Tag Archives: IZOD IndyCar Series

2013 IndyCar Schedule Shows Progress

The 2013 IndyCar Series schedule was announced on Sunday night. The 2012 schedule took the 2011 list and revised the basic structure, the 2013 calendar shows definite progress in building a defined schedule for the medium-term.

As ever there are pros and cons to any race calendar, they are always a balancing act between what the fans want, what the teams and sponsors want, what the series itself wants, and what is actually available.

Most of the IndyCar bloggers have come out with a very similar format to analyse this and I’m not going to stray far from it. I’ve seen at least four splitting it down into ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ and ‘Ugly’. I find that unnecessarily pessimistic as you’ve got two negatives to one positive. I prefer to look at the Good and the Bad then have a little summary.

Good

- 16 solid venues in 2013. Compared with 2012′s 15 solid, 1 vapourware (China) and 1 cancellation (Las Vegas). Good to get firm confirmation rather than have question marks all year. That happened all the time at the end of the CART/ChampCar era and I hope Bernard has learned. And at these 16 venues we get 19 races.

- Doubleheaders. 19 races at 16 venues is achieved by having 3 doubleheaders. I’ll come back to this as there’s not a lot I like, except it is a new idea and that shows IndyCar leadership is willing to try new things. I can’t mark them down for trying even if I don’t like what they try. Shows initiative. I like using these races to trial standing starts. One race with standing starts, one race with rolling. Just like WTCC!

- Early announce. The schedule has been announced at the beginning of October. That’s a miracle by IndyCar standards! Teams can now plan ahead effectively and more easily pitch to sponsors.

- Continuity. Breeding familiarity in the race order is a sign of a maturing schedule, it is good to see after the gutting of 2012. There are big changes but the backbone is the same.

- Pocono! The return of the big triangle. Mixed feelings. I’ve not seen much racing there and I hear frequent complains about NASCAR’s 500-mile events being boring, however everybody who saw them absolutely raves about the old USAC and CART open wheel races there in the 1970s and 80s. We’ve got a 400-mile race there and calls for it to be extended to 500 so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. As a flat oval it is traditional IndyCar territory so I’m cautiously excited.

- Triple Crown! The Pocono races of old were a part of a Triple Crown: if a driver won all 3 races he’d win a million dollars! Okay so it is a little crass but that is American razzmatazz. The Triple Crown is back! It’ll be take in the Indy 500, Pocono 400 and Fontana 500. Win two to win $250k, win all three to get $1m. It adds an extra layer of storyline to the mix and keeps things interesting so I’m all for it. Okay if it were a top team in the running it won’t be as interesting but imagine a lesser-funded team or driver has won Indy – you can think somebody like Ed Carpenter has his eye on this prize.

- Houston! Another new race is always fun, or should I say a returning race (hey we’re unified, it counts). It’s a big city so should be quite popular. I don’t know what the racing was like in the Champ Car era as it fell into the gap of years I missed, so I’m being cautious on this one.

- Iowa isn’t a night race any more. I know it looked ultra-cool at night but night races in the US start at 2am here. I’m purely selfish in preferring a race starting at 6 or 7pm UK time on Sunday. Of course this happens to be Le Mans weekend so I might’ve been up after all, but at least it moves it until after the 24hrs.

- Fontana is a 500-miler again and is the season-closer again, despite being a month later. Great idea. This year’s race was utterly compelling and was a true championship decider. This series tends to decide champions at the last race. The alternative was to end at Houston, I’m okay with street races but I don’t like ending the season on them, too much of a lottery even against a superspeedway. This isn’t a street vs oval point, it is a point about a big notable race to sign off for winter. Make a statement.

- US TV coverage. The first ABC race is at Indy then they take 5 of the next 6 races. Excellent idea. Grab the audience with the big race then keep hold of them for a few weeks to bump up viewership. I really do like this idea. No offence to an NBCSN crew who do a brilliant job, but their ratings stink at the moment. Plus ABC have the Texas Saturday night race which is a Big Deal ratings-wise, if that doesn’t work little will. This is an incremental improvement rather than wholesale change and it seems the most sensible thing to do with the allocations available.

- Canadians get a better deal too, after years and years of complaining. They listened! Embrace it.
(We may have to wait a little while before finding out the UK deal.)

