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!

Photos: Last Week’s BTCC at Brands Hatch

Here are a selection of photos of my day at Brands Hatch last Sunday for the opening round of the BTCC season. I brought along my new Nikon to try out at a racetrack for the first time, some of the shots are mildly good, most aren’t because I’m not a photographer or because I had fences and people in the way. Still, I had fun, it was a glorious sunny day (unlike today) and a perfect first racing event of the year.

Welcome to Brands Hatch

Rob Collard and Jason Plato

Nicolas Hamilton, brother of Lewis, has a disability but it doesn't stop him racing in the Renault Clio Cup.

I watched BTCC race 2 between Paddock Hill and Druids:

Clios:

Ginettas:

It’s great having 3 BTCC races in a day and a full slate of support races. Here’s BTCC race 3:

The oil from Jackson's car caused 6 other cars to go off

A glorious day for racing
You can see a lot at Brands Hatch if you find the right location. End of the day. Time to pack up and go home. 'Til next time.

You can see more of my photos in my Picasa album.

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.

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.

F1 Reaction: Malaysian GP 2012

Rain! Showers and storms were forecast all weekend yet the F1 sessions were largely unaffected until race day. With limited wet running in pre-season this was our first look at the pace of the field in damp conditions.

Stars Of The Race

F1 has a new superstar in Sergio Perez. What a drive to get a mid-grid car into second place, not only keeping it there but pulling away from Lewis Hamilton for lap after lap (himself no slouch in the wet) AND catching Fernando Alonso. I think we all expected him to drop back after the stops for slicks, surely there was no way a Sauber could stay with a Ferrari. Especially a Sauber on hard compounds and a Ferrari on mediums. Yet that’s exactly what he did, after the stops the gap began to fall again! Very, very impressive. You can certainly see why Ferrari are so interested in him.

Such a shame that two small mistakes cost him the win. The first was the mistake in not slicks early enough, it was becoming clear slicks were up to 5 seconds per lap faster and so it turned out – staying out an extra lap lost him 5 seconds. I assumed that was a team decision but it could also be inexperience on his part. The other was a minor mistake in the final laps when he got a wheel on a wet kerb which sent him into the (thankfully tarmac) runoff.

Some idiots on the internet and maybe even the media (and Martin Whitmarsh come to that, perhaps jokingly) suggested it was a conspiracy, that he was asked to do it to allow Alonso to win in return for swapping with Massa later in the year.  I thought it was a joke, all good fun at the expense of the team buying engines from the leaders. Ha ha, fair enough. Yet others were being totally serious! Absolute nonsense of course, it was a straightforward error from a driver on the limit. We’re talking about a guy on the verge of his first Grand Prix win – he was never going to give it up.

The other star driver was Alonso himself, who insists this car is bad even though he leads the Championship. He’s in danger of sounding like Nigel Mansell, or Jason Plato. If the car really is bad then it is a remarkable achievement – I’m willing to believe it because surely even Massa isn’t bad enough of a driver to finish 15th just because it is raining, without having hit anyone as Button did. Mind you, Massa has done this before.
The conjecture on the Sky coverage was that this car overheats its tyres in the dry hence it is slow, yet that very same effect means it keeps the wet tyres heated and grippy and therefore fast whereas rivals can’t get the same heat into them. It sounds plausible to me, even at a hot Malaysia, and I’ve seen it happen in the past. It still doesn’t explain Massa though, unless he really is that bad in the wet!

Almost, But Not Quite

I’m sure Hamilton is kicking himself for scoring two poles in two weeks, twice converting them into finishing third. He seemed happier after this race, personally I think it was because he beat Jenson, it seems to matter a lot to him to beat his teammate.

The Red Bulls seemed to come alive in the last stint, suddenly they were on the pace and catching Hamilton. I’m not sure how Vettel hit Karthikeyan, it looks like he assumed he’d cleared the HRT when he hadn’t. Somehow Karthikeyan is the one with the penalty, I don’t know how that works as the guy was practically off the track already! For me it was a racing incident, with any blame to be apportioned going to Vettel.

Middle Order

Despite a great qualifying performance, Mercedes were absolulely nowhere in the race. Are these cars poor in the wet or is there more to it? Conversely the Lotuses were absolutely flying. Kimi Raikkonen used it to great effect to finish first of the ‘best of the rest’ (non McLaren/RBR/Ferrari), and he also set Fastest Lap. It was like he’d never been away. Sadly Grosjean was again out early, trying to pass Schumacher as the fast Lotus caught the slow Mercedes.

Congratulations to Williams for the first double points finish since.. who knows when? After two races they have already scored more points than in the whole of 2011, and this time it was Senna who impressed. 6th place was well-deserved and came with 4 stops, more than anyone else in the top ten (although Vettel also had had four and was on course to finish 4th). It remains to be seen what effect the surprise resignation of Adam Parr will have on the team. It can’t be helpful.

Good to see the two Force Indias in the top ten as well, not that I remember seeing anything of them on the TV coverage. They split Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso who scored his first F1 points. Rounding out the top ten was Michael Schumacher scoring Mercedes’ first and only point of the 2012 season, an incredible stat given their qualifying pace over the last two weeks.

