Feature: IndyCar 2012 – On The Road to Recovery?

It is the middle of September and one series has already wrapped up their 2012 season: the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The apparent need to avoid the NFL, and the NASCAR Chase, meant IndyCar finished racing two full months before F1 and NASCAR – admittedly those series may go longer than they really need to. I tend to think mid/late-October is a good time to stop for the winter break. Just feels right.

With the first IndyCar race of 2013 not due until March we are left with a six month off-season!

A Fresh Start

This was always going to be a tricky year.

The introduction of the new chassis and engine package was fraught with difficulties throughout 2011’s development period and the pre-season of 2012. There was not only a new engine formula but also the return of open competition between manufacturers. Add in a new Race Director, then mix up the schedule by removing favourites with low-attendances and replacing them with gambles.

Do all this while trying to satisfy the most divided and demanding of fans, team owners and media anywhere in the sport. Motorsport fans the world over complain endlessly about the smallest things but they’ve got nothing on the hardcore IndyCar ‘fans’ in the US.  Nowhere else will you find such a bunch of complainers and whiners. The team owners aren’t much different. They were always going to be tough to please.

And Pleased They Were!

Happily it turned out to be a classic year. Most fears were unfounded. The many problems which did emerge over the year were, on the whole, tackled well. The racing was excellent, the cars stood up to the test of the variety of tracks, and they withstood some pretty nasty impacts far better than the old car did.

The early trait of the car to lift into the air mid-spin (noticeably more at the higher speeds of an oval) were ironed out as the year progressed until it didn’t seem to happen at all at Fontana. Compare Indy and Fontana and the rear-to-the-wall spins are very different.

The race director proved to be a revelation, as ALMS fans had expected. Beaux Barfield rearranged the existing rulebook rather than rewrite it completely, though there were many rewrites. The main differences were a change in philosophy and interpretation. Decisions from Race Control were now explained post-race to anyone who would ask, they were even broadcast during the race.
Even if you disagree with the reasoning it is there for us to see it. This is a HUGE change on past years. It cannot be overstated how good a change this is. Transparency is key and now we have it.

The crazy ‘draw an imaginary line on the track’ rule has been thrown out. Racers can race again – within good reason. This has worked really well all year. The drivers have responded to being treated as adults by driving more maturely and with respect. It’s been really, really enjoyable to watch.

Great Competition

The racing all season long was phenomenal. Dallara produced some great aerodynamics packages which meant the cars were very racey on all three classes of course (road, street, oval). It opened up new passing lanes at tracks where the old Dallara couldn’t race at all, Barber Motorsports Park being a notable example – the race was transformed from a snoozefest to being one of the best of the year.

If there wasn’t a lot of passing there was drama in other ways – pit strategy, driver errors, mechanical failures. Unlike past years you never felt like you were marking time, wasting time. Something was always about to happen and you couldn’t switch off in case you missed it. In terms of racing, the new car and engine combo was a hit.

Engine competition was a welcome return. It created winners and losers, just as it should. We saw the return of unreliability (in engines and chassis and software), a classic part of racing which had been engineered out of the last formula. Okay so this engine may be lacking a little in outright power – hopefully that’ll change as development progresses both in technology and in regulations. Remember this is only Year 1.

It was great to have Chevy back in the series and they were on full attack, producing a better unit than incumbent supplier Honda. There wasn’t much in it by the mid-season. You have to think Chevy having more of the ‘powerhouse’ teams helped them enormously, both title protaganists at Fontana used Chevy, and hindered the Ganassi team who were Honda’s only big team.

The only question mark is the engine penalties for failures in testing. Failures in a race weekend I understand, those have been commonplace in racing for a while now. To penalise a team for a failure in a test isn’t on – where’s the incentive to test? This could be solved by saying a team can’t use a race engine on a test day or vice versa, remove the link.

The Lotus Position

As I said, it also created losers and the biggest of those was Lotus. Such is life in open competition. I don’t see it as a downer. Sometimes somebody gets beaten by a big margin. That’s racing. Someone’s got to lose. You can either fight with it and hope they get better next year, and there’s real value and interest in seeing the former underdog bounce back, or you can jump ship to something better. As it turned out by Indy most full-season teams had switched to Chevy or Honda, leaving HVM Racing and the Indy-only Fan Force United with Lotus. All credit to HVM and Simona de Silvestro for sticking out the full year without publically complaining about it.