Bad

- No oval race before Indy. I know they have a ton of practice at Indy, it isn’t the same as racing. Teams, drivers and most importantly the fans need to see cars on an oval before the big one. I am torn though, a part of me thinks the unknowns created drama at Indy and no race does level the playing field for Indy-only teams.

- Deadwood. Some of the more tedious races are still there. I’m thinking specifically of Belle Isle and Sonoma. The DW12 transformed the racing at most tracks this year brilliantly, but not at these two.

- Belle Isle directly after Indy. Not only that, it has one of the double-headers. Buzzkiller. It only seems to be a favourite among attendees – more than one person told me it was great in person. Yet I haven’t seen a good IndyCar or CART race there in any iteration. Is there something wrong with the TV presentation? Maybe that can be looked at along with track layout.
Indy should always be followed directly by Milwaukee anyway, that’s the proper tradition.

- Double-headers. Okay here’s the thing. Double-headers work really well for touring cars, they work really well for ladder open wheel series, they work really well on short oval tracks. The reason they work is because the races are shorter. Two IndyCar-length races in two days is going to be tough on everyone involved in the series. It may be tough on the casual fans too who will probably just watch one of them, they may even think there is only one race that weekend. The hard-cores will probably lap it up, especially Toronto and Houston.

- Race split. One of the quirks of IndyCar not seen anywhere else is the split between ovals, road courses and street races. It’s a Big Deal among fans. This year including doubles we have 6 ovals, 3 roads (ouch) and 10 street races. I’m more okay with streets than most IndyCar commenters I see, but half the schedule is crazy! I’m a fan of natural road courses and ovals with the odd street race. More of the former two in 2014, please. We all know the ‘most wanted’ list so I won’t repeat it here.

- Edmonton. I’m not crying about this loss as I never liked it, even the new layout, but it is a town with a strong supportive fanbase so it gets a minus mark.

- Gaps. There are notable gaps in July, August and especially September. I can easily accept a summer break in August especially after that exceptionally punishing May-June-July stint, and that really is tough with two 500 mile races and two double-header street courses. Unlike most American bloggers I am not suggesting all gaps be filled – that would be crazy and you’d have a mutiny on your hands. The crew guys need a rest and they want to see their families in the school break. Give that to them. Not only that, nobody can watch IndyCar every single week for two or three months! I actually want to make use of summer to have a life if that’s okay with you!
September is less understandable, there’s only one race in the whole month. It is clear something was supposed to go there but fell through. There’s still scope for a little bit of shuffling about.

Summary

On the whole it is a good schedule balancing recent tracks with two returning venues. A lot of tracks which produced awful races with the previous IndyCar came alive with the DW12 chassis, so there’s less of a desire to strike off the Mid-Ohios and Barbers of the world.

Double-headers are an interesting experiment and despite Randy Bernard’s protestations I think they’ll remain an experiment – if we see them at all in 2014 I bet it’ll only be at one event.

Too many street races though. I know that’s where the money is and modern fans seem to prefer things to come to them, but if we’re having them I’d like a review of their designs and some proper resurfacing done.

2013 IndyCar Series Schedule

24 March  – St Petersburg (S)
7 April – Barber Motorsports Park (R)
21 April – Long Beach (S)
5 May – Sao Paulo (S)
26 May – Indianapolis Motor Speedway (O)
1 June – Belle Isle, Detroit (S)
2 June – Belle Isle, Detroit (S)
8 June – Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth (O) (night)
15 June – Milwaukee Mile (O)
23 June – Iowa Speedway (O)
7 July – Pocono Raceway (O)
13 July – Exhibition Place, Toronto (S)
14 July – Exhibition Place, Toronto (S)
4 August – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (R)
25 August – Sonoma (R)
1 September – Baltimore (S)
5 October – Reliant Park, Houston (S)
6 October – Reliant Park, Houston (S)
19 October – Auto Club Speedway, Fontana (O) (night)

I’ve added these dates to my TMR Google/iCal calendars which you can import for your own use. If you subscribed earlier in the year these should be visible to you already.

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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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On The Limit: Addicted To Speed

I used to run a sequence of posts featuring fun or interesting videos which I put into a category called ‘On The Limit’. I was checking the site and I realised the last was over a year ago so it is about time to bring it back. The name was supposed to refer to in-car footage but along the way it got turned into a thread for any interesting racing video. Anyway I’m not going back to change them all now, so enjoy the latest instalment of On The Limit.

