The Indy Racing League's first day of open testing for its premier IndyCar series commenced at California Speedway on February 4th, and it immediately became apparent that the bar has been raised.
Working with new chassis from Panoz G Force and Dallara -- but none from Michael Kranefuss' Falcon Cars - 20 drivers took part in open testing at the 2-mile oval outside Los Angeles. Sporting engines from Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota, the field was pretty well mixed, but for the most part, competition was between the two Japanese manufacturers.
At the end of Day One open testing at the 2-mile oval, it was apparent that the homework done by Toyota and Honda is paying dividends and raising the question of whether Chevrolet can cut it this year.
Toyota and Honda-powered cars took the top 11 spots in the combined two test sessions. IRL standout Felipe Giaffone led all comers, with the speedy Tomas Scheckter shadowing him, both driving Toyota-powered Panoz G Force machines. Honda runners were not to be denied, as they took up the next two slots, with Andretti-Green teammates Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti holding sway.
Slots five through ten were owned by Toyota on this first day of open testing, while 1998 IRL champ Kenny Brack was 11th for Honda.
Vitor Meira, battling Jaques Lazier for the open Menard seat, was the fastest of the Chevy-powered drivers posting times in 12th place, and two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. was next on the list. In fact, the GM division took up the vast majority of the slots at the lower end of the time sheet.
In a press conference held toward the end of morning practice, GM Racing's Indy Racing League program manager Joe Negri declared "you never really know where you stand, in relationship to the competition, until you get to your first race." Does that mean the GM runners are sand-bagging, or are the newcomers really pulling out the stops for their initial forays in IndyCar racing?
As the groups head for Phoenix International Raceway's mile bullring - a far better indicator of speed for the first group of races than CA Speedway - it will be interesting to see who has their stuff together there. Can the Chevy gang keep up? Is there hope for Sam Hornish to take a third series title in a row?
While testing isn't necessarily indicative of what will happen a Homestead- Miami Speedway the first weekend of March, some things are pretty certain. This will be the most exciting and competitive season for the Indy Racing League in its eight-year history. There are more serious players in this paddock - both old and new - than the IRL has seen before.
Teams are better prepared than ever to wage their 16-race war for possession of the IRL IndyCar Series title. Drivers are more experienced in the type of close battle that so typifies Indy racing. It will be a hoot to watch all three engine makers go wheel to wheel and battle for title to the 87th Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel all engine makers lust to own.
For the chassis makers, some questions remain. While Panoz G Force has the use of the talents that helped bring Lola Cars back from the dead, Dallara continues with its engineering corps pretty much unchanged. G Force has only 5 entries at this point and mustering more could be tough. And can Michael Kranefuss put Falcon cars into hands that can develop and ensure success in this crowded field?
There are many questions, for sure, about the coming season. But mostly, there is anticipation of an exciting -- exhilarating -- year of competition. Will this year's group of CART refugees win it all, as Marlboro Team Penske was expected to do in 2002? Will Hornish (or someone else) hold them all at bay? It's going to be a lot of fun to see how it all plays out.
After the two days of testing at Phoenix International Raceway, we'll have a much better idea of who's fast and who's furious.
-Anne Proffit, guest writer