GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
The 17-round 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series calendar dispenses with some cherished ideals of the league's founders, while staking out some new and familiar territory
As it leaves the “Indy Racing League” behind to focus all of its identity on “IndyCar,” the IZOD IndyCar Series has set out its most pre-split like calendar for 2011. The 17-race schedule features an even number of oval and road/street events – if you count the new doubleheader at Texas as two races. Otherwise, the league Tony George created as a primarily oval-based series will incorporate more left and rights than left-turn-only events.
Key to the changes is a break with the International Speedway Corporation, with the Chicagoland, Homestead and Kansas Speedways, as well as the Watkins Glen road course, all having been dropped from the calendar. In their place come a new street race in Baltimore and oval races at the Milwaukee Mile (returning after a one-year hiatus) and Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s New Hampshire and perhaps Las Vegas speedways, although the latter remained to be confirmed as the series new finale. The return to Milwaukee involves IndyCar assisting with new local promotional partners who will rent the track for the June 19 weekend – another break with traditional IRL practice.
“We need to make sure that when we define IndyCar, it's truly what we are, and that is the most versatile, fastest racecars and racecar drivers in the world,” explained IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. “In doing that, we need to make sure that we keep the versatility in the different types of tracks that we race on, and that includes having superspeedways with short ovals as well as road courses and street courses.”
Bernard insisted that the loss of the ISC events was simply a case-by-case business decision, and he indicated that California's Auto Club Speedway (an ISC track) was first in line for the series finale if the Las Vegas deal was not completed. But he admitted that there were several items of disagreement between ISC and IndyCar.
“The scheduling was a major issue, sanction agreement and fees were another, and I think third would be marketing. Those would be the key factors most likely as to why we are not going back to any of those four [ISC] tracks,” Bernard said.
THE RACE TO FIX HORNISH
Lack of funding, performance issues threaten former Indy champ's NASCAR future, but he aims to stay the course
Roger Penske indicated earlier this summer that Sam Hornish Jr. was sure to stay with Penske Racing's Sprint Cup program next season. However, the team acknowledged that's no longer a sure thing as the sponsorship search continued into the fall without success for Hornish's No. 77 Dodge.
“Right now we're still in search of a primary sponsor for that car. That search will continue for the rest of the year,” team president Tim Cindric admitted. “The good news is that it's September and not December.”
Hornish admitted that the team had advised him not to preclude other opportunities that might come his way. While keeping his options open, Hornish made clear that he still preferred to stick with NASCAR rather than return to IndyCar – even if that meant dropping out of Cup for the second-tier Nationwide Series in 2011.
“They [Penske] asked what my preference was, and my preference was to stay in the Cup Series,” Hornish told the Associated Press. “They're not going to stand in my way if I get the opportunity to be able to do that.”
A possible opening for Hornish in IndyCar could be his old team Panther Racing, for whom he won back-to-back championships in 2001-'02 prior to switching to Penske for the 2004 season. Panther's current full-time driver, Dan Wheldon, is expected to leave that team at the end of the season, but Hornish was not enthusiastic about such a move.
“I've said a lot of times I don't have a lot of interest to go back [to IndyCar racing], but I'm not going to say never,” Hornish said. “My goal is to try to stay in the Cup Series, and if I have to take a step back and run Nationwide, that's a possibility. I'll have to wait and see how it plays out, I guess.”
Hornish, 31, is in his third full Sprint Cup season with Penske since leaving IndyCar racing. He has a career average finish of 27th but, ironically, his performance appeared to be picking up just as speculation about his future intensified. Hornish claimed his best finish of the year with a 10th in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
WINGS, HOPES AND PRAYERS
New FIA tests clear all teams' front wings of allegations regarding flexing under aerodynamic load, but was that the end of the story? Not in Formula 1...
With revised front wing deflection tests in place for the Belgian Grand Prix, and ramped-up floor requirements at the Italian GP, the FIA made it clear it will not tolerate any teams developing an illegal advantage in these areas, but the results didn't have the significant effect some had expected – or, perhaps, hoped. While McLaren's Lewis Hamilton won at Belgium with a forceful drive, his Red Bull and Ferrari rivals were far from off the pace, and Ferrari then re-established its credentials with a popular victory over McLaren's Jenson Button in front of its adoring tifosi at Monza.
In fact, even though attention had been focused on the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings, in particular, for their perceived low ground clearance at speed in Hungary, McLaren admitted that it, too, had to modify its car to avoid falling foul of the more stringent flexible bodywork tests.
“The new offset load test is challenging and we've had to make minor modifications just to make sure that we're well inside the deflection limits that the FIA is going to set on that,” related Tim Goss, chief engineer on McLaren's MP4-25. “We've modified our ‘bib,' and we've taken the opportunity to roll it up into a minor performance upgrade.
“As far as articulated planks are concerned, there are a number of teams that run floor-skids in multiple pieces and the FIA has tightened up on that to ban articulated skid blocks,” Goss said. “I'd imagine other teams would have to do modifications for that.”
He added that he felt the “clarified” wing rules were doing their job.
“As far as the wings are concerned, the evidence from Spa was that there seemed to be fewer cars running more flexible wings,” said Goss, “although that's very subjective.”
Mercedes' Ross Brawn, who had backed up suspicions voiced by McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh about Red Bull and Ferrari's wings following the Hungarian round, said he was confident that the revised rules would put this latest technical controversy to rest.
