I delayed this column until we'd heard the new rules for 2013 and seen a couple more driver-team combinations confirmed or at least come closer to a meeting of minds and bank accounts. And much of what has been revealed so far, in both areas, makes sense albeit with one or two anomalies and one or two question marks hovering over certain areas. Why, for instance, does last year's polesitter at Long Beach and Indy have no confirmed ride for 2013? Why are there more championship points on offer at Iowa than at any other race bar the Indy 500? Why has it all gone quiet regarding bodykits in 2014?
That last point is one we'll deal with as part of a later column. First off, let's talk about what matters most to the majority of fans of any race series: its participants.
TEAMS AND DRIVERS
I'm willing to bet that Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive even better in 2013 than he did last year, because while he may not have lacked self-confidence before, subconsciously drivers find a new level once they've proven themselves to their rivals, their fans and their detractors. Engineer Ray Gosselin is someone with his head screwed on correctly, too, and he's not afraid to be ambitious.
That being the case, I hope Andretti Autosport has continued making technical progress in the off-season, so that the champ can put up a strong defense of the crown. IndyCar as a whole needs more than just two teams battling at the front, and the revival of Michael's team over the past three seasons has attracted big-name sponsors that will demand to be seen among the leading contenders at all races.
I hope too that RHR's incumbent teammates Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe can add to the team's trophy collection. Andretti Jr. Jr. has been an uneven performer for the past five years, but last season's disaster has caused him to completely rethink his driving techniques; he'll endeavor to be gentler on his car and tires, while remaining aggressive in race situations. That's a tricky balancing act, but I've believed in his raw talent for a long time and remain hopeful it can bloom. Hinchcliffe is already a very polished performer both on and off the track, and in his third year at this level, I hope he'll find his way to Victory Lane. Would it be too much to hope for that to occur in Toronto? It would be no more than he and the Canadian fans deserve.
EJ Viso will eventually be confirmed at AA and though this causes whispers of “pay driver,” that's not entirely fair because the Venezuelan has shown flashes of promise throughout his IndyCar career and on all types of track. So long as long as Andretti Autosport hasn't bitten off more than it can chew by re-expanding to four cars, there's no reason why he and inestimable race engineer Michael Cannon can't crack the top five on a regular basis.
Team Penske needs to remain firing on all cylinders given the increased strength of the opposition, and I hope Helio Castroneves can continue with the race-smart outlook he employed in 2012, which resulted in a couple of wins and fourth in the championship. As for Will Power, he needs to wring the neck of his car on the ovals and not expect points-scoring consistency to win him the title. Driving cautiously is not his style, and leaves him vulnerable to the wilder, nothing-to-lose drivers. Power, like the Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, can be expected to score poles and wins on a regular basis. All three were hit by misfortune at various times in 2012, all three made some costly errors, all three will surely be fighting for the title into the closing rounds of the '13 season. Anything less would be odd.
Surely everyone hopes to again see some surprising race winners, as we did in 2012 with Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing at Texas and Ed Carpenter and his team at Fontana. In fact, seeing personable underdogs like these two win again is the sort of story that IndyCar should revel in. And were Graham Rahal to find success with his father's team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, it would arguably provide the series with even more storylines…especially if it came at the “500” where both driver and team have shown huge pace in the past. Wins for Alex Tagliani and Barracuda Racing/Bryan Herta Autosport is no less than the combo deserves, considering that in 2012, they fulfilled all Victory Lane requirements other than being lucky. KV Racing's pairing of two fan favorites, Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro, needs to be more than that: I hope to not be surprised by seeing these two playing prominent roles in races: I, like all concerned, want to expect it.
Josef Newgarden possesses an easy natural talent, so I hope off-track distractions caused by his eminent promotability don't detract from his campaign to regularly get himself and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing into the top 10. The image is one of a driver who's quick in qualifying but fails to capitalize on that come the race, and while not all of No. 67's problems last year can be laid at Newgarden's feet – the loss of a podium at Toronto, for instance, was not his fault – naturally, errors from a sophomore are less readily forgiven than from a rookie.
