Six different winners from four different teams suggests that the DW12 has indeed leveled the playing field. But what have been the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and drivers? Here's the half-term report, by RACER editor David Malsher.
(Written in order of each team's leading driver in the championship.)
There's no question that The Captain's three-man squad is the strongest of the Chevrolet-powered teams more often than not. Winning the opening four rounds of the season proved that, with Helio Castroneves taking his first non-oval win for two years, and Will Power overcoming grid penalties in both Barber and Long Beach and following that up with a controlling performance in Brazil.
Ryan Briscoe, who should have started from pole at Long Beach (grid penalty), went on to take pole at Indy and was strong at times in the race; Power was the strongest opposition to Honda-powered cars in Detroit (in qualifying and race), he was a potential winner at Texas until he received a (deserved) drive-through penalty, and Castroneves has been what he wasn't this time last year – consistent enough deserve his top-five position in the championship.
But Honda-powered cars' superior fuel economy at Indy and slightly higher speed down the straight at Detroit means that this championship fight is a long way from being over. Had Scott Dixon not accounted for himself in Texas and then had IndyCar do it for him in Milwaukee, he'd be right in Power's wheeltracks.
Briscoe has had a very up-and-down year – two poles and a decent run to third at Texas, but other days he's barely noticeable. Castroneves continues to defy the laws of aging, and occasionally pulls out a special performance. But it's hard to watch a guy who produces a decisive win at St. Petersburg and a podium finish at Barber then cause a cluster down at Long Beach's final turn or spin into a wall at Detroit.
Power remains the man to beat on road and street courses, and no one can deny he's doing the best with what he's got – over half a second quicker than his nearest teammate in qualifying at both Detroit and Brazil. But he squandered a brilliant performance at Texas Motor Speedway, and his superlative Sao Paulo victory must seem a long time ago. Going for championships by accruing points is anathema to this guy; he's always looking to deliver the knockout punch. That being the case, it's time for Power, Penske and Chevrolet to head to Victory Lane once more.
Like most drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay can look back on a couple of incidents in the first eight races and then examine ruefully the 41-point gap between himself and the championship lead. The DNFs at Texas and Indy weren't his fault; the penalty at Long Beach was. But the win at Milwaukee last weekend has deservedly sent his confidence sky-high, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be a top-five contender at each of the remaining races. And consistency goes a long way in IndyCar in 2012.
For proof, he can just look across the garage to teammate James Hinchcliffe, who's yet to finish higher than third place, but lies second in the championship, just 31 points behind Power. Apart from the DNF at Detroit where track debris launched him into the tire barrier, the retina-scalding green car has been one you can count on to reach the checkered flag and in a top-six position.
That's not to suggest Hinch has been in cruise-and-collect mode, though. As his teammates will tell you, he's very fast in qualifying as well as on race day and on all types of circuit. His front row starts at Barber Motorsports Park and Indy were the result of great laps and the fact that we expect to see him near the front at all races says a lot for last year's Rookie of the Year.
Marco Andretti has had a nightmare year so far. When he's fast, it's not usually in a session that counts, and minuscule errors – more than ever, it seems – cost you big when you're trying to get to the last round of qualifying, the Firestone Fast Six. He was the strongest Chevy runner at Indy on race day, but the car's handling went south and its tire usage turned ferocious. The accident, when it came, was not surprising; he was simply trying to make up for lost time and wayward handling.
Andretti and engineer Allen McDonald have no time to lose to get their season back on track. Iowa this weekend could see the start of a revival; Marco is the defending race winner and Andretti Autosport always find a strong setup there, if not for qualifying then at least for the race. But the events that follow will be more telling as to whether Marco is destined to always start behind his teammates this year. He has the talent to match them but he seems to have lost the key to unlock it.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
So Chip Ganassi's leading driver in the championship has slipped to third, but – no offense meant to either Hinchcliffe or Andretti Autosport – I'd be surprised if that were still the case in three or four races' time. (AA is on its way back; it's not there at Penske/Ganassi level just yet.)
Dixon still has days of bad luck (Long Beach DNF, unfortunate strategy/yellow-flag at Brazil and error by Race Control at Milwaukee – although none of them cost him a win) and his own error in Texas will haunt him for a while. But, like Power, he quickly found speed in the DW12, which at one time he was worried wouldn't suit his style, and the confident way Dixon dealt with anyone and anything at Detroit suggests that there'll be more days in the future when he's the man to beat. There's no reason to think he won't be taking the title battle down to the wire.
