Another season of IZOD IndyCar Series racing is here, and my PR commitments have stepped up this year. As I've gotten older, that's an aspect of the job that I've come to embrace. It's important that I promote the RC Cola brand for the sake of Andretti Autosport, and promote Chevrolet in recognition of our new engine supplier, but I've also come to recognize that it's the responsibility of everyone involved to promote the brand of IndyCar racing. That's why I do this blog, that's why I have done more tweeting (@MarcoAndretti), that's why as soon as I finished this blog I was due to be on a teleconference call. We've got to make connections with fans directly and through the media.
And those fans aren't going to be disappointed by 2012, because this is exactly what they wanted – lots of unknowns. We haven't faced this big a challenge for a long time, with new cars and new engines, and so we head to St. Petersburg with a lot of questions that will only get partly answered when we hit the track.
So what do we know? Well, for sure the new car has more downforce in the faster corners and there's more grip, whereas in slower corners the car wants to push on. But, to be honest, the carbon brakes have been the trickiest to get used to. In the last third of the braking zone, as the downforce diminishes, it's really tricky to get it right consistently because it's so knife-edge between maximizing and locking up. To put a full lap together when you're going for that last tenth of a second in qualifying will be tough, especially on street courses that have less grip. At Barber Motorsports Park where we tested this week, I did a couple of laps in the wet, and the downforce is mega compared with the old car…but the brakes are even trickier. Sometimes it locks the right front, sometimes the left, sometimes both, and sometimes the rears!
On the natural road courses, this car is fun and fast, though. At Barber, in the dry, it was great. We were fairly quick, although my car didn't have Chevrolet's latest St. Pete-spec engine, so I'm pretty eager to get hold of that because it will really make a difference. My teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay did have the latest version, and when we compared our data, even though I was exiting the corners faster, he was going down the straights quicker, so that sounds good to me – more power, better torque. There's no racer who wouldn't want that!
It's hard to tell right now who's stronger out of Chevy and Honda, or who is more reliable. There will be blow-ups in the early races: there's no way there can't be because no one gets everything right first time – not a driver, not a team and not an engine manufacturer. What I can say is that although I think Honda will be a strong rival, I have every confidence in what Chevrolet is bringing to the table and I'm very happy Andretti Autosport went in that direction. Chevy and Ilmor will have their act together, for sure.
I wouldn't go off the Sebring times for gauging the performance of drivers, engines or teams. Although we go there and work on street course setups, you certainly can't take what you learned there and just roll off the truck in St. Pete and expect to have everything right – especially with a new car. One of the few things that have carried over from the old car are shocks and dampers and I feel we're making good progress with our program. I think the bulk of the work has to be done in testing, and should only be fine-tuned on a race weekend, but it's not a deal breaker anyway. For example, I think Penske have gone in one direction, Ganassi have gone in another, and they're both going to be fast, so whichever direction we go in, we just have to make it work and build the setup around it.
Working with Ryan for the past couple years has been great, and having James Hinchcliffe (with Marco, RIGHT) join us for 2012 is great, too. He's immediately adapted to the team, and sharing data with him, I can see we've got similar driving styles – probably closer than Ryan and I, at least on street courses. You could see that at Sebring, too, although unfortunately, it was me and James toward the bottom of the chart! But Ryan has this unique style and it's up to James and I to find something that works for us. On road courses, I'd say the three of us are pretty similar.
The oval issue is kinda interesting, because obviously IndyCar has got work to do to break up the pack racing. I did a two-day test at Phoenix, and I was flat all the way around from lap 6 and running the shortest line, and I'll be honest, that concerns me for the bigger ovals. If it's easy to drive, we're going to get pack racing, so I hope Will Phillips and the IndyCar tech team come up with a remedy. The car could definitely handle more power and that would separate the men from the boys. Imagine, leaving the pits with cold tires, wheelspin in third and fourth gear…That's what will bring out the talent. Not a setup where you can just push the pedal through the floor.
Back to the present, though, with four street and road courses to start the season. I definitely expect to be a Firestone Fast Six contender in all of them and I think it will be a wider-open fight this year. Having said that, I've been seriously impressed with Will Power: At Barber, he paced the field in dominant fashion. But at a lot of the tests, you could see how tight the times were and so I really think it will come down to whichever teams get it right on any given weekend – and who does that will vary a lot more than in recent years. I'm confident that the Andretti Autosport team has strength in depth to make those changes on the fly during a weekend, adapting to circumstances with the best teams.
We'll be on it, for sure.
P.S. Hope you like my Dan Wheldon tribute helmet I'll be using in his home town, St. Petersburg. He's always in our thoughts.