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.

2012 Formula 1 Preview Part 2

The second part of my 2012 F1 season preview is a look at the likely top half of the order. A selection of these thoughts appeared in Sidepodcast’s Season Preview Megamix podcast which you can listen to here.

As always in F1 the teams can be divided into groups. These are broadly: title-contenders, ‘best of the rest’, midfielders, and backmarkers. This post looks at this year’s championship contenders and those I like to call the ‘best of the rest’. Ignoring the PR fluff, I’ll note a realistic objective for each team – if they don’t acheive it they’ll have had a poor season, if they exceed it they’ve had a good one!

This is post 2 of 2: Read about the Backmarkers here.

Frontrunners

Red Bull

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber;
Engine: Renault;

Undeniable favourites. Their car was so superior over the last two years it is hard to imagine it being different now – but every streak comes to an end, will it be this year? I don’t think they will have quite the advantage they had before, at least not over McLaren – Ferrari and the rest may be another story.

Vettel has to be favourite for the drivers’ title, he’s been driving superbly and will be tough to beat – unless the revisions to the tyres for 2012 upset his rhythym. Webber didn’t put up as much of a fight in 2011 as he did in 2010. Both he and the team need that to change in case McLaren have found something for them.

Objective: Win both championships. I think they’ll ‘only’ win one of the two, McLaren will get the other.

McLaren

Drivers: Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton;
Engine: Mercedes;

For me McLaren are still the team to take the fight to Red Bull and I think a lot of people will want them to win if only because they don’t have a stupid nose on their car! The only problem I see is the drivers taking points from one another.

Button and Hamilton will surely remain equally matched, depending on how the tyres play out and what changes Pirelli has made this year. Button had the edge last year because Hamilton was getting penalties making mistakes under pressure. If Lewis can step his game back up to where it used to be, lose the errors, this will be a fun inter-team battle to watch – particularly since they seem to get on really well. My prediction is that Button will again edge it, but it’ll be closer than last year.

Objective: Win both championships. As I said above, I think they’ll ‘only’ win one.. but I can’t call which.

Ferrari

Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa;
Engine: Ferrari;

Ferrari don’t like it when they stop winning titles, will they revert to type and start chopping and changing management? Or will Pat Fry joining the team start them in the right direction again? From the mumblings coming 0ut of pre-season testing it sounds like the car isn’t anything to write home about. They key will be how they fix the problem.

Whatever happens I don’t think Alonso will stop trying, whatever speed the car has, he’ll find it. There is also the now annual question: Is this Massa’s last year? He keeps hanging in there doesn’t he. I don’t believe the suggestion that Webber could replace Felipe, but I can easily see Perez slotting in next season.

Objective: They’ll say their aim is the championship (or both). Realistically I think they’ll even struggle for race wins, but their aim should be at least one win if not two or three. If the car is as bad as feared their only objective will be to beat Mercedes, Lotus, etc.

Best of the Rest

Mercedes

Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

The same assessment I gave one year ago: this has to be Nico Rosberg’s breakout season. He had a decent season last year, we need to see a bit more though. Part of that relies on the car of course and it didn’t seem as competitive last year. They seem to have kept themselves quiet over the winter so it’s hard to get a read on them. Interesting choice to start testing later than the others, sometimes this strategy works but with so many teams opting for early track time you have to imagine that’s the optimum strategy under this year’s rules. Yet of all the teams in the upper midfield I still think this is the one to take the fight to the guys up front.

I don’t really have anything to say about Schumacher. As long he and Rosberg are fairly evenly matched, as they have been, there’s no real reason for Schumacher to leave other than boredom. MS has improved a lot since his comeback year, he’s not on his old form but he’s good enough.

Objective: They’ve got to go for 4th AND be an annoyance to the top three teams. Score frequent podiums. Stay clear of the main midfield.

Lotus

Drivers: Kimi Räikkönen, Romain Grosjean;
Engine: Renault;

It’s been weird seeing this team fall down the order, at times recently they’ve been much too far back in the pack in races. Regardless of the name above the door you just don’t expect the team at Enstone to be running outside the top ten. I expect that to change this year as they seem to have got themselves into order. If they aren’t back in business, racing Mercedes and worrying the frontrunners, I’ll be very surprised indeed.
Kimi is an interesting hire. When he was announced he was considered past it, and there’s an element which makes me wonder if he’ll have lost his edge. But unlike Schumacher when he returned, Kimi has been actively competing in other categories, indeed the precision of the WRC may even have sharpened his skills. He’ll lack recent race experience but as a champion I expect him to have knocked out the rust even before we reach Melbourne. Do not underestimate Romain Grosjean. He is not the driver who was plunged into the deep end in F1 in 2009, and the team’s changed too. He may not quite match Kimi but I don’t think he’ll be miles behind him. This is a strong line-up. The real questions arise over the car, and the team leadership.

Objective: They say their target is 4th and I think that’s a good target: beat Mercedes and Force India, both of which worried them recently. A realistic objective is 5th in WCC – but they are quite right to aim for 4th.

Force India

Drivers: Paul di Resta, Nico Hülkenberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

This is an exciting year for Force India, I think they have one of the best driver line-ups on the grid. Added to what seems to be an improving technical dept producing better cars and they could really fight Mercedes and Lotus hard this year. The car looks tidy too, it’ll be fast. The question mark here is about Vijay Mallya – if the Kingfisher empire hits the rocks, as it well might, what will become of the team? Surely that’s a distraction.

Di Resta waited far too long to get into F1 and now he’s proving why. To have a rookie season with results like that was just what he needed, though of course with as many DTM races as he had he wasn’t a total rookie (DTM cars almost being singleseaters with bodies). The Hulk really didn’t deserve to sit out for a season after his debut year, I really can’t wait to see what he does this year. This season is almost a head-to-head to see who takes any vacancy which may appear at Mercedes (or even McLaren) for 2013.

Objective: Mix it with Lotus and Mercedes. Score podiums. The drivers are solid, let’s see the team surprise people – they still have some of that old Jordan underdog fighting spirit, let’s see it!