There's no telling where to start in examining all the potential storylines for the much-anticipated 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season opener this weekend at St. Petersburg. Even using a form guide from past runnings at St. Petersburg's temporary street course might prove all but outdated considering how much has changed. But there are a handful of key factors to watch going in, which, coincidentally, all begin with the letter “R.”
RELIABILITY – It's the race's wild card and the most likely pitfall to sabotage someone's race, instead of mere driver error. The only race at St. Pete that ever had more than Honda as an engine manufacturer was IndyCar's first at the track in 2005, and even then, Honda produced a top-five lockout including the remarkable Andretti Green 1-4 sweep led by Dan Wheldon.
The Hondas, now new as the lone single-turbocharged 2.2-liter V6 compared to Chevrolet and the Lotus twin-turbos, have been far from bulletproof in the offseason, but that's almost been a benefit as the manufacturer's technical team led by Roger Griffiths hope to have sorted out the issues. And given its history of near-perfect reliability as a single supplier the last six seasons, Honda is sure to have produced an engine more reliable than its first iteration through testing.
Chevrolet should be on par, if not slightly ahead, with Lotus likely lagging through the first portion of the season. But half the excitement of this season is the unknown reliability, and who may be affected when in a winning position.
RACE CONTROL – It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to read about Race Control beyond a preview of the first race, not least IndyCar's new man in charge of it, president of competition Beaux Barfield. Perhaps unfortunately, Barfield will have a microscope placed on him for his first race in the position, but all signs from his comments since his appointment are leaning toward a more streamlined and simplified approach for calling the race.
If we're talking about anything other than race control on Monday with Barfield's name nowhere to be seen or heard, it will have been a success.
RUBENS' DEBUT – Rubens Barrichello's debut for KV Racing Technology is one of the more heralded in IndyCar in recent years, and judging by preseason testing, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him one of the pre-race favorites. Without any preconceptions of what an IndyCar should be like, Barrichello won't need to adapt any differently from the previous car, a potential advantage.
Given a competitive car, he certainly has the pace – just witness his race-winning performances as recently as 2009 with Brawn GP. Some two and a half years later, Barrichello is Formula 1's last race winner not named Vettel, Webber, Button, Hamilton or Alonso. It's not hard to imagine him winning on his debut.
RIGHT-FOOT VS. LEFT-FOOT BRAKING – Three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti will be one of the few drivers still right-foot braking, per a last-minute change to allow a new mechanical kit to do so.
While other veterans Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan have adapted to left-foot braking, Franchitti said this won't allow him to alter his style too much by comparison.
A braking challenge for all competitors comes in the form of Brembo's new carbon brakes, new for everybody in 2012.
REMEMBERING DAN – Understandably, one of the hardest parts of the weekend will be the reality Dan Wheldon won't be present. In his adopted hometown, Wheldon won the 2005 race as mentioned above. His death in last year's season finale at Las Vegas triggered a storm of comments and questions about the safety of IndyCar on high-banked ovals, and whether fence construction was part of the problem along with pack racing.
But, this weekend, it's more about remembering Wheldon and getting ready to race once more. The series' new car has been named for him, a street was dedicated in his honor during IndyCar's spring training media day in St. Petersburg, a moment of silence will occur before the race and Dan's sister Holly will wave the race's green flag.
The thing of it is, the racing is the healing part. See page two for a form guide.