This is a bit of fun. Back in 2002 someone put together this pilot for a TV magazine show based around the CART series. I’m not sure if it got turned into a series and some cursory searching suggests it didn’t get any further than this episode, but it was a long time ago now so details are hard to come by. It features upcoming drivers Townsend Bell, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia as well as one of the big stars of the day, the 1996 CART PPG Indy Car World Series champion Jimmy Vasser. Join them as a fly on the wall as they work through the Long Beach race weekend, round two of what was now the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series.

It was dug out and posted to Townsend Bell’s own YouTube account, and he brought it up on Twitter on Monday.

Things to look for: Great-looking and great-sounding cars. The Long Beach track hasn’t changed at all. Michael Andretti’s goatee looks as stupid now as it did then. Dario’s straight and serious haircut, you can hardly tell it’s him. Back in 2002 I didn’t think much of Kanaan other than that he should be with a big team, otherwise I wasn’t interested but looking at this now it was me that had it wrong because he hasn’t changed a bit – okay he’s more experienced and is wiser now but he’s still the same fun-loving TK we know today!

[ video via @TownsendBell99 / Townsend Bell ]

Where are they now?

Jimmy Vasser retired from driving and bought out Craig ‘BAR’ Pollock’s share of PK Racing, itself a revamp of the old PacWest team. Via a spell as PKV, that team is currently known as KV Racing Technologies and hires Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello and EJ Viso as drivers.

A year after this video Tony Kanaan had switched to what was then the IRL and in 2004 became champion of that series with Andretti-Green. He’s won several races and his dream now is the big one: the Indy 500.

Oriol Servia is better than his career results would suggest. His best year was 2nd in the 2005 Champ Car season but he hasn’t been helped at having to change teams almost every season since 2001. He’s been with some good teams but never seems able to stay with any of them for longer than a season and a bit. I’d lay money that if he stayed at one team for three years we’d see magic happen. He’s currently at Dreyer & Reinbold who’s switch from Lotus to Chevy has helped immensely.

And finally to Townsend himself. 2002 wasn’t a good season – he got fired by Patrick Racing after the series placed him on probation. He spent the following year in F3000 for Arden where he scored a podium in Hungary, before heading back to the US for a part-season in the IRL. Despite regularly cropping up in the entry lists a few times a year in the IRL and then the re-invented IndyCar Series (notably well at the Indy 500), for reasons very few people understand he hasn’t yet landed a full-season ride in IndyCar. This year he switched codes to join the ALMS to develop the Lotus Evora GTE with Alex Job Racing, dovetailing it with IndyCar pit reporter work for NBC where he’s a broadcasting natural.

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IndyCar’s Openers

I’ll be straight – I’d planned to write a short review of each race a day or two after it happened, say 800-1000 words of what I thought of the race – but I only managed to do that for round one! We’re at a natural break in the season now, so what better time than to review the opening tranche of races?

This post from F1 stalwart and IndyCar rookie Lukeh of Gridwalk Talk on his impressions of the series after the first four races [and I do recommend any long-time IndyCar fan stops right now to go away and read that] got me thinking about the trends we’ve seen since the season opener, who is doing well and who isn’t, whether the new cars and engines are any good, and so forth.

Tracks

Three of the opening rounds were held on street courses with just one on a permanent road course, and no ovals. In a year unusually focussed on road and street courses this actually helps us identify frontrunners for the rest of the season.

Some of these four tracks have picked up a reputation as being boring, notably Barber Motorsport Park. Happily they all seemed to race differently this year, in fact Barber was a real classic and one of the best IndyCar races in a while. Long Beach and Sao Paulo were entertaining as well, whilst I remain convinced St Pete was better than the broadcast made it out to be.

Whether due to car or engine or if the tyre specs have changed, we’re already seeing one of the better seasons in IndyCar racing. I’m even hopeful that Mid-Ohio and Sears Point will race better than they usually do. Then of course, we have all the intrigue of wondering how these new cars race on an oval!

