Changes afoot in united series

The blending of Champ Car assets into the unified IndyCar Series has focused mainly on the driver and team additions. However, not to be overlooked are what all the teams and fans have to look forward to, a bevy of new technical and series ...

The blending of Champ Car assets into the unified IndyCar Series has focused mainly on the driver and team additions. However, not to be overlooked are what all the teams and fans have to look forward to, a bevy of new technical and series regulations that should only enhance the competition.

Road and street courses now play as their most integral role since joining the schedule in 2005, with a total of eight in nineteen races (one, Surfer's Paradise, Australia, is likely a non-championship event in October). To coincide with the increase in right turns as well as left, IndyCar has introduced paddle shifts for all circuits and a variable steering rack for the road/street tracks. Those making the transition from Champ Car will be immediately familiar with the paddle shifts as they were present on their Panoz DP01 chassis last season.

These systems were initially tested at an October session at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama by Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Darren Manning. The sequential shift system has been standard for IndyCars since the creation of the Indy Racing League back in 1996 but now it bites the dust for the paddle shifts.

"I think it makes the car easier to drive; it's not as difficult physically," Dixon said during the test. "In the race, you won't have people making as many mistakes (as using the sequential shift gearbox off the driver's right thigh). I prefer the sequential box that we had, but for safety and technology it's definitely the way to go. I think there's still room for improvement by smoothing out the shifts."

The structural integrity of the Dallara chassis has been debated in some instances, notably its occasional propensity for lifting off. Last year's series champion Dario Franchitti demonstrated that on consecutive weekends last year. However to increase safety measures, Dallara is adjusting its car to insure the driver cockpit is the most secure and safe it can be.

Side intrusion panels in the cockpit have been added to the cars over the winter, according to FIA specifications. The ten-pound panels are composed of Zylon, a high-tensile material used for the cars' suspensions over the last ten seasons. The Zylon reinforces the cockpit and overall strength of the chassis.

"We thought it would be a very good application for our Indy Pro Series cars and IndyCar Series cars because we believed it would significantly improve the structural integrity of the chassis," Indy Racing League senior technical director Les Mactaggart noted. "Currently, the chassis is very strong because we have another regulation that we build the chassis to. This is really icing on the cake."

For those unable to make the races in person, the ABC/ESPN television package is revamping its arsenal to provide the best possible coverage. Start with an unchanged reporting crew, Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear again in the booth, as well as Jack Arute, Vince Welch and Brienne Pedigo in pit lane. More importantly, all races will be broadcast on ABC/ESPN HD, with the latest innovation a rotating 360-degree on-board HD camera that is the first of its kind.

The cameras, roughly the size of a lip balm case, will be present on about six cars per race with up to 10 for the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Last year's '500 was the first IRL IndyCar race to be broadcast in HD. The cameras are not cheap though, as this will cost series production company IMS Productions upwards of $10 million for the endeavor.

Speaking of Indianapolis, its traditional qualifying format of four cumulative timed laps will no longer be unique just to the Speedway. The IRL has adopted the Indy-style qualifying mode for ovals this season, replacing the usual form of two timed laps with the fastest proving the driver's qualifying time. Series veterans are mostly upbeat about the switch, however it remains to be seen if the pressure of assembling four great laps will cause any of the less-experienced oval drivers great distress.

"I think it is good and will be very intriguing for the fans," Dan Wheldon said of the change. "It will definitely spice up the action a little bit, and it will put more pressure on the teams." Perhaps a more realistic viewpoint was offered by Penske's Ryan Briscoe, the Aussie in his second go-round of full-time IndyCar racing. "It will make us work harder and we will have to make several set-up changes during practice," Briscoe said. "Also, it will give us more to think about in qualifying and keep us very busy on the shorter ovals."

The last change of note relates to the Firestone Indy Lights Series, the resurrected name for the former Indy Pro Series since its inception in 2002. Indy Lights was the formula just below Champ Car from 1986 to 2001, and its notable alumni include current IndyCar drivers Dixon, Castroneves, Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia and Townsend Bell. The Indy Lights series still maintains the Dallara-Infiniti package and a 16-race schedule; ironically series director Roger Bailey was the man behind the original Indy Lights class as well.

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Series INDYCAR , INDYLIGHTS