OK, this is getting ridiculous. Seven races into the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season and still no wins for Ganassi or Penske (but ones for A.J. Foyt and Dale Coyne). Still no top-three finishes for Dario Franchitti or Will Power (but a podium for James Jakes and a win for a part-timer, Mike Conway). Aside from Andretti Autosport's three victories in the opening four races, the 2013 preseason form book has proven as useful as a Top Fuel dragster on a road course.
So what's next? What can the awesome Texas Motor Speedway add to this season of surprises: A win for Panther? A podium for Dragon Racing? A sense of normality?
Believe it or not, there were blinkered fools who wrote off the Texas race last year because it wasn't a pack race. Those endless, scary, three-abreast drones that used to require no talent but just a severe lack of imagination were banished in an instant thanks to the drivers talking to IndyCar's VP of Technology Will Phillips and asking for this nonsense to stop. Phillips listened, did what was necessary, and suddenly we had a real race.
Well, anyone wanting a return to IRL-style racing is in for a disappointment, because a further 200lbs of downforce have been trimmed from the cars to counteract the natural progress of the teams as they learn the DW12. On fresh tires in qualifying, the cars will probably still follow a line that's the best compromise between taking the shortest route and not scrubbing off speed. But, come the race, those who wish their tires to last should once more be taking the racing line, shallowing (apologies for made-up word) the arc to the turns.
Al Speyer, executive director of Firestone, says: “We continue working with series officials to supply tires that put a premium on tire management by teams and drivers…The new Firestone tire for this weekend should provide that right balance once again, giving drivers great grip and stability from set to set, while rewarding those who properly manage their Firehawks throughout the stints.”
Sounds good to me and most others – including the most talented ones in the cars.
Last year, two of the most likely winners – Scott Dixon and Will Power – each shot themselves in the foot. Actually, Scott has a funny and cruder expression for it than that, but this is a family website, so we'll spare his blushes and my relationship with my boss. Still, if Dixie doesn't get distracted by backmarkers and Power doesn't get called for a blocking penalty, expect to see both figure strongly once more.
Why? Because of Firestone's aim to again ensure that tires, not fuel, are the deciding factor regarding pit stop strategy. Dixon isn't the best at looking after his rear tires, but his ability to live with oversteer, which left even Power impressed last year, means the No. 9 can probably stretch its stint as long as those who nurse their rubber. Power, meanwhile, was one of the few who had no tire complaints last year, despite having to climb from 20th to the lead following an extra pit stop. He also likes the circuit now that it needs to be driven.
And let's hope Graham Rahal memorized his Ganassi setup sheet for TMS, because he was one of few who could keep Dixon in sight last year, and came within a couple of laps of winning. He's a brave driver but has race smarts too, and there's nothing like the memory of running well to bolster the confidence on returning to that same track.
It will be worth watching Dario Franchitti again, because although he's known for liking a very solid rear end to his car, and therefore wouldn't have enjoyed the tail-happiness of the DW12 on old rubber, there appeared to be something far more fundamental wrong with Target Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 10 last year, so quickly did it fall off the pace. Franchitti probably worked as hard to finish 14th and three laps down as he did over the course of one season-long run to the championship.
The Ganassi boys will have been working hard to find a setup to suit their four-time champ, and I dare say he also will have been thinking about ways to tailor his car for long runs without disconnecting anti-rollbars mid-race…
GRIP AND GRIN
Should the yellows fall whereby drivers make a late pit stop for a 10-to-15-lap dash to the finish, expect more drivers to rise to the fore as tire conservation becomes far less significant, and all-out pace becomes prominent. Those are the conditions where you'd expect Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe to rise to prominence, and so also, the TMS polesitter for the last two years, Alex Tagliani.
Reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is a bit of an unknown quantity with this car at this track, because he suffered mechanical failure before one-third distance last year, but if his fast yet smart and investigative oval driving last year at, for example, Iowa is at least a vague guide, then expect him to be strong in Texas. There's a good reason he's the champ.
THE VET AND THE SOPHOMORE
Every time you recall that Justin Wilson won this race last year with illegal bodywork and wonder if he should have been disqualified, you have to remind yourself that his Dale Coyne Racing machine rolled through IndyCar tech five times that weekend! In other words, DCR's error regarding the correct aero package for that race is dwarfed by the oversight made by the tech team. It might have been a little harsh to penalize JWil after he'd put his butt on the line for two hours.
Would Wilson have been fighting for victory last year with a legal car? Almost certainly. Great car control, and able to apply an intelligent approach to his driving rather than just drive the wheels (and tires) off his car, and with Bill Pappas in his corner, he's usually swift in homing in on the right setup.
Schmidt Hamilton Racing's Simon Pagenaud, a winner on the streets of Detroit, is another analytical driver paired with super-smart engineers Ben Bretzman and Nick Snyder. No less important is that Pagenaud really liked his first taste of oval racing last year, both the driving and the mental challenge. Scoring a win in Texas would be another step toward his seemingly inevitable destiny of championship contender, if not this year then next.
• Panther Racing has warned that there will be something of a revolving door for the No. 4 over the remainder of the season, with Oriol Servia – unemployed since Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's temporary post-Indy paralysis – climbing into the National Guard camo for this race and Iowa. Let's hope he doesn't have the same setup for Texas as JR Hildebrand had at the start of the race last year. Check out the five seconds of emergency magic from JR at around 0:44 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABX4CClWaMQ
• Pippa Mann returns to Dale Coyne Racing with her Cyclops Gear sponsorship. Given that everyone recognizes how tough it is to tame Texas Motor Speedway in the DW12 era now that you have to pedal the cars in the turns, this will be a huge moment of truth for Mann, and could feasibly make or break her career in IndyCar going forward. As ever, though, she's up for the task.
• Lastly, remember that qualifying means very little regarding potential race performance. It's how drivers handle the cars on worn tires, not fresh rubber, that will be crucial to what happens on Saturday night. This won't be a multi-pass, multi-leader race to the same extent as this year's Indy 500, but it may be an even bigger challenge.
• The Firestone 550 airs live on ABC Saturday night, beginning at 8:30 p.m.