Personally while I don’t mind the first four races being street or road courses, I feel uncomfortable that the first oval of the year is at the fastest, biggest track. I know they did it last year but I do feel it is appropriate to have a ‘warm-up’ oval race before Indy, a race some of the Indy one-off entries might be tempted to enter. That’s not just because we have new equipment, I think they should do it every year. Perhaps the solution is to add a 5th race in late April or early May, or commute the last of the opening 4 (whichever it is – it doesn’t have to be Sao Paulo) to an oval track and run the moved race later.

Chassis

We’ve seen the new Dallara DW12 races very well. It appears more driveable, more nimble, drivers seem to feel more at ease in placing the car where they want it on the racetrack. It can also take a few hits, something a lot of open wheel cars struggle with, I’d say this was down to the increased bulk inherent in designing a car to race on ovals, but then the previous IndyCar wasn’t as resilient as this (and it was pretty damned resilient!).

Notable areas include not just the rear protection but also the front wings which seem to be able to take a hefty punt before breaking, meaning teams aren’t wasting time changing wings.

I’m still not sold on the looks from some angles, yet from others it does look great and immediately dates the old car, as it rightly should. Just judging from TV coverage and still photos it seems to be the biggest single-seater I’ve ever seen, very bulky, too bulky.

Engines

Chevrolet undoubtedly have the early season advantage and it is a double-hit: somehow they’ve managed to get more power AND better fuel economy! With this in mind it is no surprise they’ve dominated the top ten at each race and qualifying session held so far. Both qualities are even more essential at Indy than the courses visited so far, I expect their teams to hold a distinct advantage at the 500, cautions and DNFs notwithstanding.

That said, Honda recently received a break from INDYCAR which could see them close the gap. In reality it isn’t a very big gap, the grid is so close though that a few tenths are enough to make the deficit seem huge with the number of positions lost. We may also see the Honda teams focus more on trimming out their cars which could level the playing field.

Lotus are as behind as we all expected. They were always going to be after their very late start. The off-season scare stories suggested they’d be 3 or 4 seconds behind. In reality they are at most 2 seconds down and most often less (I’ll need to run some numbers to check).
Two teams have moved away from Lotus after Sao Paulo – the official line being that Lotus ‘released’ them. It is very disappointing to see teams link up with a partner knowing the short-term deficits, only to walk away after a handful of races barely two months in to the season. Their decision? Don’t know. I suspect so because Lotus wouldn’t want the egg-on-face. If I were a Lotus team I’d take the hit now in the expectation the engines will be competitive next year. Of course if the whole Lotus empire does collapse these teams come out of it as the smart ones!

Surprises

The really pleasant surprise this year has been the mix of contenders in the top six or seven at each race. At long last, there are no guarantees that every race will see 3 Penskes and 2 Ganassis in the top 6!

Simon Pagenaud has been on it from the word go, underlining the raw speed and relentless metronomy we’ve already seen in his Acura/HPD and Peugeot sportscar drives. The man is a talent.

If bands have difficult second albums, racing drivers traditionally have difficult second years. James Hinchcliffe is having none of it: in a team in which drivers either sink or swim he’s routinely beaten both teammates and sits third in points. Remarkable.
That’s not to say his Andretti Autosport teammates are struggling – both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti have put in good drives and shown fighting spirit. RHR’s pace in Brazil was excellent and I particularly remember the way Marco drove at Barber. It seems streamlining back to 3 cars was the right move at least for the early season.

None of us can be surprised at the pace of Team Penske and of Will Power in particular – but who would’ve put money on Helio Castroneves being the other car up front? Not only that but winning the first race? Not me and I’m an Helio fan! Conversely, where is Ryan Briscoe?

Over at the other Big Team, Ganassi, not one of them are in the top five in points. That’s amazing. No surprises to see Scott Dixon up front for the team.. but a huge surprise to see Dario Franchitti struggle so much. I’d read of his difficulty adapting to the car but I didn’t have any idea it was this bad. Add in the trouble he’s had with the ECU and his championship defence is all but over already. That said, he’s put in some spirited recovery drives – I’ve no idea how he made up so many positions at both Barber and Sao Paulo. There’s also a lot of racing to be done.

JR Hildebrand and Panther Racing seem to have overcome any weakness the team had on road courses. Similarly, I was pleased to see Ed Carpenter at Sao Paulo was running similar lap times to competitors on similar tyres, after struggling so often it is great to see the oval specialist making real progress on other courses.

