Team Penske IZOD IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves will be writing an exclusive driver column in every other issue of RACER magazine throughout the year, alternating with NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Welcome back, everyone! This is an exciting time for the IZOD IndyCar Series and all of us at Team Penske, as we're getting ready to move into a new season with a new chassis and engine combination. I haven't been this enthused about starting a new season in a long time. And since I'm always enthused about starting a new season, that's really saying something!
I finally got to test the new Dallara DW12 chassis with the Chevrolet turbo at Sebring. You know how people tell you a movie is going to be great? They say you're going to love it, you'll laugh your butt off, it's incredible, all of that, but then you finally see the movie and it's not that great and you're disappointed? Well, driving the new Dallara was kind of the opposite of that.
I'd heard some concerns about the new car – it had handling issues and other things and that I might be disappointed. Let's just say there were some negative comments I was aware of before I actually got my hands on the car, but once I drove it, I was quite impressed. It was definitely a case of exceeded expectations. Because of that, my enthusiasm about the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season is through the roof. I can't wait to get started.
The car is actually really fun to drive. It's definitely different than what we've been used to, but it's a good basis for transition. Let's face it, everything new goes through changes, tweaks and adjustments: for me, that's the fun part. It's not perfect, but it's not far from being a good, solid racecar. Now we'll go through the challenges of working with our engineers and mechanics and start to perfect the car. It's one of my favorite aspects of racing – dealing with something new, adapting to it, making it better and perfecting it.
We have some great minds at Team Penske, and I know all of these guys are excited about working with a new car. They like this challenge as much as I do. It's my job to get as many laps in this new car before the season opener in March at St. Petersburg, Fla., and to give them the best feedback possible so they can decide what to do with the car to make it better.
Remember when the first iPhone came out in 2007? I do. We were racing at Richmond that weekend, and everyone had to have one. Some guys even went and stood in line to be the first to get one. Well, that first iPhone wasn't perfect, and that's what I see in this car. It's a solid product, but it's brand new. It needs to be shaken out and shaped and adjusted a little bit, but it's a good start.
The car is striking to people who see it for the first time. It's definitely different looking than what we had before, and I really like it. Eventually we'll have all kinds of aero kits for it, so the cars will really start to stand out and become distinct.
Like I said, my expectations before I drove the car came from the different reports I'd heard and read. Some people were expecting it to be one way and it was another way for them. They were expecting it to be faster or have more power. They were expecting it to handle differently. So I went into my first test not knowing what to expect, but I was quite pleased by what I drove. The more time we get with it, the better it will be.
Everyone I talked to at Sebring said the same thing. The car was surprising in a positive way. Not perfect, but better than expected. Everyone I talked to also said they were anxious for the season to start, and it wasn't just about the car. It's about the direction of IndyCar.
First of all, I have to say that Randy Bernard is starting to make changes, and those changes are good for him and for the series. He listened to us and made some changes in race control. I've had a chance to sit down and talk to Beaux Barfield, and I have a great deal of respect for him. He certainly has a tough job. Nobody wants to be in that job, but he stood up and said yes.
That said, I'm glad that Brian Barnhart is still in a position of authority with the series. We had our moments in the past, but he's very good in the role of president of race operations. It's almost impossible to run the day-to-day operation and be the chief steward. It's just too much for one person. Here's my take on race control and officiating: As long as the rules are simple, understandable and consistent, it's not going to be a problem. For the series, the change was a win-win. Brian is still with us, but we have a new chief steward. Brian's knowledge of racing is beneficial to all of us.
Randy made difficult changes during the off-season. He stepped up and made good calls. This is a big transitional year for us, with the change in equipment, change in venues and change in officials, but we're enthused and ready to tackle what's ahead of us. I love a good challenge, and this is definitely challenging.
And, just to make it even more challenging, I'm going to left-foot braking this year, so I'll have a lot on my plate, too. I felt fairly comfortable with it at Sebring. I felt like I was getting the hang of it. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but I need to adapt to the changes in the car. We don't have a foot clutch anymore, so my left foot is free. The new car has carbon brakes, so you need to apply a lot of force. It's going to be a major adjustment for me, but I'm up to it.
There's one thing you can say with certainty about the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season – it won't be boring!
• Helio's column originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.