Well, that wasn't quite what we expected.
The initial buzz, hype and buildup to the season-opening round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg largely failed to meet the created expectations. That wasn't any of the participants' fault, as those on-site would attest to a race where there was more passing than caught by the ABC cameras and where drivers largely raced clean and didn't risk tearing up their equipment.
Suffice to say expectations dropped both in scale and in magnitude, then, going into Round 2 at Barber. We then had a case with a lower bar set, and IndyCar and all its participants far exceeding it, and so the mood on a Monday seemed as optimistic as ever without much of the complaints, frustrations or agony over things like amateur driving, uninteresting racing, a lack of passing and an overreaching hand in race control.
So the early part of this week is actually getting the people interested talking about the racing. And that's a positive for everyone involved.
Yes, both the winners have both been from Team Penske, and Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers have achieved five of the six podium positions. But it's been far from the two-team dominance that's ruled the IndyCar roost over the past six years of spec Dallara-Honda racing, which is partially what was expected, and partially down to the changing fortunes of teams as they improve their packages.
A few key subplots are starting to emerge:
THE NON-POWER PENSKE BATTLE – Helio Castroneves is back – for now at least. The miserable, forgettable and error-prone 2011 for the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion is a distant memory
Castroneves seized the victory at St. Pete with a clean, outside maneuver on Scott Dixon – as if to say, “Hey, try calling me for blocking now since I'm passing him on the outside.” The Helio of 2011 might have tried a more conventional inside maneuver, where he either wasn't in alongside deep enough or just used his nose to pitch Dixon out of the way. A popular, poignant win put pause to the pessimism that populated his previous season.
Then at Barber, a track Will Power was always expected to dominate, Castroneves was able to bank his qualifying flier prior to the red flag that ended Q2 – and subsequently took Power out of the running for pole. Needing to deliver, Castroneves secured his first pole since Motegi 2010, and more importantly, his first road or street course pole since Sonoma 2008, a full year and a half before Power joined the team full-time.
While he fell to third in the race, he still held off a charge from Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud to keep a podium position. Castroneves, now working with John Erickson calling his races instead of Tim Cindric, seemed disappointed with third, a result he would have enjoyed last year.
In two races, Castroneves has already led more laps than in all of 2011 (56 to 34), equaled his podium total, and is leading the points. He's said he's not thinking about the championship yet, but he has the early momentum to at least stay within Power's range going forward.
All of this has to cast the spotlight back onto Ryan Briscoe, yet again. For someone who was optimistic about his chances going into 2012, and who was generally happy with how he handled the DW12-Chevrolet package in testing, he's again off to a sluggish start by comparison to his teammates.
Granted, he still qualified second at St. Pete, but finished fifth after his strategy led by team owner Roger Penske failed to materialize the way they wanted. Then, at Barber, a clutch issue prevented his even running in Q2, and in the race, his strategy was again compromised with an inability to get a fuller handle on his tires. He jettisoned one set midrace, but shy of the final pit window, which negated any chance of a good result.
For what it's worth, last year he went through a worse start, and he led the most laps and finished second at Long Beach. He'll need to recapture that magic again, or at least get ahead of Castroneves, for the next two street races before Helio hits Indy as Penske's alpha dog in search of his fourth 500 win.
BOURDAIS' BRILLIANCE – Sebastien Bourdais doesn't have the words "miracle worker" as part of his business card since joining Dragon Racing, but they might merit a place if the team was to reprint new ones.
With only a half a day of testing prior to the season starting, Bourdais was immediately on pace and at the head of the Lotus-engine queue at St. Petersburg. He maximized his pace through the slower portions of the track, and ran as high as second before retiring from sixth place when his car stopped.
At Barber, he was able to qualify fastest of the Lotus group by a full eight tenths of a second over Simona de Silvestro, and started alongside Dario Franchitti on row nine.
Bourdais proceeded to drive the wheels off the car, making passes left and right, notably on Rubens Barrichello in the early stages and then Marco Andretti in the waning ones to end an incredibly satisfying ninth place in a car that largely had no business doing so. It marked Dragon Racing's first top 10 finish since Raphael Matos was seventh at Mid-Ohio in 2010 for the team formerly known as de Ferran Dragon Racing.
There's some Newman/Haas carryover to this team; Bourdais' longtime engineer Craig Hampson was spotted over his shoulder during his post-race interview. If Bourdais can rally this team, led by new engineer Neil Fife, in the same way he galvanized Newman/Haas during his Champ Car glory years, and if his Lotus engine stays together, there could be more miracles to come.