2012 IndyCar Preview – Pt 1. All Change

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season promises to be the most exciting in years. The reintroduction of engine competition alongside a brand new chassis will shake things up, even if the cream rises to the top as it surely will, these added variables will make the racing unpredictable. Add in shaken-up driver line-ups throughout the field (save the top runners) and the series has plenty of what racing fans crave: Unknowns.

A New Car

Much has been written about the Dallara DW12 IndyCar.

From the negatives (and my, IndyCar fans are the best in the world at being negative): It is too heavy at the rear. The sidepods are too big. It looks ugly from several angles. It isn’t different enough to the old car. It is too different to the old car. The engines sound more dull and are too quiet.

To the positives: From different angles it looks very good. The teams have done a fantastic job creating liveries and attracting sponsors. Despite fears of a 17 or 18 car grid we have an entry of 26 cars at St. Pete with more promised later. The engine isn’t as piercingly loud as the last one.

Both are part and parcel of a new chassis and engine package. You will never please everyone. And frankly some of the complaints are those you SHOULD hear when a new car comes in. Not everyone will like it straight away: I didn’t. Yet after weeks of winter testing I really do think it looks more like an IndyCar than the previous chassis did. Okay so yes, it is quite big for an open-wheel car. If it races well nobody will care.

That is the real question. Will it race well? Or will the car be too aero-dependent as most modern open wheel series cars around the world are these days? We hope to find out this Sunday, but we won’t have all the answers as St. Pete is as much a reflection of IndyCar pace as Albert Park is to F1 – in that it isn’t, really. We can get an idea but we won’t really know until the 2nd round.

Engines

At last! Engine competition! And a real shake-up in power plants this season. The last-gen Honda engine was built by Ilmor, but they’ve moved over to welcome-returnees Chevrolet. As a result the Chevys have been pace-setters in winter testing and in St. Pete practice sessions, aided significantly by being the engine of choice of Team Penske.

Honda are still present but this time are built in-house by HPD in California, you’ll recognise the name if you follow sportscar racing as they put together some of the quickest LMP1 and LMP2 car/engine combos at last week’s 12 Hours of Sebring . They also built the Honda engines in the CART era. These people know what they are doing. Honda have been just as competitive in testing as Chevy, again helped by having the series’ other top team, Chip Ganassi Racing, in their camp.

The third manufacturer is Lotus, with engines built by Engine Developments Ltd (known by everyone as Judd, after their founder). Lotus joined the party some months after Honda and Chevy and so have struggled to keep pace with their competitors, releasing their first engine some time later, taking to the track later, and having far fewer cars testing as they worked to build enough engines in time for the first race. One thing that has been reported is the good reliability of the engine, if true this could help them massively. What hasn’t helped was the complete radio silence from Lotus and Judd over the off-season, added to money troubles attributed to the Lotus Group. Will they still be around by the end of 2012, beginning 2013? Quite honestly so many people expected them not to appear in testing let alone show up supplying 5 cars at race 1 as they have, I think they’ll still be here.

Tracks

16 races make up this year’s schedule compared to 17 last year, yet there are several changes to note.

Gone are New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Twin-Ring Motegi, Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Controversially these are all oval tracks (however Motegi was switched to the road course last year after earthquake damage) and there are concerns that the replacements are not all ovals – the schedule is no longer balanced as a true test of versatility. There is truth to that and I hope the balance tips back again, even if only slightly. New Hampshire and Kentucky are great IndyCar tracks but drew abysmal ‘crowds’. Motegi has been replaced by an event in China (again controversially). Las Vegas is gone for reasons which should be obvious.

Add in the return of two tracks of old:  Detroit Belle Isle, Auto Club Speedway (a.k.a. Fontana). I’m no fan of Belle Isle, I think I’ve yet to see a good IndyCar/CART race there. ALMS managed to put on a good show but only because the mix of faster and slower classes affected the race. Fontana is a modern classic but there will always be concerns about it after the death of Greg Moore in 1999 (albeit the issue that killed him has long been resolved) but more particularly after Dan Wheldon last year – if the pack racing still exists this year should the series return to a big, fast oval? If the cars are more spread out, yet crucially are still able to pass, then let’s see it.

The retention of two troubled events should be celebrated by everybody. The Milwaukee Mile is a storied racetrack with a history stretching back a hundred years, not to mention it always puts on a great race – a personal favourite. Baltimore’s inaugural race alongside ALMS drew a huge crowd and both races were tense yet fun throughout, it really deserves another shot. It could easily be the ‘Long Beach of the Eastern US’.

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The first race is this weekend at St Petersburg, Florida. It starts at about 6pm BST – IndyCar is never exact with starts – but do tune in from 5.30pm to see the pre-race show as there will surely be tributes to Dan Wheldon, who lived in this city. The green flag will be waved by Holly Wheldon, sister of Dan.

See Part 2 of this preview for a run-down of the teams and drivers who will start the season.

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