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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