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.
SIMON SHOWS HE'S FOR REAL – It's been a long road back to open-wheel for Simon Pagenaud since his only Champ Car season in 2007. Much of it's been chronicled, but between driving six iterations of Acura/HPD prototypes and two versions of Peugeot's 908 in sports cars, a Honda Civic in Grand-Am's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, and even a rally race in France, Pagenaud's driven the wheels off nearly anything and everything since 2008.
So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the versatile Frenchman has made the most of his first two races as a full-time open-wheel racer, and has been second best of the Honda runners only behind Scott Dixon. The balance is there and Pagenaud appears at ease through the corners with the high downforce levels on this car, which isn't too different from his sports car days.
His only real baptism will be on ovals, having never driven on one at any stage of his career. His Schmidt Hamilton team won't be testing at Indianapolis this week, per Pagenaud's classification as a series rookie, but will be at Texas for two days. Knowing the team has an announcement of a second driver imminent, it would be safe to guess the SHM team will be looking to pair Pagenaud with an oval veteran – Townsend Bell, Buddy Rice or a Vitor Meira come to mind as a good fit here, if the signing doesn't require any added funding.
SATO, KANAAN WITH ROUGH STARTS – It's been far from an enjoyable return to full-time IndyCar competition for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with driver Takuma Sato. And for Tony Kanaan, a switch back to his old number, with his old engineer and a different paint scheme, his luck came up snake eyes – same as his number, 11.
RLL led twice for 11 laps with Sato at St. Pete, but the car had a mechanical failure after its final pit stop and retired, thanks to an air line that operated the gearbox failing due to heat. Same story at Barber, except this was power-related. Of the five drivers stuck on 24 points, a near minimum 12 in back-to-back races, Sato has clearly ran well but hasn't yet got a result.
Kanaan's start, if possible, has been worse. The KV Racing Technology driver was plagued with battery woes at St. Pete, which ended a race where he seemed poised to capture the lead thanks to an off-sequence strategy and yellow timing. In Barber, he had to pit to repair a broken right rear shock – one of the few areas that carried over from the previous car. A minimum 10 and then 12 points in back-to-back races sees TK at the bottom of the points standings.
LOOKING OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE – After a relatively successful opening round for the six teams not receiving the regular Leaders' Circle payments, they all took a step back at Barber. Three of the six entries finished in the top 15 at St. Pete; none of them did so at Barber.
The dollar amounts stay the same even if the performance level doesn't, so it mattered not that James Jakes finished only 16th at Barber – he and the Dale Coyne Racing team, which seem far from happy with their handling, were best of the “outside six” at Barber and have the $80,000 in the bag.
A frustrating weekend for rookie Josef Newgarden saw him ending one spot behind, but again second of the entries as he was in St. Pete. Newgarden's practice pace didn't include a great qualifying effort and he seemed annoyed at his efforts, which is the measure of a determined young driver. SFHR currently leads ahead of the Charlie Kimball Novo Nordisk CGR No. 83, with those two the only ones over $100,000 earned, combined.
The Jakes/DCR No. 19 and Sato/RLLR No. 15 lead the two Lotus entries in the “outside six” – Katherine Legge's Dragon Racing and Alex Tagliani's Team Barracuda-BHA entries – which have each had engine riddles that they've had yet to solve, and rank at the bottom of the standings.