The annual trip to the cornfields of Iowa marks a merciful end to the busiest stretch in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. It's the fifth race in as many weekends, the seventh straight working weekend at a track once practice and qualifying at Indianapolis are included, and has also included two in-week tests at Milwaukee and Iowa.
Iowa opens the second half of the 2012 season, and is slated to be the penultimate oval round of the season. The fourth oval race of the year, on the third Saturday in a row, is the last until the series runs its fifth at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway to end the year in September.
HEATING UP IN THE CORNFIELDS – Crapshoot or captivating are two potentially good words to describe the new heat races being implemented at Iowa for qualifying this year. The biggest concern for teams, naturally, is crashing and then needing to repair the cars in advance of Saturday night's race.
Here's how they'll work. On Friday afternoon, practice two times will set the order for the three 30-lap heat races. Drivers ranked 10th or worse, in even positions, will start in that order for heat one, then line up 10th, 12th, and so forth according to their finishing positions in the actual race. The same applies for drivers ninth or worse in odd positions in race two, again with finishing positions to set the grid order in ninth, 11th, and all the rest.
Race three will consist of drivers ranked one through eight from the practice. Results of the last heat race will determine the first four rows, with the winner taking the pole position.
The tech procedure will work where there will be inspection at 1:00 p.m., with the cars then impounded until 2:50 before the 3:30, 45-minute practice two. After practice, a further tech inspection will occur at 5:00 p.m., with another impound to follow, before the heat races begin at 6:15 p.m.
On the surface, little seems to be on the line other than improved starting positions, because there's almost no points or monetary bonuses awarded save for the pole point. Still, racers being racers, you have to think in their guts they'll go for it. And the concept of doing this for the fans is something for IndyCar and president of competition Beaux Barfield to be commended.
DOWNFORCE CHANGES – While Texas' downforce changes helped aid and improve the quality of the race, part of my assessment at Milwaukee was that there still seemed a bit too much downforce on the cars. Handling went away but it was only a couple drivers where it seemed obvious they were struggling with their cars at the end of a stint – Simon Pagenaud's first stint comes to mind.
At Iowa, another downforce reduction is in play, as the series takes the wicker off the rear wings, and has directed a maximum rear flap angle of 37 degrees for this Saturday's race. More information can be found here, but if the cars slide around a bit more than they did at Milwaukee, it should be a barnburner of an evening.
LAST OVAL SHOT – Considering the prospect of unpredictability going into 2012, it's safe to say the best shot for a win outside the two power teams (Penske/Ganassi) and the widely considered third strongest (Andretti Autosport) will come this weekend at Iowa.
In the last 10 oval races (all seven of 2011, and three this year), seven different drivers from six different teams have won races. Dario Franchitti has three of those wins, Ryan Hunter-Reay two (RIGHT), with Justin Wilson, Ed Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Will Power and the late Dan Wheldon all with one. Ganassi and Andretti each have three wins compared to win apiece from Dale Coyne Racing, Sarah Fisher Racing, Team Penske, and Bryan Herta Autosport.
By contrast, in the road and street course races, a win has not come outside the Penske and Ganassi stables since Long Beach 2011 – when Mike Conway graced the top step of the podium for Andretti Autosport. Factor Andretti in on the road and street courses, and the last win on one of those circuits outside Penske, Ganassi and Andretti came with Wilson's win for Coyne at Watkins Glen 2009!
Ovals were long considered the exclusive domain of Penske and Ganassi, but the last 10 races provide a necessary and needed interruption to those two teams' dominance. With at least five and possibly six straight road and street course races to follow – someone will need to break through this weekend.
ANDRETTI, SATO SEEK 2012 TURNAROUNDS – For both Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti, Iowa 2011 marked watershed moments in their seasons – and for that matter, their respective IndyCar careers. They need similar moments this year.
Sato's always been fast, if fragile, and he showed he could hang it out no problem when he scored his first career pole at this race last year. Unfortunately, his race was compromised before it even began with an accident in warm-up on the Friday and a need to repair his car. While he spent some of the day up front, his race again ended against the wall – same as it did in 2010 when he was also in a top-five position.
