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.
SATO'S SIGH OF RELIEF – Amazing what seeing a checkered flag can do. Proving his and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's team's pace was not a fluke from the first two races, although they both ended with mechanical issues, Takuma Sato recorded his first career podium at Brazil after a great outbraking maneuver on Franchitti into Turn 1. Despite his contact with Hunter-Reay at Long Beach, Sato still ended eighth there.
In two races, Sato has leapt from 24th to a tie for seventh in points, with more to come if he finds that consistency to match his speed.
BEST IN CLASS – In the unofficial “Lotus class,” Oriol Servia emerged with 64 points (tied for 16th) to lead the five-car brigade ahead of Sebastien Bourdais on 59 (20th). Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge have yet to score beyond 12 points per race, so they sit on a near-minimum possible 48 and 46 points in four races, while Alex Tagliani's withdrawal in advance of Brazil leaves him with just 37. Those three stand 24th, 25th and 26th in points.
Without being saddled by the inferior powerplant, Servia and Tagliani have the rest of the season to fulfill both their own and their Dreyer & Reinbold and Bryan Herta Autosport teams' potential. Unfortunately for the other three, it's a case of making the best out of a very challenging situation.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE – A few other stats worth noting after the first four races of 2012:
Big points movers: Castroneves (second in 2012/17th in 2011), Hinchcliffe (third/19th), Hunter-Reay (fourth/23rd), JR Hildebrand (tied seventh/16th), E.J. Viso (12th/24th), Charlie Kimball (15th/21st) and Bourdais (20th/25th) have all advanced five positions or more from their spots leaving Brazil last year.
Big points losers: Franchitti (10th in 2012/second in 2011), Graham Rahal (13th/ninth), Kanaan (14th/sixth), Servia (tied for 16th/third), Mike Conway (18th/fourth), Andretti (19th/13th), de Silvestro (24th/11th) and Tagliani (26th/seventh) have all gotten off to sluggish starts, largely for reasons outside their control.
Rubens Barrichello has scored three straight top 10 finishes, and is one of only six drivers with at least three top 10s from the first four races. He trails Pagenaud by 39 points among first-year drivers, although Barrichello is not classified as a full-season rookie. He also ranks highest of the three KV Racing Technology drivers, who are clustered in 11th, 12th (Viso, quietly impressive so far) and Kanaan (14th).
Hinchcliffe, Pagenaud and Takuma Sato all have scored their first career podiums in 2012, while Franchitti is yet to record a top-three finish. Meanwhile, Pagenaud leads Josef Newgarden by some 64 points for rookie-of-the-year honors.
The order of manufacturers has gone Chevrolet-Honda-Lotus in each of the first four races, so Chevrolet leads with 36 points, Honda on 24 and Lotus on 16 in the manufacturer's standings. Honda would need to finish better than Chevrolet in each of the next four races (based on the 9-6-4 breakdown) to match Chevrolet for the lead if a Chevrolet was second best.
LASTLY – The teams have the rest of the month in Indianapolis after the Texas open test May 7 to hone their oval setups, and prepare for the stretch of five races in five weekends – four on ovals – starting with the Indianapolis 500 May 27. That's going to be the time to make hay with Power's supposed “vulnerability” on ovals – yet with that said, he won at Texas and should have won Kentucky last year.
Having been out of town on a prior commitment last weekend, I didn't get to see the Brazil race live, and without the benefit of a live Twitter feed and live timing & scoring to complement the race coverage, it felt like there was a serious void when I watched on the DVR. I don't know whether that says more about what it takes to watch an IndyCar race these days, or whether I can't watch a race without these extra add-ons.