No. The “whole Indy 500 thing” doesn't come up in conversation anymore. It doesn't need to. Since May 29, 2011, I've asked JR Hildebrand for a few details from earlier in his race that day. But as far as emotions and his state of mind are concerned, he said it all in that 10-minute post-race press conference. He was open but not in a self-pitying way and explained the circumstances of his final-turn accident without sounding like he was making excuses. The National Guard, Panther Racing, himself and the sport – he did them all proud.
What's important now is that a single minuscule error with a huge consequence does not become the defining moment of his IndyCar career. And there's no reason it should; quite the opposite, in fact. The talented rookie is becoming the talented sophomore just as the IZOD IndyCar Series reboots with a new formula of car and there should only be upsides to this. For Hildebrand, it's not a case of starting over.
“The things I'd take away from last year are about driving in general,” he says, “and circumstantial stuff like the process of getting through practice and qualifying at different types of circuit. It's more about the approach taken for a given situation, race or track, than adapting a car to my driving style or adapting my driving style to a car.
“Having said that, I do think that in preseason testing, keeping an open mind is a help. Maybe having only one year under my belt makes it easier in that I have less to unlearn about driving the old car.”
The new Dallara DW12 has been criticized by many drivers for its behavior and, while most of that centers around its peculiar feel on ovals, its extremely rearward weight distribution has caused some unease in road course trim, too.Hildebrand, though, says he's not bothered by it.
“The old car had chronic understeer. The front end would simply give up at some point in a corner so you were always trying to figure out how to deal with that. With the new car, that issue doesn't really exist because the weight is so far to the rear. If you can keep it under control at corner entry, it gets through the corner better than the old car.
“The big difference is the carbon brakes. They took a long time to get used to – a full day's worth of running to figure out how to make them work. Do you run them hot? Run them cold? How do you get them consistent? But, ultimately, they'll give a solid improvement in performance, even if it takes a while to figure out how to make them work so we aren't locking brakes all over the place.
“If we had another 150hp, the new car would be a lot of fun to drive on a road course. It's got more downforce and the brakes work better, but the horsepower is missing. Is that the fault of the manufacturers? Not at all; that's just the way the rulebook is written right now.”
The DW12's handling on ovals is another matter. “The steering feels numb,” he says, echoing the verdict of all who'd tried it up to the end of January. “Once the car gets into the banking and you get some vertical load, you get a feel for what's going on, but the lack of feedback at entry and exit, and the fact that it doesn't seem able to take the same type of load [as the old car] through the turn, is disappointing.
“And it varies! One time you keep your foot in because you don't think it's going to be a big deal, and it washes all the way up the track, and another time you lift when maybe there wasn't anything wrong. It's hard to gauge what it's doing.
“Would I care about any of this if the car was going 10 or 15mph faster?” he continues. “No. If it's hard to drive but fast, that's fine. But the fact that it's slow is a point of contention for me. I didn't become an IndyCar driver so I could go 205mph at Homestead or wherever.”
The fact that there are fewer ovals on the IndyCar calendar should ensure this disaffection is an irregular irritation for the driver, but how will Panther now fare? John Barnes' squad made its name on ovals when the Indy Racing League schedule contained nothing but. Sam Hornish, Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon ensured the team remained prominent on all speedways. Wheldon, being a genius for racing ovals under the previous formula, probably flattered his car on occasion. But neither he, nor those who occupied car No. 4 before him, could have developed Panther's road/street course setup to Ganassi or Penske standard.
Hildebrand, by contrast, should be the all-rounder the team needs, and the new car gives him his chance to prove it. Equally, this is Panther's chance to prove it can exploit his skills and give him first-class equipment for all circuits.
“Yeah, starting from ground zero should be a good thing for us,” he agrees. “It'll be the first time we're not really carrying anything over from previous experience, and everyone has to look at it as a blank slate. That plays into our hands because one thing Panther has an abundance of is the ability to develop, from a funding and resource standpoint. There are new guys on the team this year who I think will definitely be a huge help. And we've done preseason testing with a lot of other teams, so we can gauge how quickly others are figuring things out.”
On the down side, Panther is continuing with tradition by fielding just one car in 2012 (with the probable exception of the Indy 500) and it's hard to see that as anything other than a handicap. Sure, it gives Barnes more money to spend on that one car and, in a formula that now has more potential areas of research and development, that shouldn't be underestimated. More money also allows the team owner to afford the very best personnel for each role. But still, a second driver – even a mediocre one – is another point of reference, another source of data. And a good one increases team potential exponentially.
“For sure, a teammate would be a huge help,” states Hildebrand, “because there will be questions about the racecar we put on the track and/or the driving style I'm applying to that racecar – what should we or I be doing different? But there were a number of instances last year where we were in a pretty deep hole at some point in the weekend, and we dug our way out, all by ourselves.
“So those situations give us self-belief. I have total faith in David Cripps [race engineer] and all the guys on our team and I think they have faith in me. Plus we're stronger this year to help prevent those circumstances happening again.”
Right now, Hildebrand doesn't feel like he and the team are fighting a lone battle. Just as the three anchor teams in the Lotus program (see next story) are discovering the benefits of collaboration, so Ilmor Engineering, which designed and now operates the Chevrolet engine, advocates a “for the common good” attitude, uniting the Bow-tie brigade against the enemy – Lotus and Honda.
“It's a very inclusive program,” says Hildebrand. “All the Chevy teams have been in all of the preseason tests and all work together, to a certain degree. Sure, once the season starts we'll work on our own terms but there's no doubt that, among the drivers and engineers, relationships have been forged which wouldn't have existed otherwise.”
It was Ilmor that built the now obsolete Honda V8s, so although Chevy's 2.2-liter V6 twin-turbo unit is a whole different beast, it's not as if the personnel involved aren't up to speed with the way an IndyCar team operates, what demands are put on engines at IndyCar's diverse tracks or the nature of an IndyCar weekend.
Hildebrand enthuses: “It's been very positive. Ilmor is keen to tailor things to what the drivers want. Any time you come into the pits, their guys ask questions about how to make things better. That's very encouraging for all of us Chevy drivers…as is the fact that the engines have run without any major problems.”
So, to the big question: Can we expect Panther to be up there with the Chevrolet-powered cars of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport in 2012? Characteristically, there's a pause before JR replies.
“I look on this as being my big chance and Panther Racing's big chance to go into a season knowing we're on par with the guys we want to be fighting at the front. Last year, there wasn't a road or street course where we showed our potential for the whole weekend, where we were solid in practice, qualifying and the race.
“But now, myself and the team have tremendous faith that we can do that this year. And often.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the March 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.