Josef Newgarden is very impressive in his rookie year, very fast and has his head screwed on. So much so that I forget he’s a rookie sometimes, only to be reminded so when he makes the errors that are inevitible in the first year in the big league.

Takuma Sato and EJ Viso have calmed down immensely. Sato is driving extremely well, he’s not crashing into things and the reasons he’s not been recording results were not of his making – it was great to see him rewarded with a podium in Brazil. As a measure of Viso’s progress, he finished as top KV runner in Brazil in a team containing Tony Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello – need I say more?

Rubens himself is adapting well. He did seem out of his depth in his first race but that’s understandable, completely different environment to what’s he has been used to. Then in the other three races he scored three top tens! I expect he’ll only get better on the other road courses. Up next though is Indy and a couple of other ovals, one of the big storylines of May and June will be how Rubens adapts to oval racing. TK seems to be struggling a little this year.. I’m sure he’ll work it out.

What’s happening with Justin Wilson? Can he still be struggling with the injury he picked up last year, despite the win at the Daytona 24 Hours? Perhaps he’s just not getting along with this car. He’s yet to finish higher than 10th this year.

Officialdom

Much improved over recent years. There’s a greater transparency and clarity, there’s a common-sense approach and willingness to listen to fans, teams and drivers alike. There are still calls I disagree with (e.g. incurring penalties after an engine failure in testing), thankfully the number of them is reducing to the sort of level you might say of any series. Starts and restarts look much better. And halleluyah, the ‘draw a line in the middle of the track’ rule is gone!

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IndyCar Reaction: GP of Alabama 2012

Honda Indy GP of Alabama

Barber Motorsports Park
Birmingham, Alabama, USA

Not only was this race a vast improvement over St. Pete, it was the best IndyCar race held at this track since the series first started visiting in 2009.

Race

I don’t think there was a ‘magic bullet’. A combination of several factors helped the racing here including the raceability of the car/engine package, the teams and drivers still getting a handle on the new equipment leading to mixed strategies and setups, and the new rules and interpretations coming from the series allowing drivers race each other.

The other great thing about this race was the mix of names running in the top five or six. Okay yes, so the top two featured a Penske and a Ganassi driver, but at least in the first half of the race it was not the Penske driver anyone would’ve tipped based on 2011′s form.  You could even, at a stretch, argue the same about the Ganassi driver, I certainly assumed Franchitti would be fighting for wins. No the fact that James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and others are involved is great – this is exactly what the series needed.

The eventual winner came from nowhere but it wasn’t the characteristic easy, scythe-my-way-through drive we’re so used to seeing from Will. It looked like a lot of hard work, and yes, luck too. When the other runners struggled with tyres in the pit stops it allowed Will through, without those problems he might’ve only finished what, 2nd? 3rd?

Add to that some close racing right the way through the pack and we had an enjoyable, fun race! You couldn’t really say that about the past three runnings of this event. I don’t think we’ll see anybody calling for this venue to be chopped from the schedule now. At least – nobody sane.

Leading results:

1. Power
2. Dixon
3. Castroneves
4. Rahal
5. Pagenaud
6. Hinchcliffe
FL: Power 1:12.3912

Drivers

Isn’t it great to see Helio Castroneves back at the front? Two races, two podiums. I’m a fan of Helio and I’m glad to see him back where he belongs. We might see some real intra-team rivalry at Team Penske this season.

Two races down, and two races where Scott Dixon has smoked the other Honda runners. What secrets has he found which the others have missed? Why on Earth can’t Franchitti get his head around this car? It is almost the same situation at the sister Ganassi team with Rahal finishing 4th, and Kimball slow all day then registering a DNF. Rahal seems to be driving better than he has in a few years, it was good to see him at the top end. Somehow Franchitti dragged his car into the top ten in the dying laps of the race.

One of the drivers of the race was Simon Pagenaud. All race long he was fast, racy and made several passes on drivers who didn’t seem able to fend him off. There’s a strong chance he could win a race this year. He’s enjoying a pretty good transition from LMP cars.

Sebastien Bourdais put in a similar performance from the back end of the grid which saw him finish 9th, not bad at all in a Lotus-powered car for an underfunded team.