Josef's compatriot JR Hildebrand, is blessed with beautiful car control, but there's no question that the partnership between Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing needs to be very close for the Californian to benefit from the wisdom of semi-teammate Oriol Servia's experience. One of the keys to the success of Ganassi and Penske over the years has been continuity with the significant personnel and while the Panther DRR amalgam possesses that now, so too it needs to emulate Chip's and Roger's teams in terms of total transparency between both halves of the alliance.
When Simon Pagenaud scores his first win, it will surprise very few IndyCar observers; in a Penske or Ganassi car, he'd probably be capable of fighting for the championship this year. But I also believe that Sam Schmidt's team – now called Schmidt Peterson Racing, in deference to Sam's new partner, Ric Peterson – has the strength in depth to be title contenders by 2014. Reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier is very much from the same mold as his teammate – impressively quick but also very smart – and so it wouldn't surprise me to see him finish in the Top 12 in the championship, and score a podium finish or two.
As the latest rookie to stand on the victory podium at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I hope Charlie Kimball's increasing confidence will pay off at Chip Ganassi Racing. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's newest recruit James Jakes is another slow-burner who continues to show progress, year on year, and who, like Kimball, makes admirably few errors.
By contrast, ex-RLLR star Takuma Sato, who this year joins A.J. Foyt Racing, has tended to oscillate between gung-ho and gun-shy, depending on whether his exuberance caused an accident at the previous race. Last year, in events when Bobby Rahal could impose his commonsense approach on his driver, Sato produced strong results, and I hope A.J. and Larry Foyt can keep Taku's head pointed straight. If they can, and if they listen to their highly experienced and intelligent driver, he could be the guy to unlock the team's potential which has lain dormant for too long. If not, I'm surely not the only one who'd love to see a year-long reality show based on this partnership….
Dragon Racing's re-hiring of Sebastien Bourdais is a major coup, and the four-time Champ Car champ showed a healthy dose of realism by signing up as soon as Jay Penske made him a serious offer. Many drivers down the years have held off, taken the chance of something better coming along only to be left without a ride when their market value doesn't match their self-regard. And Seabass is not merely clinging to a life raft here: on or off the record, he'll tell you that although there's much to be done, he's genuinely impressed with Jay's team. I hope their faith in each other is rewarded.
When Jay's father registered a third car for Team Penske, it triggered a lot of speculation, because the general understanding – a loose term to cover a combination of knowledge, assumption and gossip – was that Penske would be down to two cars this year. Team president Tim Cindric recently commented on this site that “we hope to add another entry at some of the events throughout the season,” but history points toward the fact that it's a long time since Penske gave a ride to a rookie, so who'd be driving? It's appealing to think it would be AJ Allmendinger but since he himself has expressed little enthusiasm for the idea, and Penske hasn't even hinted at it, this would be a fairly shocking turn of events.
No, to my mind, the most likely third driver for Penske would be the same guy who's been driving for Roger since 2007 in sports cars and 2008 in IndyCar, Ryan Briscoe. He took a win and two poles last season so there are many teams who'd benefit from his pace and experience, he'd doubtless have some useful setup knowledge that could benefit any other team…which is why I think RP may keep him on the books. Briscoe would also be a fine barometer by which a team owner could judge the potential of his or her team and its incumbent drivers.
Speaking of third drivers, it's good to see Mike Conway not only getting an RLL ride at Long Beach, where he won in 2011, but also negotiating for more events. He deserved better than to be remembered for an ignominious departure having decided oval racing wasn't for him. Wouldn't it be great if Bobby Rahal could find the money to run a third car full time, with Conway on the road and street courses and, say, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy or Bryan Clauson for the ovals?
Remember, this piece is about hope, not expectation.
IndyCar's attempts to eliminate fuel mileage racing by altering the lengths of the races at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio is a well-intentioned one that can never be guaranteed of success. On the face of it, it's good: While saving some fuel, trying to go a lap or two longer than your rivals, will always be part of IndyCar, there used to be a situation where, in order to complete one fewer stop, drivers on road and street courses would be coasting even before a braking zone and that will always short-change the viewers, so trying to eradicate that situation is worthy. Ultimately, though, whatever is decided by Beaux Barfield (ABOVE), IndyCar's president of competition, what tips a race from a “we'll have to make three stops” to a “we can j-u-s-t about eke out the fuel on two stops” is usually determined by the number of yellow flag periods. Nonetheless, with notably fewer of those – remember, Edmonton and Mid-Ohio went completely caution-free last year – Barfield's pre-emptive move is probably a wise one.