And – one of my most frequent mantras – never count out Dario Franchitti. He had a couple of anonymous races earlier in the year, but in Brazil he qualified on the front row. And since then, despite having a disaster in Texas and a DNF in Milwaukee, he has cut his deficit to championship leader Power from 98 points to 69. Franchitti's fine win at the biggest race on the planet and a perfect drive through the field to second at Detroit prove he should now be fine on all types of circuit. The two Canadian races, rather than Iowa, should prove whether he's finally found a setup that suits his driving style. If he has, he's a title contender.
Graham Rahal currently lingers outside the top 10, but we're about to hit a sequence of tracks that should enable him to leap up the championship table and recapture the form that only bad luck prevented from scoring a handful of podiums at the back end of 2011.
Clipping the wall on the penultimate lap at Texas a couple weeks ago will still be a fresh wound, but let's not forget how well he ran all night – and kept that oversteery Ganassi setup under him longer even than Dixon. Then also recall that only restraint and good track ethics kept him from muscling past Castroneves for a podium finish at Barber and, while the television director failed to notice his passing skills at Detroit, a lot of his rivals did. A two-lap delay in the pits before the restart was a cruel fate.
Charlie Kimball, as in his rookie year, has had some good race day performances – at Long Beach, Sao Paulo, the Indy 500 and Detroit – but reproducing that form race after race will never be possible while he qualifies in the back half of the grid. There's just too much danger of getting caught up in other people's accidents or the field getting away from you in the early stages. For now he's a fine rep for Novo Nordisk but he needs to show Chip he can be a consistently fine driver.
SCHMIDT HAMILTON RACING
Best result: 2nd
There's no one in RACER's employ who doubted the quality of Simon Pagenaud's driving talent, and although he's in a one-car team, we had every confidence that his technical savvy and car sorting ability would help compensate for the deficit of data due to this being a one-car team. But (pre-grid penalty) qualifying sixth at St. Petersburg – a track he'd never driven before in an IndyCar – was still startling, as was finishing second at Long Beach and qualifying fourth at Detroit. His second trip to the podium was well deserved.
And he hasn't been daunted by his first taste of ovals, either. A measured approach to Indy served him well and qualifying inside the top 10 for both Texas and Milwaukee suggests he's climbing the nursery slopes with ease.
He's destined for more podium visits in the seven confirmed races ahead. If there's an eighth and it's at Road America or Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, don't be shocked to see him in the top three all weekend.
Best result: 2nd
The results may not always show it, but Tony Kanaan is probably driving better than ever. The haunted look of his latter days at Andretti Autosport has gone, there's a sense of responsibility in particular to help Rubens Barrichello, and yet he no longer feels the burden of being the only driver on the team who can bring the car home in one piece.
Sure, Kanaan's qualifying laps still give you the impression that his steering wheel is an electric eel, but that style seems to be a little more effective with the DW12 than with the last car and – much like last year – if he finds himself starting near the back on a road or street course, he drives through the field very calmly, very cleanly. And that same arms-and-elbows style is what made him run strongly in both Texas and Milwaukee. In the former, the result didn't reflect that because Power blocked him, but in the latter, he got the podium finish. And let's not forget he was top Chevy finisher at Indy, with a stirring drive in the closing stages.
EJ Viso's new-found calmness has also been impressive. Many attribute that to team co-owner Jimmy Vasser being the guy on his radio this year, others to the necessity to prove to CITGO top people that he/KV/IndyCar in general are worthy of their dollars. But whatever, it's been good to see at last and getting through to the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying at Detroit while his teammates languished near the back was particularly admirable.
Barrichello has not delivered the results that some expected of him – but those “some” were massively underestimating how different IndyCar is from Formula 1. Of far more importance is that he hasn't been hurling his car at the scenery while learning: that achieves nothing, as it robs the driver of confidence and laps, and the team of money and human resources. Instead, the charming Brazilian has built up slowly, learning the tracks, learning how to drive with delicacy a car that doesn't have power steering, learning how to do rolling restarts, and learning ovals. In the latter category, he's been quite exceptional, with a top-class rookie performance at Indy (qualifying and race) and a phenomenal qualifying effort at Milwaukee. Yeah: this rookie's got what it takes…
Best result: 4th
Oriol Servia, from the calamitous early days of the season with a Lotus behind his ears, has reached the top 10 in the championship thanks to two fourths and a fifth place over the past four races. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team, in its switch to Chevrolet power, has also gained a partnership with Panther Racing; hence the new nomenclature. Right now it seems that both teams are benefiting from the alliance, as you'd expect. Servia and JR Hildebrand are accomplished drivers on all types of circuit, and the teams' strengths should complement one another.