At The Back

Credit too to Marussia and HRT for registering finishes with both cars. Marussia’s cars are still slow but have gained reliability, a trait sorely lacking in their first two cars and a change I welcome. After HRT’s double-DNQ in Melbourne this was their first full race of the year – a slow start but making noticeable progress. They even ended up 10th for a time but only because they hadn’t pitted before the red flag. If they’d remained 7 seconds down on the frontrunners serious questions would have to be asked, as it is they picked roughly 1.5-2.0 seconds if you compare times in Q1 between the two events. Another slight improvement puts them on a par with Marussia, the battle for the wooden spoon is just as fraught as the one up front.

Championships

1. Alonso 35
2. Hamilton 30
3. Button 25
4. Webber 24
5. Perez 22

Alonso’s lead has to be considered temporary unless Ferrari are able to make some progress in dry-weather pace before China, or we get a string of wet races. The easy money says this year’s WDC will go to a McLaren driver – but which? Who would’ve put money on Vettel lying 6th after the first two races, with Perez ahead of him?! Worth noting that Kimi is 7th, and the Mercedes drivers will probably look very glum in Shanghai.

1. McLaren 55
2. Red Bull 42
3. Ferrari 35
4. Sauber 30
5. Lotus 16

Early days in the WCC but I think we already have our two title contenders up front. In fact given their race pace I’d almost be surprised if McLaren doesn’t walk the WCC in the way RBR has of late. Alonso has scored all of Ferrari’s points so far, Kimi has done the same for Lotus. Sauber will be very happy with 30 points given they only scored 44 all last year, and I’ve already mentioned Williams already up on their 2011 tally. We all expected Mercedes in that 4th spot, and Sauber 7th or worse. As I say, early days.

Next Race

April 15th: Chinese GP, Shanghai, China

A strange decision to open the year with a back-to-back pairing before a three-week gap, it strikes me as being an unnecessary loss of momentum, however I can see why the team personnel would appreciate a chance to go home after a couple of weeks away – particularly if any of them went to Australia straight from pre-season testing.

Shanghai is one of those races with a bad reputation and sometimes it is deserved, I barely remember some of the tedious races here, yet I well remember the last two events being pleasantly surprising. The unwinding corner into the long straight into a hairpin does make for a good combo even if the rest of this quite technical track promotes field spread. As with many tracks the best races here are when it rains.
It may not be a highlight of the year and being a Tilke design it is often derided, but it is not the worst among them by any means. It may not be Spa, it isn’t Barcelona either. Give it a chance.

2012 IndyCar Preview – Pt 2. Teams

Teams

Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda;
Drivers: Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball;

The champion team is obviously among the title favourites again. Franchitti and Dixon are the best pairing in the series and it will be a major struggle to beat them. I still put Dario ahead of Scott but the car changes this year could easily swing in the Kiwi’s favour.
The second, satellite team will do will with Rahal and I hope Kimball shows improvements too. Both should thrive with a second solid season without needing to chase a race seat.

Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet;
Drivers: Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe;

Power has emerged as the best of the trio over a season, he’s almost unbeatable on road and street courses and is always improving on ovals. So much so, Will is my tip for the title this year. Word from testing is that this car suits Helio and Ryan more than the last one did in recent years, could we see the Helio of old at Indy (and elsewhere)? Will Briscoe finally again show the talent which got him a drive at this team in the first place? I hope so.

Andretti Autosport
Engine: Chevrolet;
Drivers: Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe;

A drop from 4 cars to 3 this year for Michael’s team. The big-name star is gone and Hinch moves across from Newman/Haas (who shockingly aren’t in the series this year) to take the vacant seat, which was originally earmarked for Wheldon. Perhaps the focus on 3 cars and the drop of the constant attention of the media on a single driver, will help the team recapture the form it lost some time ago. RHR should be the fastest driver but don’t count out the others.

KV Racing Technologies
Engine: Chevrolet;
Drivers; Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello, EJ Viso;

If the Andretti team moves out of the media spotlight this year, this team moves into it. Sato is out but Barrichello is in, and there’s no doubt Rubens is the bigger name particularly since the series already has a strong following in Brazil. How will he transition from F1? I think it’ll be a mixed season for him.. much like his F1 seasons. I’m amazed that he’s so well-loved outside the F1 paddock as much as in it – if he scores a win expect everyone to go wild! Kanaan drove very well last year and seemed to enjoy himself more to boot, I hope the addition of his experienced friend helps him. Signs are that it may have helped Viso who seems to have calmed down a lot already, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog his drive in the 12 Hours was very mature. Good things could come to KV this year, a far cry from 2010’s crashfest.

AJ Foyt Enterprises
Engine: Honda;
Driver: Mike Conway;

Conway moves from Andretti to Foyt. A match made in heaven or a baptism of fire? I can’t call it. I know Conway is always quick on the city street courses and there are plenty of those this year, the team has a reputation though of preferring ovals. Fair? Not sure. They’re gradually getting better everywhere.