I'm more impressed by the rule that allows the teams to determine fuel load at the start of a race. This should encourage a variety of tactics, especially among runners who are “artificially” low down the grid order, perhaps because of an engine-change penalty or perhaps because of a technical infringement in qualifying. For instance, when Justin Wilson's car was sent to the back for not carrying the onboard camera ballast at Sao Paulo last year, would Dale Coyne have been brave enough to run him on half tanks at the start, seen whether he could make his way into the top 10 in a short opening stint, banking on caution periods later in the race to neutralize the disadvantage? I don't know, but it's great to have that possibility – and that element of uncertainty – available once more.
The double-headers are a novelty without being a gimmick, they offer a relatively inexpensive way to add to the number of races on the schedule and so it's an avenue I believe is worth pursuing. Of course, there's a bucket list of tracks that we'd rather use to make up 18-20 races – Road America, Portland, Vancouver, Laguna Seca, Loudon – but how many of those are profitable/feasible? That's something you and I can't decide, but merely speculate on…and dream about. From a physical point of view, some of the drivers aren't happy at the idea of full-length races on consecutive days but, personally, I have more sympathy for their crews. The first of the Belle Isle races is just six days after the world's biggest race, the second is 24 hours later, and then the next three races are back-to-back-to-back – six races in five weekends!
Pocono's return is to be welcomed, so long as it is a proper driving challenge – that is to say, low downforce; and I'm also confident Mike Lanigan can make the Houston event a success given a three-year run (LEFT). The actual racing there wasn't enthralling in Champ Car's day because too many of the straights are too short to get a proper slipstream, but the track is a challenging one for each driver, and to watch Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and Will Power controlling their cars under braking for Turn 6 after the long, increasing-speed right-hander around the Reliant Astrodome, was always special. Come to think of it, the long blast from the final corner down to the first chicane was great too, but it was damn near impossible to use that as a passing opportunity without the full cooperation of your rival.
Still, there was plenty of passing at some of the more unlikely tracks last season, and there's no reason why this trend can't continue. And as for those who say street races are boring, I hope 2012 helped change your mind. Lousy TV direction can make any race dull, but Power at Long Beach, Charlie Kimball at Toronto, Graham Rahal and Alex Tagliani at Detroit and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Baltimore all proved that passing is very much a possibility if the desire is there and there's no need to fuel-save.
No, I don't want street races to dominate the IndyCar calendar: In my ideal world, ovals, streets and natural road courses would have six rounds each on the IndyCar schedule because track variety is one of IndyCar's USPs. That said, let's be slick and smart about it – organizers and promoters should not leave themselves open to finger-pointing. So that game of, “Where shall we place the chicane for this session?” in Baltimore needs to stop, the track surface at Detroit's Belle Isle needs to withstand the forces exerted on it by a solid weekend of racing and the drivers need to behave themselves and look after each other at, for instance, the first chicane in Sao Paulo. Double-file restarts are meant to thrill the spectators, not Dallara's accountants.
It's a relief to hear that the push-to-pass boost regs are being simplified, with 10 pushes available for each event, each push being worth 15-20sec depending on the course and no reset time. I still wonder if it's necessary, given that it can be used by the defending driver, too, unlike Formula 1's DRS system. But so long as the drivers don't have to tolerate the ridiculous delayed activation that was experimented with last year, I'll put up and shut up.
The fact that the polesitter and race leader on restarts must always start from the inside front row may cause some issues, for on road and street courses, the inside line often isn't the racing line, nor will it be the grippiest line if there are rubber marbles off the racing line. However, if the leader is being challenged on the outside, this does give him the opportunity to run a little wide and force his rival to back off. More interesting will be the effect this has on restarts on short ovals such as Milwaukee and Iowa where the wider line is often the preferred choice since it obliges the driver to slow less for the first turn.