“The [FIA] requirements for Monza really will end what has been a misnomer: the bodywork is intended to be attached rigidly, with no degrees of freedom,” noted Brawn. “When you look at ‘bib stays' that hinge, buckle, slide and have dampers...it seems a bit bizarre to me. So I think it should end that particular trend and that is the mission, really. That will be good.”
When asked if he thought that the issue could be set aside from the next race, Brawn said, “I hope so. It has been a bit of a distraction and probably in some ways a bit unfair on the teams who have been doing very well this year, because it reflects on them a little bit.
“But that is the nature of F1 – it happens all the time and you can recall the debates we had last year about the double diffuser. We [Brawn-Mercedes] were on the receiving end of that for a large part of last year. It is the nature of our business to push the boundaries of what can be done.”
RAIKKONEN'S UNREQUITED LOVE?
F1 expat wants back in, but Renault playing coy
Kimi Raikkonen [RIGHT] is making a fresh bid to return to Formula 1 next year after a one-year sabbatical in the World Rally Championship, by approaching the Renault team for a drive in 2011. However, in public at least, the French team seemed lukewarm about having him join Robert Kubica on its squad. Renault's boss claimed the team is not yet ready to give up on Vitaly Petrov.
“People now think things are going well and we're going to change drivers,” said team chairman Gerard Lopez. “There's a certain rally driver who wasn't interested in Formula 1 but now has made contact and is interested in coming back to F1, funnily enough with us, but we're not there yet.”
Lopez indicated “commercial interests” would be key to Renault's final decision.
“It's not that Vitaly is a paying driver, because he's not, but certainly the sponsors he brought or that came [with him] have been very good sponsors. And, he's a good driver…”
ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES
The opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup provides some lessons in humility – and rewards for perseverance
While the Chase for NASCAR's Sprint Cup has been Jimmie Johnson's domain in recent years, its reset of the points remains a potental force for anarchy in the title race. This year's opening round at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was a prime example, as Tony Stewart appeared to have outraced Clint Bowyer, only to run out of fuel on the final lap.
“I'm not happy, but we went down swinging,” mused Stewart, who said he would have settled for second if he'd known how marginal he was on fuel.
Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team didn't have long to celebrate, as a post-race penalty for “discrepancies” in the winning car's dimensions dealt a heavy blow to his Chase hopes. Bowyer was docked 150 points while his crew chief and car chief were suspended and fined, pending an appeal.
Both Johnson and pre-Chase points leader Denny Hamlin also faced adversity at New Hampshire, with very different outcomes. After both lost time with spins, Johnson suffered his worst Chase start in years, finishing one place ahead of Stewart in 25th. Hamlin, on the other hand, fought his way back up to second.
“When we restarted 22nd, I said, ‘Let's finish top 15,' and then a few things happened and it was like, ‘Crap, let's get a top eight' and then top 6...and then, ‘Holy cow, we can win this thing!' It was one of those days.”
NO RE-SKINS BY PENSKE IN 2012
Lack of exclusivity makes aero kit a non-starter
Penske is an obvious candidate to create one of the “aero kits” for the 2012 chassis IndyCar is counting on to provide technical variety, given its track record of building its own chassis as well as perfecting customer cars. With the 2012 chassis slated to carry the name of the aero kit maker rather than that of original constructor Dallara, a Penske aero package would bring its nameplate back into Indy car racing for the first time since the Penske PC27s of 1998-'99. More recently, the team achieved championship success with reskinned Reynards (ABOVE), dubbed “Renskes” by rivals.
However, prospects for a Penske package being developed for the new car appear slim, due to the league's insistence that any kit be made available for purchase by other teams.
“I heard something around,” Helio Castroneves told AUTOSPORT in reference to prospects of a Penske aero kit, “but Roger [Penske] said no. He does not want to do it, because if you do it for one car you've got to do it for the rest.”
ASTON THROWS THE DOOR OPEN
British marque answers ACO's new gasoline/diesel equivalency formula with an all-new open-topped prototype for Le Mans and beyond
Aston Martin will contest the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours with a new open-cockpit LMP1 prototype. The monocoque chassis will run with a purpose-built racing engine. Aston Martin Racing returned to the top class of sports car racing with a heavily modified Lola LMP1 coupe in 2008, but its 2011 contender will be a completely new design.
Aston Martin chairman David Richards said the company had made the decision to launch a full-blown factory attack on Le Mans now because it believes the ACO's new regulations designed to equalize the performance balance between the dominant turbo-diesel technology and traditional gasoline-engined cars has given it a fair chance of outright victory in the French classic.
“This has been in planning for some time, but we have been waiting for the ACO regulations to be confirmed,” said Richards. “We are very pleased to see that within the regulations, Article 19 [the gasoline/diesel equivalency provision] shows a clear commitment to balance the performance, which we believe will give us the opportunity to compete on equal terms with the diesels that have been so dominant in recent years. That is something that the ACO has been very keen to achieve.”
Although the new car will not be ready for testing before the new year, Richards held out the possibility that the car could make its competition debut at Sebring in March.
“The actual program of events is not yet determined,” he said. “We are very interested in the ACO's International Challenge. We think that is a great principle – a series of single events around the world – we think that suits Aston Martin.”