Here are 2012's big questions and answers about the most vital aspect of the IZOD IndyCar Series: the quality of the racing.
Should I be excited or worried about the new formula?
Excited, no question. The cars may look like they were designed by committee, but they're new, distinctive, faster than the old lawn-darts, sound like an IndyCar should and there are more of them.
How different do they sound?
Very: the 2.2-liter V6 turbocharged units have a distinctive and angry buzz to them, and won't blow your eardrums when the sound bounces off the walls of street circuits, even when they hit the 12,000rpm limit. Basically, they sound like racing engines rather than the screaming stock blocks of the last decade.
Are they as reliable as the old normally aspirated V8s?
They couldn't be – not even Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus are going to get it right first time. As Alex Tagliani of Bryan Herta Autosport remarked: “We've all come to realize how easy we had it in the past. In the old car, the engine had been developed as far as it could – it was reliable and so that was one variable that had been eliminated. Now the engine is a huge piece of the puzzle.”
So we could see attrition play a major part in race results?
Yes. “Expect the unexpected” would be a mantra to follow in the early races. And the drivers feel the same way. Reigning champion Dario Franchitti says: “I don't think we'll know who's got the best engine until the first race because there were constant updates until Feb. 27 [engine homologation date], we didn't all test together, we never knew who was working on what, or what fuel loads everybody was running. But what I can say is that I have total faith in Honda.”
Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Graham Rahal, one of the championship favorites as the second Ganassi team comes more into line with the Target team of Franchitti and Scott Dixon, thinks we may also be able to see a difference in power delivery between the single-turbo Hondas and the twin-turbos of Chevrolet and Lotus. He says: “It's hard to confirm, but what I've seen from following other cars is that with the twin turbo of the Chevy, there's no lag – that thing is on it from the exit of a corner. Our Honda with the single turbo takes a split second to deliver, but I think we may have more at the top end.”
What about the handling of the Dallara DW12? Is its weight distribution really 40/60 front to back?
Roughly, yes, and to say that hasn't been universally popular is a major understatement. Regarding its road course setup, it understeers vigorously in low- and medium-speed corners. On ovals, Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand has described the steering as “numb” and several drivers have remarked that the rear weight distribution means oversteer on the exit, too.
There are changes coming, however. Testing in tandem at Texas Motor Speedway in late February, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe found that the following car got a huge draft effect but then couldn't pass the car in front. Justin Wilson, one of the IndyCar drivers Safety Committee leaders, wrote in his blog for RACER.com: “We lost Dan Wheldon last October, and we want lessons to have been learned so that we can avoid mindless pack racing…. I spoke to [IndyCar vp of technology] Will Phillips and he says there is room to take out quite a bit of downforce from the underwing, so he's confident we can get to a point where we're having to lift off the throttle at places like Texas. We'll need racecraft and hopefully it will be an entertaining race. No one – not the spectators or the drivers – want to see a situation where there are 28 cars just going around like they're on a highway but at 220mph.”
The test of this new oval spec was postponed from March 13 to May 7, just before practice for the Indianapolis 500 – the first oval race of the year once more.