With Danny Bahar being ousted from Lotus and the company changing focus, they will not return for 2013. Perhaps the engines will be redeveloped by their makers, Judd, into LMP sportscar units. Got to feel for Judd who were completely screwed by Lotus, having to start the programme six months behind the others and not being given the resources to go out testing like the others did. They were up against it from the very beginning.

Schedule

It was a reasonable schedule. There weren’t enough races but we must remember two planned events were dropped. Las Vegas was canned for understandable safety reasons in the wake of the accident last year. A Chinese street race was dropped after financing fell through, not really a surprise. It is a shame replacements weren’t found especially after Bernard was quoted as having a backup plan for China. It turned out either he didn’t or the backup fell through too.

Barber, Long Beach, Indy, Texas (for different reasons to usual), Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Baltimore, Fontana. All good races. Great to see.

St Pete wasn’t covered well by TV, and in any case it was the first race with the new car AND the first race back after Dan Wheldon’s accident, and it was held in his adopted home town. Lots of reasons for everyone to take it easy that weekend.

Sonoma was a near-procession but at least they’d tried something to fix it this year with the circuit layout. I’m not sure what else they can try without a fundamental circuit redesign. It clearly isn’t the car. And Belle Isle came back after a break of many years, the race was surprisingly okay but the track surface was not – it caused a red flag and a reduction in laps.

Much better was the return of Fontana, not only that it was a 500-mile race and the season finale! Inspired decisions. The race length gave it drama and allowed storylines to develop naturally, and teams and drivers had to set up their cars for differing conditions and then bring them home. The only complaint from a UK point of view was the 1.50am start time and the 5am finish!

Diversity

The split of ovals to non-ovals plagues IndyCar discussions and has done for many years, decades even. This year was no different and for once I fall into the ‘more ovals’ camp. Five wasn’t enough. Mind you there were fewer road courses than ovals, just the four this year.

The dominant discipline was street races, six of them. I like some street races but I don’t like them taking over the series. My preference is and has always been natural terrain road courses and oval races at the right venues, with 2 or 3 street races. I understand that’s where the people are though, and that’s the way of racing today. Take the racing to the people because people don’t want to go to the racing at traditional venues. If it were my choice I’d move the Sao Paulo race to Interlagos.

TV

The coverage was better this year. The much-maligned ABC/ESPN improved. Sadly the channel which has the better coverage, NBC Sports, is not being rewarded with good viewing figures which are apparently falling. The only saving grace is IndyCar is now apparently highest-rated sport on the channel. The rebrand from Versus was supposed to bring extra cross-promotion and more viewers – what happened?

Here in the UK the races are on Sky Sports. They’re good at sticking with IndyCar if races run long. During the numourous US ad breaks they’re able to stay with the track – by law they can’t take the same number of breaks as the US but at least they don’t cut back to their studio.

That said, the Sky pre-race is far, far, far too dry. Three blokes in a studio, a few interviews/videos, at least one of the two guests with a monotone voice (much like my own – not saying I’d do better!). It’s all very downbeat. It works well during the US ad breaks when we need discussion to fill the air, but as a pre-race it really doesn’t work at all.

I don’t know why races aren’t run live or at least in replay on Sky Sports F1. It seems a perfect fit to build more of an audience for IndyCar, which Sky must surely want? Perhaps there are contractual reasons, perhaps we’ll see more of it next year.

The Future

After years of neglect and mismanagement, the 2008 ‘unification’ gave IndyCar a chance to regrow. It has taken longer than expected but they’ve finally put in place the building blocks to allow that to happen.

I have no doubt the racing in 2013 will be just as good, even when the ‘big teams’ figure out the tricks and pull away again which they will do. The trick now is to sell this racing to the American public, because their TV ratings will determine the future of the series. If they can be built up elsewhere in the world at the same time, including in the UK, then so much the better!

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