Andretti, of course, had one of if not his best races in an IndyCar at Iowa a year ago. Starting 17th, he charged forward largely high and wide on the outside line, all the way to the lead – and then held off former teammate and 2010 Iowa winner Tony Kanaan to score a popular and overdue second series victory.
For both, the success achieved must seem an eternity ago. In his new ride with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Sato's undoubtedly been one of the fastest drivers all season, and he's been great for the first half to three-quarters of a race. Then, seemingly inevitably, it ends in tears before it has a chance to finish. In eight races, he's seen the checkered flag just once – one of two “unfortunate but true” facts in this section.
As for Andretti, his drive at Barber aside (so many passes before his tires fell off on the final stint, and dropped to 11th), it's been a diabolically frustrating season. In eight races without a top-10 finish, he also has yet to outqualify James Hinchcliffe, and has only outqualified Ryan Hunter-Reay once.
Granted, there's still been five top-10 starts from eight races, but in all but one of those, it's been behind both his teammates. It seems the “H” pair are able to extract just that little bit more out of their cars in qualifying crunch time, and in this field, that can make all the difference to ultimate starting positions.
Come the races, Andretti has been left scrambling or needing to go off strategy to make the necessary position gains. Outside of Indianapolis, there hasn't been one race where Andretti has figured into the lead equation – and even then, he was vocal on the radio about his car's handling. Consecutive struggles at Texas and Milwaukee have seen him mired back in 17th and 15th by the flag, respectively. The latter had to hurt given in his father and team owner's promoted race, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe were first and third.
Sato and Andretti enter Iowa 17th and 18th in the standings, and need a run similar to Hunter-Reay's ridiculous summer stretch last year. The American stood just 20th in points after Milwaukee, with only one top-10 result, but then ripped off a string of seven straight top-10 finishes including a win at Loudon and two other podiums to climb to seventh in points. There is hope for these two, if they can capture that level of performance and sustain it through an entire race.
Marco, too, has opted to shave his facial hair before this race. After three straight difficult events, Hunter-Reay shaved his in advance of Milwaukee…
CAR SWITCH FOR CARPENTER – Outside the spotlight, Ed Carpenter's year, his first with his own, new team, has quietly overachieved the last several races in making the best of circumstances. Carpenter wrote off his oval chassis in his Indianapolis qualifying crash, which made it where he then had to utilize his road course chassis the next four races – three of which were on ovals.
This weekend at Iowa, the ECR Indy squad has re-assembled the oval chassis, which should be thrust into race action for the first time this year. Running with a road course chassis at both Texas and Milwaukee, where Carpenter has recorded 12th- and eighth-place finishes, respectively, are solid results. Carpenter could have finished even better at Texas, where he rose to second at one stage, as well as Indianapolis and Brazil this year. He's been running at the finish in every race this season.
“We'll bring out our oval chassis for Iowa, as the team has worked overtime to get the crashed car ready to go,” Carpenter said. “It has been a non-stop project to get the oval car ready despite racing each week with the road course car. That poor car has to be pretty tired. So we are excited to bring a new car to Iowa and see how it does.”
OTHER TIDBITS – Both Scott Dixon and JR Hildebrand had particularly strong drives at Iowa a year ago. Dixon drove from 23rd to third, while Hildebrand started and finished fourth. If Indianapolis represented Hildebrand's most meteoric moment of 2011, Iowa was all-around his strongest weekend of his rookie campaign.
Freed from the shackles of their Lotus engines, Oriol Servia (17th to 10th) and Alex Tagliani (26th to 19th) each have three top-10 finishes in their four starts with new powerplants, and have made sizable gains in the standings. Servia has passed 89 cars this season from his starting positions to his finishing one.
To be fair, Simona de Silvestro is at least closer to the pace in the sole remaining Lotus, and if she can survive Iowa unscathed (she failed to start a year ago with lingering effects from a Milwaukee qualifying crash), she could surprise in the following road and street course races. Driver and team have the ability to do so.
The Iowa Corn Indy 250 race coverage begins at 9 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network, preceded by "IndyCar 36" at 7:30 p.m. ET and delayed coverage of the heat races at 8 p.m. ET.