I was also impressed by James Hinchcliffe in what was more than just a solid run, I think it says something when even a 6th place finish looks disappointing given his run in this race. Offer Andretti Autosports a 6th pre-race and they’d have grabbed it after their recent years. His was still the first AA car home. I’m impressed because I assumed Hunter-Reay would be top dog in that team this year. I thought RHR was running higher than 12th but that’s where he’s listed in the results.

I was also struck by Marco Andretti, a fighting drive which I thought would be rewarded with a solid top 6 or 7 finish, yet somehow he dropped to 11th at the end. Regardless of ultimate finishing position it was a statement of intent for the year – he’ll be fighting. Good to see it. Perhaps the minor wing damage sustained earlier finally took its toll. On that note it is good to see these new cars don’t have the fragile front wings you sometimes see in other series, hopefully it’ll encourage drivers to give it a go.

Mike Conway finished 7th. Did you see him? I don’t remember seeing him. Stealthy.

As at St Pete Rubens Barrichello spent most of the day in the 16th-20th area,until the final stint when he somehow got into the top ten. I have no idea how he did this, I think TV missed it. We saw him making a few passes but I never saw it explained how he made up 10 places. He eventually saw the flag 8th, a good recovery given where he’d been all day.

Where was Briscoe? He had to pit very early in the 2nd(?) stint after eating up his tyres. I’m surprised. Similar questions about Wilson and Kanaan. These experienced drivers were supposed to be up front. What’s going on? Wilson’s car looked evil.

Race Control & Rules

It was a good day for Race Control. They kept things under local yellows for as long as they could. Starts and restarts were controlled and released at the right times. The only real black mark was the initial safety car period for Servia was too long, once the car was clear it seemed to take at least another 2 laps before going green.

Some complained the change in ‘blocking’ or ‘defending’ would ruin the racing. Well.. it didn’t! It helped it. The best example of it was the battle between Hunter-Reay, Viso and Barrichello. Rather than being forced to take the racing line, they were all allowed to choose their line into the turn 5 hairpin, and for two of them it didn’t quite work out as planned.

A new rule I hadn’t heard about this year was seen for the first time at this race. Once within 20 laps of the finish, prior to a safety car restart all lapped cars were sent through the pits and told to form up at the back of the train. GREAT idea. I first heard it as an idea during fan discussion about F1′s ‘lapped cars may overtake’ at Sidepodcast. I had no idea a series had actually come to the same conclusion. It worked brilliantly – it gets the lapped cars out of the way without giving them back their lap and without endangering the competitors, which both happen under the F1 rule. The only thing they have to watch for with this new rule is cars reaching pit exit before the back of the train on the racetrack has passed them, because IndyCar doesn’t close the pit exit.

Snippets

The NBC Sports Network broadcast was much better than last week’s effort by ABC/ESPN. The cameras were pointing at the right things, the feed was being sent to our screens, the commentary and pit reporting was top notch. Even the odd mistake from Bob Jenkins wasn’t as bad as the bleating on Twitter made it out to be.

The only thing I found wrong with it, was the tone. It seemed a bit.. calm. Not a lot of energy, with the possible exception of Jan Beekhuis! Jan’s input is invaluable. After recently watching some races from 2010 where Wally Dallenbach wasn’t present, I was glad to hear his input again from the 3rd chair. The pit reporters were excellent and I can’t fault any of the team, but even so I did miss Lindy. I’m also not quite sure why Robin Miller is there.

Now we’ve got two races under our belts I’d like to state my conclusions about the new cars and engines:

- I love the way these cars look on the racetrack now the livery designers have been set loose on them. They look good at speed.

- The exception: Those rear wheel guards. Don’t like ‘em. Especially when viewed from the rear.

- Those engines sound really boring.

- I’ll put up with a crap engine note if it produces good racing without turning into a fuel-mileage race. Fuel strategy and fuel saving is fine and good when some of the cars are doing it and some are not. It isn’t fun when they all do it.

- If you’re looking for an IndyCar podcast I recommend More Front Wing.

Championship

1. Castroneves 86
2. Dixon 84
3. Power  77
4. Hinchcliffe 60
5. Pagenaud 58
6. Hunter-Reay 53

No surprise to see the ‘big two red car’ teams at the top, but not in the order we might expect. Who would’ve picked Helio to lead after two rounds? Not me. Dixon and Power are less surprising and I tip these two to be our title protaganists this season.

