Who's hot, cold and extra motivated heading into this weekend's IZOD IndyCar Series round in Brazil.
IS UNUSUAL THE NEW NORMAL?
Three races into the season, we haven't had a win by a Penske or Ganassi driver yet, and an Indy car season hasn't started like that since 2000. Two of the three winners have been new to Victory Lane in IndyCar. We've seen AJ Foyt Racing win a race, and a Dale Coyne Racing car score a third place, but we've yet to see Dario Franchitti or Will Power on the podium. Strange days indeed.
So is the street course at Sao Paulo going to produce some more surprises? Well, past form may suggest this race should have a more normal look to it. Power's yet to lose a race there and Franchitti and reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay have shone brightly there too – Dario has twice started from the front row (including a pole) and RHR has started from the front row once and has twice finished the race as runner-up.
However, previous results haven't had much say in the season so far. And then, depending on when it arrives and in what quantity, rain could turn this race upside down. Remember Vitor Meira managed to finish third here in 2010; that would never have happened in a “normal” race.
Speaking of AJ Foyt Racing drivers, it's going to be fascinating to see how Takuma Sato follows up his brilliant Long Beach performance. Has he found the key? Now that he's found he can control the pace from the front, and that winning by three seconds earns the same points as winning by 33, will his self-confidence go up a gear? It's definitely possible. Last year he swung too hard between ballsy overconfidence and subdued mediocrity; at Long Beach 10 days ago, he got it just right in a high-pressure situation. Not to be forgotten, the Foyt team gave him slick pit stops despite its crew members, too, being in a higher-tension scenario than they've experienced in a long time..
In Brazil, Sato will be strong in the wet, as he's proven in years past. Back-to-back wins for AJ Foyt Racing might once have sounded unlikely, but in fact, there are few logical reasons why it couldn't happen this weekend.
RESTART FOR POWER AND FRANCHITTI
When people start wondering if “something's wrong” with the driver who's yet to qualify outside the top three this year, it makes you realize again that sometimes perception is half of this game. A misunderstanding with his strategist Tim Cindric in qualifying prevented Power from making a second run at pole at Long Beach but, even so, his qualifying time was more than half a second faster than that of his teammate Helio Castroneves. During the race, after having to make an extra pit stop following the pit lane collision, Power found himself unable to pass Ana Beatriz's car – he just couldn't get near enough on the run-up to the primary braking zones.
OK there's something wrong with Power: his traditional bugaboo – poor starts and restarts. He says it's because he's playing strictly by the rules laid down by race director Beaux Barfield, while others aren't. Watching replays, we say that's true about 50 percent of the time. But whatever the reason, it's something Power has to resolve soon, otherwise his superlative qualifying runs will continue to be wasted, for when one thing goes wrong for the No. 12 Penske driver, several things go wrong.
Power's former nemesis in the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing car, by contrast, is a past master at building momentum. Franchitti was nowhere in St. Pete, rapidly improved through the weekend in Barber, and then scored his 30th career pole position at Long Beach. Sure, Dario's had a slow start to the year but he's a potential winner every time out, and no one should forget it. While he, like Power, is headed in the championship by his teammate, the fact that the Long Beach race was a disaster for all the other potential title contenders means although Franchitti is 20th in the championship, he's only 55 points off the lead…and there are still 16 rounds to go.
SUCCESS BY STEALTH
Helio Castroneves has been uncharacteristically consistent in the opening rounds, with second at St. Petersburg and third at Barber Motorsports Park. Of course, at Long Beach he lost a front wing by rear-ending another car, because he's Helio and that is his Long Beach tradition as much as finishing second is Scott Dixon's tradition at Barber. Facetiousness aside, Castroneves has done a good job and seems more focused than ever. Dixon, meanwhile, has been making chocolate out of dirt (St. Pete), driving like the crazy-fast guy he is (Barber) and being spun to the back by a wayward rookie (Long Beach) – SSDD for SD. Despite this characteristically fraught start to a season, Dixon's actually third in the championship, just 10 points from Castroneves, thanks to the flaky performances of his principal rivals. A win in Brazil is a definite possibility, and should shoot him to the top of the table.
THE OTHER AA CARS
Think Brazilian IndyCar race, think rain. But also think greasy transition periods between wet and dry, and those are the track conditions on which Marco Andretti has excelled in years past on a wide variety of tracks. He currently lies fourth in the championship, ahead of teammates Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, but they have each won a race. Marco hasn't won since mid-2011 and it's time his revised driving style and improved composure were rewarded. His third place at St. Pete was somewhat overshadowed by Hinch's win, but Andretti looks like a driver whose confidence could produce a breakout year.
And let's not forget EJ Viso, whose post-race comments at Long Beach suggest his car was capable of winning. He's having some problems producing consistent speed from session to session, but there are fewer accidents, and with three strong teammates and some very strong engineering staff around him, there are no excuses for Viso to not be a regular top five finisher…including this weekend.
WHO HAS THE HORSES?
It seems safe to say that the engine war looks pretty evenly matched now. Bleak predictions from some Honda-powered teams following the preseason test and even the St. Pete race, in retrospect, look like a bout of severe pessimism. Either that or HPD's engine mapping got some heavy revisions between rounds one and two. But Sao Paulo's abundance of straights preceded and followed by tight corners should reveal more definitively whether Chevrolet has the edge in torque and whether Honda is strongest at the top end. Or vice versa. Or neither. Naturally, apex speeds and wing settings will need to be taken into account. Our man on the spot in Brazil, Marshall Pruett, will be doing some investigating and analysis for our weekend notebooks.
In particular, it will be worth watching the No. 55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car of Tristan Vautier, who had an engine change before the race in Long Beach. If the rookie is surprisingly quick – especially in light of the fact that he's never raced at this track before – it may indicate that Honda has taken another step forward.
Justin Wilson had a torrid season opener, but he liked his car in Barber and was satisfied with it in Long Beach as he drove to third on race day. Dale Coyne Racing is sometimes let down by its operation – the snafu with the rear wing that prevented the Briton from making a qualifying run at Long Beach was a case in point. But there's no doubt that Wilson remains one of the very best drivers out there, and his car-damaging error in practice was the sort of thing that can and does happen to any driver over the course of a season.
Equally, when Dale Coyne Racing gets things right, it can take the fight to the big teams. Wilson is very strong in the wet, and he's strong on any circuit that demands low downforce due to the long straights. Expect him to shine again this weekend…and to be hugely entertaining to watch when on the limit.
Graham Rahal, who looked rather lost in the first couple of races of the year, had a very encouraging run to second at Long Beach. He'll probably disagree with this, but to me he's always been a driver who's gone through “spells” in a season. When he's down, he stays down for a while; when he's up, he's a consistent front-runner. If all Graham needed was the adrenaline shot of a decent result with new employer, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, well, he's had that now so let's see where it leads: remember, he finished second in Brazil in 2011.