Hildebrand has scored fifth places in Long Beach and Texas – the latter despite a crazy-loose setup in the first stint – and Servia seems able to mount charges from the back of the grid. But now it's time for podium finishes…and that usually (but not always) requires starting from near the front. If Panther DRR continues working as one team, it has the drivers to capitalize on strengths and improve on weaknesses and the teams together will learn all the nuances and finer points of the DW12.
DALE COYNE RACING
And what a win it was! I've wondered in the past whether Justin Wilson's bravery and ability to steer the rear on the throttle at high speed might punish his rear tires too much. Well, that certainly wasn't the case in Texas a couple weeks ago: only two other drivers maintained such an even pace over the course of a stint and thus avoided the huge grip drop-off before pit stops. And both those drivers took care of themselves, whereas Wilson was error-free. Error-free, I should add, despite the frustration of restarting at the back of the field after having another driver (unintentionally) sabotage one of his pit stops!
An engine change following that race, of course, penalized him on the starting grid for Milwaukee – and ultimately, the new motor lunched itself – but the Dale Coyne Racing car's pace around the Mile on both qualifying and raceday was probably stronger than any other. Come to think of it, JWil was only a late restart away from finishing third at Indy…
So has Coyne's combination of Wilson, engineer Bill Pappas and Honda engines pulled the team into the top rank? Despite horrible fortunes in the early races – see Justin's blogs – there's no reason to assume Wilson's customary excellence on road and street courses won't now have a chance to shine on every type of circuit. Podiums are probable, but another win isn't out of the question, either.
In light of his teammate's talent, James Jakes is likely to be overshadowed more often than not. There are still days when you think “Whoa, where did he come from?” but the progress we saw toward the end of last year seems to have plateaued in his sophomore season. However, Sebastien Bourdais was impressed with Jakes last year, and Wilson's opinion follows similar lines. One good result could be all JJ needs to start that onward and upward progress once more.
RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING
Best result: 3rd
The quality of team that Bobby Rahal has put together makes you realize what we'd have been missing had he not done so. OK, that initially reads dumb, but there were question marks over Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's full-time participation until quite late in the off-season – question marks that Bobby himself raised in order to underpromise and overdeliver. Once testing got underway, however, it became clear that RLLR was ready to snap at the heels of the big teams, a position that its driver Takuma Sato traditionally relishes.
And we've seen the results. There should have been a podium finish at Long Beach, but Hunter-Reay's failed passing attempt ended that; there was a podium at Sao Paulo. And at Indy… ah well. Given the run he had on Franchitti starting that final lap, Sato had to go for the gap because who knows whether there'd have been a similar opportunity further around the lap. Plus, that maneuver had worked on Dixon one lap earlier. But I still think that rather than go down to the white line/transition area he could have kept clear and leaned on Franchitti's car a little…. Easy to say while sitting at 0mph in front of a keyboard, huh?
Whatever, despite some overambitious maneuvers, Sato has become one of those drivers who you always expect to see qualifying in the top dozen and racing toward the top six. And that's an endorsement of the team's quality as much as the driver's.
BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
Best result: 7th
Really – seventh is the team's best result so far. That takes a little believing considering how prominent Alex Tagliani was in qualifying at Indy (11th), Detroit (3rd) and Texas (pole!). And bear in mind it's only since Indy that the team has had a decent engine.
Once Honda replaced the lackluster Lotus units, immediately both BHA and Tag were ready to go. The fact that, despite having had very restricted test time with the DW12 due to the restrictions on mileage imposed by Lotus, BHA hit the ground running once they had a reliable and strong horsepower supply proves the combo's innate quality. At Belle Isle, the car failed to get going due to an electrical malfunction – it's just never easy for Tag….or Bryan, for that matter – but once the No. 98 was moving, Tag drove it like he stole it. Had the race run its full distance, a top-five from the back of the pack was on the cards.
There's nothing tentative about Tagliani in 2012, and Herta and team co-owner Steve Newey are going to benefit from that just as soon as the their luck turns around.
