Amid the excitement surrounding the 2012 edition of the IZOD IndyCar Series – new cars, new engines, new tracks, new drivers – there is an expectation among many that the cards will be shuffled. New driver/team combos could rise in prominence, the Ganassi and Penske cars won't dominate the ovals and there could be some startlingly odd results sheets.
All likely, yes. But history has proven that radically new rules more often than not favor big teams, so while there's an increased probability of surprise race winners, over the long haul of a championship campaign, it will be those with the best financial and human resources and the most collective experience that rise to the top.
And the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team possesses the best collection of human resources in the paddock, starting with the guy in the cockpit, Dario Franchitti. We shall highlight six drivers we believe could prevent the Scot earning his fifth IndyCar title, but first, let's not overlook the obvious…
THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE
Yes, whoever is going to be the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion will have to knock the colossus that is Dario Franchitti from his pedestal. Not an easy task, as has been proven.
Champion for the past three years – and all four of the IndyCar campaigns he's contested in the last five – Franchitti is the man with the blend of brains, pace and experience to be a potential winner at any type of circuit. He's worked out the perfectly logical puzzle for winning titles: if you're prominent at virtually every race, you're going to score large helpings of points in virtually every race. Throw in three or four wins, and there's a strong chance you'll have the most points at year's end. And that is precisely what Franchitti has done the past three years. When his car is only good enough for third place, he'll take third. If it's good enough to win, then the others better watch out.
Franchitti has proven before that he can adapt to major changes in car spec, and Ganassi's ability to tailor its cars to its drivers' requirements is second to none. If Honda's turbo engine is a strong and reliable power source, expect the reigning champion to put up a sterling defense of what has become his realm.
ANGLES OF ATTACK
DAVID MALSHER'S PICKS:
Bad luck, team errors in pit lane and inferior car setups on ovals (relative to the Ganassi cars) take the majority of the blame for Will Power failing to capture the last two IndyCar championships. The runner-up in both 2010 and '11 makes shockingly few significant errors for someone who spends a lot of time outpacing his rivals, but Power will be the first to confess that even last year, he was still learning about short-oval setups. Studying the behavior of Dario Franchitti's and Tony Kanaan's cars told him what he was missing.
Now the guy who took 16 pole positions over the past two seasons has a new car to play with, and although he's not happy about its inherent understeer in medium-speed corners – he prefers an on-the-nose setup, like Michael Schumacher – chances are that Power and engineer Dave Faustino will have at least alleviated the issue by the start of the season. Their overtly industrious attitude always reaps dividends. With excellent feedback being pooled with that of a revitalized Ryan Briscoe and the effervescent Helio Castroneves, and a strong Chevrolet motor, expect Penske No. 12 to be one of the title contenders once more.
On his best days, the 2003 and '08 champion, like Power, has the ability to run and hide from the opposition. Even under the harsh glare of direct comparisons with perennial teammate and perennial champ Franchitti, Dixon hardly ever looks inferior; the past two seasons, they have been nip and tuck. But the consistency that serves the No. 10 car so well is sometimes lacking next door at No. 9, and while this is rarely down to errors – “Dixie” simply has more bad luck than half the grid put together – there are times when his knife-edge driving style provokes more incidents than Franchitti's fluid in-cockpit moves.
But for all the hardened steel to his race craft, which ensures he's never the first to back down in a fight, there's also a sponge-like quality to Dixon's approach to a season, a race weekend and a session. He learns from what's gone before, applies it and supplies his team with strong feedback. So being able to observe close-at-hand Franchitti's successful title campaigns will prove invaluable for Dixon. Don't be surprised to see the New Zealander take his third IndyCar championship.