What of reigning champion Franchitti? He’s down in 10th, tied with none other than Rubens Barrichello on 37 points (and Rubens breaks the tie with a best result of 8th). Of course these are early days yet when a win is worth a massive 50 points.

It is worth noting the impressive starts from Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud to be in the top 5. Will it last?

IndyCar does not operate a teams’ championship, however there is an engines’ championship which I think is based on the first car home:

1. Chevrolet 18
2. Honda 12
3. Lotus  8

Next Race

April 15th: Grand Prix of Long Beach

The streets of Long Beach are a tough test with close concrete barriers, a very bumpy track surface and a short lap. Like many street races it is difficult to pass here, but unlike some others it is not impossible. Outbraking somebody into Turn 1 at the end of Shoreline Drive is the best shot, though if your rival makes an error through the corner on to the back straight it is possible to get up alongside them there.

These cars seem able to take more hits than the old cars and the ‘bumpers’ around the rear wheels (and those strong front wings) apparently encourange more passing attempts. LB can be a of a yellow-fest, let’s hope that’s not the case this year.

The ALMS will again race on Saturday evening, with IndyCar racing on Sunday in what has become a modern classic double-header meeting. The ALMS race should also be worth a watch.

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IndyCar Reaction: St Petersburg GP 2012

Not the thrill-a-minute race we were promised but it was better than some make out. That’s not entirely surprising.

A Calm Race

IndyCar suffers from a longer off-season than most so the first race invariably gets hyped up quite a lot. If that race isn’t all-action, all the time, then a lot of fans get very disappointed and make unfair comments. IndyCar fans are a particularly vocal lot and quite a few rush to judgement.

Think it through logically though. This was the first race with a brand-new car, first we didn’t know how it would race and second there is a shortage of spares. Add in that this is a street race with bumps and concrete walls. Add in a smaller fuel cell than previous years, with new engines, leading to teams frantically trying to work the fuel numbers (and many failed). Add in the new Race Control with a different grasp on what they will accept and not accept, particularly on starts and on defending or blocking the drivers will have to get used to over a period of several races. Add in also, and not insignificantly, this was the first race since the drivers’ friend was killed alongside them, and it took place at his home.

Realistically the drivers were always going to take it easy at this one. I’d like to think they will be more likely to push the envelope at a track with a bigger margin for error, and the engineers will have the fuel mileage cracked now they have a race under their belts. We may still have to put up with fuel saving, however. When the fuel cell issue is resolved and they can be restored to normal size, I hope they have the option of making them slightly larger than before so the drivers can be allowed to actually push and race, we’ve seen too many fuel mileage races in the last few years and some drivers were saving throughout the whole St. Pete race. This can’t continue. Part of the fun of strategy races is the differential between tortoise and hare, it isn’t fun when everybody is made to be the tortoise.

Attention Diverted

All of this said, it was not entirely a processional race. The problem was the TV coverage giving us the sense that it was. This is not a new phenomenon, ESPN have done this countless times in the past. The other partner, Versus (now NBC Sports), is better but not always by a great margin. It isn’t as bad as some of the dire F1 races of the 1990s to early 2000s (the pre-FOM days), but it isn’t ideal.

Many passes were brought to us in replay, which is fine, you can’t be live everywhere. I understood why we missed the pass for the lead – we’d been watching Dixon and Helio driving around not passing each other for a while so it made sense to cut to a big group of cars where there might be passing. Just the luck of the TV crew that the pass happened just after they cut away! Now they could’ve had a spotter looking at the front straight to see if Helio was setting up a pass so they could cut back to it, and it seemed this didn’t happen, but we saw it soon after.

I’m actually more annoyed at the many other passes we missed entirely. People (including Pippa Mann) were tweeting live from the grandstands and were assurring us there was overtaking going on at turn 1 which wasn’t being picked up on TV or the big screens at the track. If we’d seen that racing people may have walked away from watching this race with a good impression not an indifferent one.

Given the levels of strategy involved in IndyCar racing, I would’ve appreciated a better explanation of what was going on. In a Safety Car period we were told the top 6 had not pitted and most others had, fine, what I didn’t pick up on at all was that the leading cars were on a 2-stop strategy and the rest a 3-stopper. I just assumed they’d decided to make their next stop later. Call me lazy, I’m probably very lazy at this, but from the UK F1 coverage (when we had refuelling in F1) I am used to being told how many stops people are planning to make based on what lap they come in. Yes, I know this is hard to do. I also think it would help more people understand what’s going on. To that end it was nice to see the ‘laps since pit’ column appear on live timing this year (thanks to @99forever I think it was for pointing that out) – I’d like a ‘total pit visits’ column too, please!

