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 Even using a form guide from past runnings at St. Petersburg's temporary street course might prove all but outdated considering how much has changed.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.
With those issues all pressing but most of the community wanting to focus on the racing, here's a look at some past history at St. Pete to see how, potentially, this year's race could evolve:
DIXON'S ST. PETE DILEMMA – Scott Dixon has been one of IndyCar's best drivers for the last dozen years. Yet one race – this one – has seemed to perpetually set him back from the outset in the last five years, after back-to-back St. Pete second places in 2006 and 2007.
In his 2008 title season, Dixon finished 22nd at St. Pete with a broken suspension, his only DNF. A year later, a late accident dropped him to 16th. The same story in 2010 – 18th and wrecked. Finally last year, 16th and several laps down after being speared in the first-corner pileup.
The fact Dixon's still been close to the title despite his four-year St. Pete drought underlies how strong his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team is, and if he's able to get through this year's race without incident, look out.
PENSKE DUO WINLESS DROUGHT – Forget Will Power; the two guys needing to win and badly for Team Penske are his two teammates. Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were largely off-form in 2011, neither winning a race. Castroneves' drought dates to Motegi in September 2010, with Briscoe's to Texas in June 2010.
St. Pete is a good opportunity for both, as they're prior winners here. Castroneves won two straight in 2006 and 2007 and Briscoe won the 2009 season opener here, the one race Castroneves missed while battling his tax evasion charges. They each seem to have renewed confidence and pace from preseason testing, and look to gain that all-too-rare entry into Power's pace and podium zip code this weekend.
THE SPOILERS – Occasionally, St. Pete has thrown up a surprise result. Graham Rahal's 2008 win in the wet (still his only one) and podiums a year later for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson proved that drivers who garnered last-minute rides could secure a decent result.
Last year's first-corner fracas opened the door for Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro to contend for a podium. Kanaan had only done his deal with KV Racing Technology about a week before the opener, and had the irony of his engineer (Michael Cannon) one spot ahead of the car he had worked with previously.
Who could play that role this time around? Options are many but we'll look at those from outside the likely top four teams (Ganassi 1/2, Penske, Andretti, KV), who have half of the 26 starters between them.
Simon Pagenaud is one. The Frenchman has earned a long overdue full season IndyCar opportunity with Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports and has already been one of the busiest drivers in the offseason, dovetailing IndyCar testing with starts in the American Le Mans Series and rallying. He's determined, hungry, and quick, and if the car is right, he's heady enough to keep in contention.
Wilson's another good choice. Back with the same combination that captured the 2009 podium, engineer Bill Pappas and Dale Coyne Racing, Wilson wants to show he's still among the series' best on these circuits and that he has fully recovered from his back injury a year ago. He's already won a Rolex this year…
Another one to keep an eye on is Mike Conway, now at A.J. Foyt Enterprises (LEFT, trailing Josef Newgarden). Coupled with new engineer Don Halliday, Conway's the silent striker who came from nowhere to win last year at Long Beach, and figures to revitalize Foyt's team as a road and street course ace. He's certainly quick enough and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him among the leaders this race.
Lastly, it would be unwise to count out Rahal Letterman Lanigan's Takuma Sato. Sato finished fifth at St. Pete a year ago and has shown strong pace throughout testing. He'll be looking for a good result in RLL's first race of its full-season return.
A NEWGARDEN IN BLOOM – Three drivers are classified as rookies, but only one is a true rookie. Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden makes his debut this weekend, with the mature beyond his years 21-year-old set to race Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's No. 67 DW12-Honda (ABOVE).
The team was late in getting its Honda engine, but Newgarden played down the drama, and getting testing in at Sebring helped his development. Ending 15th was a more than respectable result. Newgarden will battle Pagenaud and Katherine Legge for rookie-of-the-year honors from the start of the year, with Luca Filippi set to join from Indianapolis onward for RLL.
LOTUS OPERANDI – Ah, Lotus. The series' third entrant into the manufacturer fold has been one of the sagas of the offseason over how many Judd-built engines it had produced, and how many were signed for given the Dragon Racing situation during spring training.
Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and de Silvestro weren't terribly off pace at Sebring testing, but, with the field barely separated by more than 1.5 seconds, that meant no positions higher than 18th. The early part of the season is about learning their machinery, hoping it holds, and staying out of trouble to secure a result.
The Dragon duo of Legge and Sebastien Bourdais are merely hoping to gather laps, and despite Bourdais' inherent pace and effort, will likely be near the back of the field. That's if Bourdais even makes the grid, which he likely will per his engine dilemma being resolved on Thursday. Still, he failed to do last year too for an entirely different reason, as he and his then-teammate James Jakes both crashed in the morning warmup and only Jakes had an available backup car.
Overall, the fact this race is the biggest crap shoot in years for IndyCar is very intriguing, with a greater likelihood existing someone from outside the Ganassi and Penske camps could be taking the checkered flag at race's end. It should be fascinating to watch.