walker Racing, nearly kept him from wrapping up his seventh career pole.
Wilson's fast lap was 1 minute, 6.902 seconds (105.898 mph), while Tagliani turned a 1:07.084 (105.611).
The recent unification of the two American open-wheel series changed the face of the sport, with Newman/Haas/Lanigan and several other Champ Car teams being absorbed into the IRL's IndyCar Series.
But a schedule conflict with an IRL race in Motegi, Japan, prompted series officials to schedule one last Champ Car event, run by all the Champ Car teams even the ones not going to the IRL with their 2007 equipment and with the points for those who are going to IndyCar counting toward that championship.
That puts even more pressure on Wilson because Long Beach will be the last time he can match Bourdais' Champ Car performance in the same car in which the Frenchman excelled.
"I think we've got the confidence to win and I think the ability to win," said Wilson, who also became a father for the first time earlier this week. "That's my goal. I don't expect to (win) because, whenever you expect something, it always goes wrong. But we believe in ourselves and I think we're capable."
A week from now, Wilson, who has already driven in two IndyCar races this season, will go back to racing in the IRL on the oval at Kansas Speedway. At that point, he and his fellow Champ Car refugees will be at a disadvantage in new equipment on an unfamiliar track and Wilson won't be feeling anywhere near as much pressure from the specter of Bourdais.
"Once we go to the IndyCar Series, it's a totally different animal," Wilson said. "It's a different set of rules and I feel like I'm starting with a clean sheet of paper."
Tagliani has been a surprise this week since Walker Racing is one of the Champ Car teams that has not made the transition to the IRL and team owner Derrick Walker wasn't even sure he would run his Champ Car here until earlier this week. That's when he contacted Tagliani, who was at home in Las Vegas remodeling his home.
"I became a race driver again in one day," said Tagliani, who was third in provisional qualifying on Friday. "For me, it's a pleasure to drive such a quick car. I missed one corner on that last (qualifying) lap that cost me some time and Justin had one more lap and was just a little quicker."
Walker said he remains hopeful that he can find the financing to race a car in the IRL later this season.
"We're a business, not a hobby," Walker said. "We want to keep our employees and we want to keep racing."
That sounds good to Tagliani.
"If there's an opportunity for them to go racing later this year, I want to drive of their cars because, obviously, they're quick," he said. "I'm enjoying every lap of it."
Rookie Franck Perera was third in qualifying at 1:07.180 (105.460), followed by Will Power at 1:07.205 (105.421) and former series champion Paul Tracy at 1:07.352 (105.191). Oriol Servia, who was second fastest on Friday, missed the entire final session with a mechanical problem and will start 12th in the 20-car lineup.