I watched the race on Sky and their pre-race featured a nice mix of their own interviews alongside ABC pieces, it was nicely done. They didn’t include ABC’s Wheldon tribute which received glowing praise on Twitter. While I’m unsure if that’s a good decision or not, I am certainly glad Sky chose not to air the crash again as that wasn’t needed at all, I wasn’t interested in seeing it again.

One of ABC’s good prerace pieces we did see was the comparison between 2011 and 2012 cars, that was a good explanation. I don’t know if they covered the differences between engines, I didn’t see anything on my coverage. Mid-race Sky lost the feed to Florida briefly but that’s the danger of satellite connections I suppose. It was very good to have at least a part of the race on the new Sky Sports F1 HD channel, which is available to those on Sky who don’t pay for the other Sky Sports channels and on a day with an F1 race when people would’ve seen the many trails for it. Sadly the delayed F1 replay took precedence over a live race in progress which was just a bizarre decision, so they bumped the first half of this race to ‘red button’ and online.

Competition

Isn’t it great to have engine competition again? No sooner than a Chevy engine took pole did Honda drivers start complaining they just didn’t have the mid-corner driveability of their rivals, even if they did have the top-end. Apparently when the Honda spools up it just goes – it just takes longer to get going. All do to with the choice of Chevy (and Lotus) to go with twin-turbos and Honda with a single. It may not be a big difference but I love that we now have a difference, and potentially it could change throughout the year as suppliers and teams play with setups and engine mappings.

On race day many of the Honda drivers struggled again, but one man didn’t. Scott Dixon was on fire and led for multiple laps. He seemed to be the only Honda entrant able to run up front consistently, and I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps his team nailed the setup of the DW12. Perhaps more of the Chevy teams just happen to have their chassis closer to the sweet spot than the Honda teams. The teams have been working together in each camp so it would make sense they might adopt similar setups at least to begin with.

Lotus were behind, as we all expected, yet they weren’t a million miles away. Perhaps by the standards of recent years they were, but not by the standards of open engine competition. They may have been at the back but they were still within 1.5 seconds of the frontrunner in any given session, except for Legge who was often a little further back.

I strongly recommend reading Marshall Pruett’s St. Pete Rewind for more of this sort of information as well as his view on the weekend as he saw it, touching on all aspects from technical traits, to race control decisions, to who’s been giving out press packs and who hasn’t. Marshall is one of the best around in any branch of our sport.

Star Newcomer

Many eyes were on Rubens Barrichello, despite this it was pleasing that ABC/ESPN didn’t spend the whole race ‘checking in’ with Rubens as they always did with Danica Patrick. They kept us up to date without piling on the pressure of expectation, that was left to those of us who know what he can do in the right car. So, how did he do? Sadly there’s only one word: underwhelming. That’s slightly unfair as he lost a lot of Friday running due to mechanical failure. Even so, and even in a series new to him, I still expected a professional of his experience to have bounced back on Saturday and Sunday to at least get close to his teammates if not beat them. As it was, he was nowhere near them. He’ll surely be happier on a more familiar style of track this weekend where I expect him to attack all the way.

Next Race

This weekend: Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham/Leeds, Alabama, USA

IndyCar pays a 3rd visit to the challenging natural terrain course with the quirky statues and art installations. It is also fairly narrow by modern standards though perhaps not if you compare it to somewhere like Mid-Ohio or Donington Park which are similar in nature. It also has a long straight so is a fast course, yet the slow twisty sections at each end break up the flow enough to make passing difficult. The most ideal location is the hairpin of turn five which has an undulating straight into a tight slow hairpin, and it is a downhill braking zone which makes it very difficult to judge the right braking point when trying to make a pass, or defend against one!

It is better than the most of the IndyCar bloggerati give it credit for, I think a lot of them just don’t like F1-style races which is what this course has provided on the last two visits. Contrary to popular belief there is passing here and it happens at turn five. It is up to the TV crew to show it to us.

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Filed under 2012, IndyCar, Race Review