Panther Racing
Engine: Chevrolet;
Driver: JR Hildebrand;

Very good all-round driver, but an oval-specific team still looking to up their game elsewhere, much like Foyt. They are always making progress in that regard and this could be the year they make that leap forwards.

Lotus-Dragon Racing
Engine: Lotus;
Drivers: Sebastien Bourdais, Katherine Legge;

This deal seemed promised for some time yet only seemed to fully come together this week when an engine finally appeared for Seb on Thursday. A good team though, they should be among the top Lotus teams. Where that puts them in the overall field is another matter. Interesting to see Bourdais back in open wheelers, he would win races (maybe the title) if he were with a top Honda/Chevy team. Legge hasn’t been in an open wheel car for years and wasn’t stellar in DTM, so has lots to learn/relearn and lots to prove. She has a lot of respect among fans and the paddock but I wonder if that’s more due to surviving a horrible crash at Road America than actual talent. We’ll see.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engine: Honda;
Driver: Takuma Sato;

Great to see Rahal’s team back in IndyCar, and doing it without compromising the ALMS programme. Taku’s landed on his feet with RLL and I really think he’ll do well here. I am a big fan of both the man and his talent and I’d love it if he won a race, he just needs to stop bloody crashing! Could Bobby and his team be the people to knock it out of him?

Dale Coyne Racing
Engine: Honda;
Drivers: Justin Wilson, James Jakes;

Wilson returns to Coyne after a couple of years at DRR but I’m not sure why, they aren’t the fastest out there. He probably didn’t want a Lotus! He managed to get a win at Watkins Glen in 2009 so who knows, maybe he’ll do better than I expect. I don’t consider Jakes to be a hot talent and that opinion dates back to his GP2 days where he qualified well but couldn’t seem to race. He didn’t prove me wrong in IndyCar last year and will need to work hard to convince me this year.

Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevrolet;
Driver: Ed Carpenter;

I have a lot of respect for Ed for making this move. I never really liked him, what with his family connections to Tony George and the fact he raced for TG’s team. I gained that respect when he drove for the underdog Sarah Fisher Racing team and was still competive on ovals. Always an oval driver first, he and the team decided to tackle select road courses even though he was invariably at the back. He’s been improving throughout. He’s now set up his own team and will run the entire season in a year with a bigger road/street course focus. The only question mark I have is how well he will do as a one-car team with nobody to show him the road course ropes, away from ovals he needs an experienced team-mate.

Lotus-DRR
Engine: Lotus;
Driver: Oriol Servia;

A good upper-midfield team, a very good underappreciated driver, a potentially uncompetive engine. Also a drop from several cars to just one although that probably wouldn’t worry Oriol. May well become the leading Lotus team and the team’s results will hinge on the performance of that engine.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Engine: Honda;
Driver: Josef Newgarden;

A rookie in a one-car team in a season with new cars and engines. A talented rookie yes, and one I really think should have stuck to the F1 ladder. But even so… I don’t see how this will work well. And yet, in the first two practice sessions in St. Pete he was in the top 12. Remarkable. Want an underdog? You’ve got one.

Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports
Engine: Honda;
Driver: Simon Pagenaud;

It is about time Pagenaud got back into open-wheel. He had a stellar debut in Champ Car 5 years ago, before showing his worth in a variety of top sportscars including Peugeot, with whom he finished 2nd at Le Mans last year (alongside Bourdais). He also won the 2010 ALMS title with Highcroft and David Brabham.

Lotus-HVM Racing
Engine: Lotus;
Driver: Simona de Silvestro;

Simona is a real talent who like so many others could use a team-mate to learn from, sadly this is a one-car effort again potentially hampered by the engine. She’ll show good results when she can but unfortunately results this year may look worse than they could’ve been.

Bryan Herta Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian
Engine: Lotus;
Driver: Alex Tagliani;

Tags is a decent driver but he doesn’t seem to ultimately ‘have it’, he’s been at upper-midfield level for years and can’t seem to make that last jump. BHA won the Indy 500 last year but then disappeared until the final two rounds whilst they went away to act as official test team for the new Dallara. As a result they have a lot of data of the car in its early stages which is probably redundant now, the car has evolved so much and the other teams have had plenty of testing to learn it for themselves. Midfield among Lotus runners, occasionally top among them and most likely so at Indy.

Others

Paul Tracy and his legion of fans were hoping to have one last full-season deal as a farewell tour before retirement, and a full-season ride would’ve enabled him to put in more competitive performances than his patchy recent career suggested. Sadly this hasn’t transpired and he seems destined to end his career scratching around for a drive wherever he can, which is not the way a champion should go.

Michael Shank Racing couldn’t secure a deal in time, largely thanks to Dragon getting the TEAM money from the sanctioning body, but are hopeful of appearing later in the year. RLLR have another car coming from Indy onwards for Luca Filippi. Expect several deals to come together for Indy alone and, hopefully, for a few entries beyond that.

I don’t get the sense we’ll see a merry-go-round of drivers this year which makes the series look that much more professional.

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’.

* *

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.