After an offseason where it seemed agonizing at times to wait for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series to get going, six weeks have passed and already the first quarter of the season is in the books. Much like Formula 1 in 2011, the same driver and team has been winning most of the races, but the racing's been genuinely interesting. Here are some observations after the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle from Brazil is in the books.
DID WE WARP BACK TO 1994? – Will Power was only 13 at the time, but his and Team Penske's start to this 2012 season are very similar to what is often considered the most dominant season by a single team in recent open-wheel racing history. That year, and with an Ilmor-prepared Mercedes-Benz, Penske won 12 of the 16 races with drivers Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy.
So far in 2012, Team Penske's Ilmor-prepared Chevrolet has powered Power to a three-for-four start, and coupled with Helio Castroneves' popular St. Petersburg win, the team has its first four-for-four start in its 44-year history as an organization. Considering one of the phrases going into the year was “expect the unexpected,” perhaps the only way that rings true was that we didn't expect one team to win all four races – and to boot, the way Power has won all three races.
Clinics both on passing and strategy at Barber and Long Beach netted Power those two wins from ninth and 12th on the grid, but the Australian went into authoritative beat-down mode from pole in Brazil to record his third straight win both on the season and on street courses. Nowhere was that more evident when on a mid-race restart, Power managed to pull away on the harder black Firestone compound compared to second-placed Ryan Hunter-Reay on the softer Firestone reds.
One thing that will also invariably come up if we're comparing years is that at the end of 1994, Penske downsized from three cars to two. Much like April showers bring May flowers, the rapid start by his teammates in comparison sprouts the annual “what happens to Ryan Briscoe next year” discussion. Without being unfair to the Briscoe-Roger Penske loyalty, I can't help but wonder if it might be better for Briscoe to seek greener pastures at the end of the year rather than continually drive in the shadow of his teammates.
ON A SIMILAR NOTE – That 1994 season began with Michael Andretti's win for Target Chip Ganassi Racing on Reynard's chassis debut at Surfers Paradise, Australia. Unlike 2010 and 2011, the Penske win lockout has meant both the TCGR and Andretti Autosport teams – the other two squads to record a pre-Indianapolis victory these past two seasons – are still searching for win one.
Points-wise, Power has a 45-point gap over Castroneves the first four races this year, compared to just 14 last year over Dario Franchitti. Meanwhile the biggest loser in the last two races has been Franchitti's teammate, Scott Dixon.
Back-to-back finishes of 23rd and 17th have cost Dixon 78 points to Power just in the last two races. He has gone from second in the standings post-Barber to sixth, now 71 points behind Power, and second among Hondas to Simon Pagenaud.
ANDRETTI'S ACES – It's been refreshing to see Andretti Autosport back on the pace and genuinely competitive more frequently after a couple years where they've had their moments of brilliance, but been ultimately languishing by just that little bit compared to Penske and Ganassi. Now, for two of their three drivers, that competitiveness has turned into results.
James Hinchcliffe has, by most accounts, exceeded expectations after joining the team fresh off his rookie-of-the-year season with Newman/Haas Racing. Power and Hinch are the only two drivers in the field with four top-10 finishes in the first four races, and for proof of how strong he's gone, he's been disappointed with his two worst finishes of the year – sixth.
As for the strongest measure of Hinch's competitiveness in the GoDaddy car? The Canadian sophomore has racked up more top 10s on road and street courses in 2012 than his predecessor, Danica Patrick, did on all road and street courses in the entire 2011 season (four to three).
For Ryan Hunter-Reay, the new year has given a fresh life to a realistic championship challenge. While he and Hinchcliffe are 59 and 57 points back of Power, respectively, they're each in a far better position than a year ago. Back-to-back front row starts went for naught for “RHR” at Long Beach and Brazil last year; this year, he would have been on the podium in both had it not been for an avoidable contact penalty in Long Beach. Two podiums and three top-10 finishes to this juncture have “RHR” fourth in points, after starting 23rd through four races last year.
Unfortunately the black cloud of bad luck has shifted from Hunter-Reay to Marco Andretti, who has yet to record his first top 10 of the season and stands 19th in points. Indianapolis in even years has seemed to be a boon for him – second in 2006, third in 2008, third in 2010 – and it's about time for his season to get going in a much better direction.