ED CARPENTER RACING
Best result: 8th
Ed Carpenter's decision to become a team owner is paying off, because considering the results he's achieved, he's got a great sponsor and has gained a lot of publicity. Carpenter's eighth place in Milwaukee was totally legitimate and deserved, and had the Indy 500 not ended in the manner it did, his charge to third (until a spin) despite a non-adjustable front wing would have been one of the stand-out memories of Memorial Day. There's no doubt he can turn in some inspired performances.
But those will not come on the road and street courses that form the bulk of the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule these days, and nor – given the modified aero packages that put the driving back into oval racing – are they likely to come on many of the ovals. Carpenter will probably want to race the Indy 500 until he's in his mid-40s, but if he also wants to prove to the world the quality of the team he's put together, it's time for him to hand over at least the road/street racing side of the deal to either an experienced but fast veteran or a young rising star.
Of course, having said all that, Ed will now go and win Iowa…
A.J. FOYT RACING
Best finish: 7th
I keep waiting for this team to explode into life, and maybe over the next couple of months it's going to happen in Toronto, Edmonton, Mid-Ohio and in particular Sonoma where Mike Conway always shines. So far, though, A.J. Foyt Racing has flattered to deceive, with an excellent fourth place on the grid at Barber Motorsports Park being the exception rather than the rule.
Don Halliday is not only a great engineer, he's also someone who builds up a driver's confidence and gets the big picture. He and Larry Foyt will cosset Conway in a manner that A.J. probably wouldn't. The Briton likes his cars to handle flat and stiff, and sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't, as we saw in his Andretti Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold days. As I said with Jakes, one good result could uncork the potential and then, with the combination of talents in this team and a Honda engine, there could be strong results ahead. But they need to come soon, for the sake of everyone's confidence in each other.
SARAH FISHER HARTMAN RACING
Best finish: 11th
Here is a team that, like Schmidt Hamilton Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, appears to defy the theory that a one-car outfit will struggle to make progress, especially while in the early developmental stages of a new chassis. But here's an even bigger twist: Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's driver is an IndyCar rookie and driving for a team that only this year become a full-time entrant.
Of course, Josef Newgarden isn't just any rookie: he's the Indy Lights champion, and he's got a confidence about him that can be explained by his history in junior formulas. As his qualifying performances have proven this year, he's quick: Second fastest of the Honda runners at Long Beach, who knows what he might have achieved that day had he not been gently nudged toward the wall on lap 1, turn 1 by Franchitti. I'd suspect a third-place finish went begging right there.
But that sort of sums up Newgarden's season. Lots of promise but not many results. He's had more than his fair share of mechanical issues and bad luck and the occasional moments of wildness that afflicts most rookies. But importantly, Newgarden and the SFHR team have proven they belong at this level. A result that proves this should be coming soon…
Best result: 13th
Of course, the Lotus engine is a burden rather than a help at the moment, but there are better days ahead: that's what Keith Wiggins, HVM Racing team owner is telling people and, given that he's never one to blow his own trumpet even when his team wins, it's only fair to believe him.
But this team really got dipped in it this year. Lotus went from having more contracts than it could handle at the time, to having just one car's data from which to gain feedback, as BHA, DRR and Dragon Racing abandoned what they felt was a lost cause. Wiggins has stuck through it because a) he's convinced that being the primary team for a manufacturer is ultimately the way to go if he can persuade Lotus to stay; and b) a European engine builder group has been brought in to help Judd get back up to speed, and the fruits of their input should be seen soon.
In the meantime, the team and Simona de Silvestro should all receive resilience awards but also stay sharp in order to pounce on the first opportunity to shine.
Best result: 9th
Odd, isn't it, that despite Dragon switching to Chevrolet power at Indy, the team's best result of the year came with a Lotus engine, when Sebastien Bourdais defied conventional braking zones and occasionally the laws of physics to slither his way into the top 10 at Barber Motorsports Park. If ever there was proof that the guy's still got the magic that earned him four Champ Car titles, that was it, right there. Afterward, neither team owner Jay Penske nor Bourdais himself could quite believe what they'd achieved.
Since switching to Chevy power, the performance has obviously picked up although the team has downsized to just one car, shared between Bourdais and his teammate, U.S. open-wheel returnee Katherine Legge. From being all at sea in the opening four rounds, she has looked composed and reasonably competent as she relearns oval racing. However, the bulk of the strong results will likely come from Bourdais once he gets to race on street and road courses in the second half of the season.