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.
If Indy is the first oval, how many others are there?
Just four. Texas comes two weeks after Indy, and is followed by Milwaukee and Iowa in consecutive weeks. That's it for left-turn-only tracks until IndyCar returns to race at Fontana – for the first time since 2005 – for the season finale on Sept. 15.
Whoa, back up there! The final race is mid-September?!
Yup, despite having a 16-race schedule, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series is spread over slightly less than a six-month span. Randy Bernard says: “I think putting more races back to back will only help us with our TV ratings. When we've had races every other weekend, we've lost a lot of momentum… So I think tightening our schedule – we now have five races back to back and a couple months later we have three more back to back – is a good thing. And I think the fewer events that have to go up against the NFL is a good thing.”
Plausible, but a hectic season for the teams. From Indy (2.5-mile road-like oval spec), to Detroit (street race on Belle Isle) to Texas (high-banked oval) to Milwaukee (one-mile flat oval) in the space of four weeks? That's a lot of car conversions to be making. And how about Qingdao street race in China to Sonoma road course to Baltimore street course in consecutive weekends? That's a lot of work and travel.
This will have an additional effect: teams who make engineering breakthroughs with the new cars will hold onto that advantage for longer – or rather, for more rounds – than if the races were two weeks apart.
Fewer ovals than street races, then?
Yeah, a couple more ovals wouldn't go amiss, but as Bernard avowed, the IZOD IndyCar Series will not hold events that are proven not to work because of promoter lethargy or fan apathy. Apart from Indy, no circuit of any type has an automatic right to a place on the schedule. Auto Club Speedway will work hard to make the Fontana finale a success, Andretti Sports Marketing will do similarly with Milwaukee having seen how not to do it by last year's promoters, and the Qingdao event, on a 2.84-mile street course of fairly smooth surface and major elevation change, is being pushed hard in China. Roger Penske and Chevy should ensure Belle Isle's return is a hit, and Baltimore was a slam-dunk first time around – the Long Beach of the East was not a misguided nickname – Randy B. was determined to find new promoters to keep it alive, and did so.
Please tell me he also found a new president of competition.
Yes, calm down. For 2012, it's Brian Barnhart out, Beaux Barfield (RIGHT) in as president of competition and race director. The former American Le Mans Series Race director will oversee but not micromanage track and pit action with common sense, little ego and no favoritism. He hated the “false racing” rules once imposed, which in a two-car battle, forced the driver ahead to take the racing line, holding the door open for his opponent to dive up the inside. Now, a driver can take anticipatory defensive action by holding the inside lane. What he can't do is make a reactionary move, if the car behind pulls out to pass him.
So will there be less passing?
There are two schools of thought. Ryan Hunter-Reay warns: “IndyCar drivers could become very good at running in the middle of the track and making their cars 40-feet wide,” but his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti counters with: “A guy who takes a defensive line is compromising himself. I want someone defending against me because that means he's not taken the quickest line so I'll get a run on him down to the next corner.”
Carbon brakes, new for this year, again provoke opposing views. While some say the resultant shortened braking zones will hurt the racing, others expect them to prompt a lot of mistakes on street courses, where stopping power will exceed front-end grip when the car enters a bumpy braking zone.
Who's going to win the championship?
Stay tuned later in the week for full predictions, but we expect a wider variety of drivers visiting Victory Lane this year, partly through engine attrition, partly because everyone is starting over with a new car and because the best engine for road/street courses may not be the best for the very different demands of oval racing.
With just a few days to go, we don't know much, so celebrate the fact that there may be 15 potential winners on a given weekend. But above all, as we said earlier, expect the unexpected.
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