Target Chip Ganassi Racing's IZOD IndyCar Series driver Scott Dixon will be blogging exclusively for RACER.com throughout the 2012 season. -Ed.
So here it is, my first blog for RACER, and it coincides with what we all expect to be an exciting new era for the IZOD IndyCar Series. I'm hoping that Target Chip Ganassi Racing is as strong as ever but at this stage it's hard to tell. What I do know for sure is that, in terms of operating, Chip's team has been strengthened. The Target team and the second team with Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball are communicating really well, and I think that improved interaction between us all can only be a huge benefit in terms of how quickly we make progress with the new cars.
I think this year will be really interesting for the series as a whole and the fans are sure to appreciate that a lot. We had the same car for eight years, and people had come to just expect Ganassi vs. Penske at the front, with Andretti Autosport and a couple of others chasing hard behind. Well, the new car and engine package gives us teams a lot of unknowns, so I can only imagine how much it throws things up in the air for the fans. To be totally honest, that's what the IZOD IndyCar Series was crying out for.
Given how much is new, there will be reliability issues for everyone, I'm sure, so for each team the important things will be to 1) reduce the number of potential problems preseason, and 2) minimize the effect of the problems when they hit you during a race weekend. But no one is perfect and so I expect reliability to be one of the keys to the 2012 championship. When I won my first IndyCar championship in 2003, I failed to finish six races and yet the last few years it's been very different: the cars were rock-solid reliable and the champion finished all – or almost all – the races.
Whenever there are new rules, especially radically new ones like we'll see this year, some people look at it as everyone's starting from the same level so it will mix up the field – no one will have a major advantage. And then there's the other side of the argument, which is that new rules actually emphasize the difference between the best teams and the also-rans. Well, that second point of view is how I see it: Typically, the big teams have the resources – human and financial – to get their heads around the new issues quicker. If I'm right on that, then it's a good thing for us at Team Target, because we have a great team, as we've proven. And if any one engine dominates, I hope it will be Honda.
The new era has certainly changed the shape of our winter. Some people are even moaning because they've had to go back to long hours, but not me. That's how it used to be. In my first year with Chip, 2002, I did 50 test days, whereas last season I did six! So although my December, January and February have been pretty chaotic, as someone who loves his job, I've got to say, it's been good chaos and it's great to be in the car a lot more.
The technology is so much more advanced on this car and it sparks our interest after being stuck in a rut the last few years. It's not just the engineers and mechanics who have gained an extra mental challenge: there's loads more data for us drivers to sift through, too. With the old car, we'd arrive at a track and know already what suspension geometries we wanted to use, what dampers, etc. In 2012 race weekends, there are going to be big changes which need to be investigated quickly to try and analyze what will give you gains and what won't. That even includes tuning the engine mapping and throttle response to suit a driver's particular style. What we can't do is play with the ECU – which is a good thing, since it would open up the possibilities of traction control, and we went through all that controversy in the CART days.
The handling of the DW12, as you'll have read, is very different from the old car but I'm not sure anyone's really laid it on the line yet and certainly no team has really explored its potential. For example, until the last test, every test I'd done was a Honda test, so all the Honda teams could see the data. That being the case, there's no way we were going to run all the stuff we have planned for the year ahead! And I don't think I've run on a set of 2012 tires yet, plus we did most of our testing on a half-tank of fuel. So, as I said before, there are a lot of unknowns, and we're really only scratching the surface of this car at the moment. Still, from what I've felt, I think on road courses this car is going to be fine. Anyway, being in a team like Ganassi, I'm pretty confident we can get on top on any problems that might occur.
Ovals are much more of an unknown at the moment. While I've done a lot of oval testing, at that time we didn't have all the pieces we do now and those tests were almost irrelevant in terms of tuning: They were more about giving Dallara and IndyCar an idea of what we needed to do to improve the car for everyone and set the baseline spec. It was difficult to drive, I can tell you that. But Graham and Charlie tested at Fontana this week and they were very positive about the car's handling, so I think big strides have been made. The thing I like about the new car and the new rules is that there is a much bigger range of adjustability, so there will be a greater performance difference between cars at different points in any given stint. In the previous car, we were so restricted by the rules, so the cars always seemed to be running similar spec throughout the field and throughout a stint. In my opinion, that created dumbed-down racing that didn't allow the best drivers and teams to show their advantage. If anyone could drive it, what was the point?
With the new car, there will be far more variables, a wider range of setups that make you stronger in traffic or stronger running alone, or make your car great on a full tank of fuel and fresh tires but edgy at the end of a stint, or vice versa. That variety of approaches creates passing, so I think the oval races are going to be exciting.
Another reason for that is that the amount of draft effect you get with the DW12 is huge and I'm not sure why that is. In the old car, you'd get behind someone and just maybe you'd go up one gear to tow past. But, in a test, running with Tony Kanaan, I pulled up behind him in fourth and then had to quickly go to fifth and sixth to avoid hitting the limiter. However, in the turns, it was very hard to follow – and actually that's true in road course trim, too. At Sebring in Turn 8, the fast left, I found that if I got behind someone the front just washed out. I'm sure that will improve once we work out the mechanical side of the car, but between the aero characteristics and the carbon brakes, I think it will be easy to make mistakes in the DW12 and it will be tough to race.
Plus, the blocking rule hasn't really been defined yet. For the sake of the fans, we must make sure we have races, not processions; in 2012, there will be more eyes on the IZOD IndyCar Series than for a long time, so let's give people a show to get excited about and lure them back for the next race and the next race.
Well, thanks for reading. I'll get back to you just before the season starts when we'll have a clearer picture of where we stand. I think we can get the Target cars up front, but I'm hoping it will be the No. 9 rather than the 10 that's right at the front. I think Dario has been a bit greedy the last few years. ;-)