Pit selection rules simplified to reflect qualifying order at the previous race – as opposed to the previous race at a track of the same type – is more interesting than it seems, for it puts slightly more emphasis on being the complete driver, fast on all types of track. There have been many drivers in recent years who took qualifying on ovals less seriously as they focused more on raceday setups, and that emphasis will still be there, but in the back of their minds will be the thought that pole at Pocono will give you a useful advantage at Toronto come race day. Likewise, setting pole in the second of Reliant Park's races will give you the best pit lane position for the season finale at Auto Club Speedway.
The points system has been revised so that drivers get a point for leading a lap, and two points for leading the most laps. Further down, points for finishing positions 19 through 25 have now been graded, rather than receiving a flat 12 points. And that's fine…as far as it goes. But why does everyone get points? It renders the point for pole position fairly meaningless if a rival can get seven points just for completing a lap and failing to beat anyone. The whole points system needs an overhaul, and while I don't propose the radical system that some espouse – one point for a win and that's it! – in a field of 24 cars, I'd be content to see just the top six awarded as follows – 20-12-8-6-4-2 – with one point for pole and one for fastest lap.
Sure, that would mean some drivers ended the year pointless (no pun intended) and their tallies of sevenths, eighths and ninths etc. would still be used to arrange the order in the championship table, but the first person with no top-six finishes in 2012 was as low as 22nd, so it would not be difficult to work out the remainder of the rankings. I know my views aren't shared by all, but I don't believe at this level of sport that it should be merely the taking part that counts. Who do you have more admiration for: the driver who's only employed for six or seven races yet scores a couple of top-five finishes, or the one who spends the whole season collecting 17th places or whatever? If it's the former, then you, like me, would surely prefer a championship system that rewards occasional brilliance rather than consistent mediocrity. Oh well. Won't be fixed now, but I'd like to hear other people's views on this.
As for the Iowa heat races…I'm not quite convinced by these, either, even with a healthy dose of points on offer. I get excited at heat races if it involves eliminations, paring the field down to the best drivers on the night. Here the stakes aren't high enough, if your only penalty for not excelling is to miss out on a few points and start a couple of rows further back for the main event. Also, with only one point between each of the placings one through 10, who's going to risk damaging their primary car for the main event the following day just to score an extra point? The incentive to finish first rather than 12th is admirably large; first rather than second, negligible, and so I fear that the heats will be lukewarm. It's one of those rare occasions where I'd be happy to be proved wrong, though.
Extending the required life of the engines from 1,850 miles to 2,000 is a good way to ensure the engine manufacturers continue to strive for reliability as a means of cost containment. However, I still hate the fact that an early engine change should result in the team and driver being punished with a 10-place grid penalty, since it's extremely unlikely that either party is to blame for an engine failure; equally, I've gradually come to accept that preventing that car from scoring manufacturer points isn't punishment enough. What to do?
Well, preventing that car from scoring manufacturer points for the entire duration of that new engine would be my solution, so that the manufacturers get hit hard, but the driver and team are still rewarded for what they earned on merit. And if the engine change was prompted not by a reliability issue, but rather because an upgrade had become available, it would then be up to Chevrolet or Honda to decide with the team in question whether it was worth switching early to the improved spec unit, or remain with their current one and continue earning manufacturer points.
Finally, it's rare to hear an IndyCar driver blatantly accuse a rival of deliberate interference with a flying lap even if many incidents fall into the “suspicious but unproven” category. But every race weekend, there are drivers who have a complaint above and beyond the regular “traffic” hampering their qualifying runs, and usually it's because of another driver being slow to check his mirrors during a warm-up lap. (Cool-down laps are less of a problem because the timing and scoring line during practice and qualifying is set before pit-in, so that drivers can swoop into pit lane as soon as they complete their run.)
Often, a driver's lack of consideration for others reflects his team owner's and/or race engineer's attitude of, “Look after No. 1, make them find a way around you.” Barfield has made it clear that he and his team of stewards will accept neither truculence nor negligence. For the sake of safety, as well as fair play, this is a timely reminder to all – you may not watch your mirrors, but we will be watching you.