Lee Towers: On The Throttle
The 2012 season is IndyCar’s most important for years, with a return to a multi-engine format and an all new chassis from Dallara replacing the aging IR-05 model from the Italian manufacturer – the DW12.
The chassis named after Dan Wheldon is a strange looking contraption, with its flared side pods, flat nose and rear wheel guards, designed to prevent cars getting airborne in accidents such as the one which tragically claimed Wheldon. The new chassis strength was tested by Mike Conway who had another big accident at Indy in it, the car getting up into the catch fencing, thankfully not cockpit side up, and the Englishmen thankfully was uninjured. Below are a few of my thoughts on where the series is at right now, and what the future perhaps holds.
When the covers came off the frankly odd looking new for 2012 IndyCar midway through last year, it was very much the signaling of a new dawn in America’s top open wheeled series. The new chassis, part of the ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) Plan, whilst still manufactured by Dallara, who fought off proposals competition from BAT Engineering, DeltaWing, Lola and Swift to supply this years car, is a far cry from the 2007 spec cars used up until the end of 2011. They are far removed from pretty much any open wheel car of recent years, but I have to admit they are growing on me, especially when decked out in smart livery such as AJ Foyt’s ABC-backed entry.
Also new and exciting for Indycar this year is a return to a multi-engine format, with Honda continuing their support but being joined by Chevrolet and Lotus. The two new manufacturers have had contrasting fortunes to say the least, with teams originally signed up with Lotus eager to drop their powerplants and replace them with Chevy’s or Honda’s.
Lotus low point surely has to be the biggest stage of all in IndyCar at Indianapolis in May, where their two remaining runners, Simona de Silvestro & Jean Alesi, were both black flagged within 10 laps for being too slow. This was sure to have hurt Lotus, we can only hope they remain committed to the series and get themselves up to speed soon – whilst this is not the true Lotus name we are talking about, to see it branded on cars being black flagged for being too slow is a sad sight indeed.
There are much happier times at fellow newcomers Chevrolet. To have a legendary American manufacturer such as Chevrolet on board is brilliant news for the series, which has been dominated by non US drivers and engines for too many years now, one of the reason why attendances have suffered. Chevy locked out 9 of the top 10 grid slots at Indy, including at entire front two rows, which should really capture the US public’s imagination.
With the departure of top US driver Sam Hornish and IndyCar’s most marketable driver Danica Patrick to NASCAR in recent years, seeing some US blood back at the forefront of the series has to bode well for the future. The glory days of Andretti, Unser, Mears and Rahal running up front in major open wheel racing in America can be re-captured, the stronger the IndyCar series gets the more US drivers it can entice in.
Another interesting element originally planned to be brought to the party in 2012, but which was delayed until 2013 on costs grounds, is the introduction of “Aero-Kits” which will fit around the Dallara IndyCar “safety cell”. This year all the cars have the Dallara Aero-Kit around the IndyCar “safety cell”, but next year there will be several other for teams to pick from, although a Dallara/Dallara combination will be available at a discounted price. Interest is high in manufacturing these Aero-Kits for 2013 – deposits from three prospective manufacturers/suppliers have been received whilst and two others have requested an extension of the deadline to commit to the program for 2013 and 2014.
How much variation there will be between these Aero-Kits will look we don’t really know, but some variety in the looks of the cars is something which surely will be welcome, rather than cars looking almost identical other than their paintwork. Having essentially three different “parts” to the car (Chassis, Aero-Kit & Engine) opens up the series and should produce some interesting an unpredictable racing.
The new Chassis this year has brought with it some excellent races, Alabama and Indianapolis spring to mind, with some spectacular passing maneuvers also of note , mainly thanks to almost Hanford device rear wing levels of tow it produces. This was most evident at Indianapolis in May where a new lead change race record was set for the “500″ at 34, with the race being brought to a spectacular crescendo between Franchitti, Dixon & Sato which ended with heartbreak for the Japanese and an third Indy 500 win for Franchitti.
Road and street courses have seen their fair share of spectacular moments too, Power and Pagenaud going either side of Viso in Alabama particularly standing out. Sticking with non-oval highlights, the superb Long Beach race enabled French rookie Simon Pagenaud to come to the fore, the Schmidt-Hamilton Racing entrant chasing down Will Power all the way to the flag, and proving he was no one trick pony by running to a strong 3rd place finish at Detroit behind the Ganassi cars later in the year.
Pagenaud has really caught my eye this year, his part season in IndyCar last season and run to second at Le Mans with Peugeot showed us he was no slouch, and he has been a pleasant surprise this year, perhaps he will entice more drivers from the European Scene over to the US.
Whilst the well off Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Autosport entries have won all but one race this season, the front runners have been varied and the order unpredictable from race to race. Pagenaud running with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports has been a thorn in the front runners sides, whilst rookie Josef Newgarden started from the front row at Long Beach and Tony Kanaan has managed three top three finishes this year with KV Racing.
The one race not won by the “big 3″ teams was at Texas, where a real underdog story was written when Brit Justin Wilson won for Dale Coyne racing, the teams first since its debut win again with Wilson at Watkins Glen in ’09, which in turn was the teams first in 23 years of trying. Wilson chased down Graham Rahal late in the race after Scott Dixon has dominated but crashed out, forcing Rahal to make a mistake and clip the wall coming off turn 4 with 2 laps to go.
Whilst there have been several good points in IndyCar 2012, unfortunately I cannot complete this article without mentioned the debacle which was the Detroit race. A track breaking up in the heat, delaying the race for almost two hours and shortening it by 30 laps was a PR disaster for the series. It was good to be back at Belle Isle Park, but things like this should not happen in the biggest Open Wheel series in the US. I can only cringe to think what sponsors and team guests must have thought that weekend, whilst the fans were short changed to say the least. Dixon won a race which everyone will be keen to forget, particularly IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who took to Twitter to tell us some of the teams were trying to get him fired.
Another element of the series which has frustrated this writer is how hard the cars seem to be to restart after a simple spin. On the tight street courses which Indycar runs, often a simple spin causes a full course caution and one car left stranded in the middle of the track and whilst I appreciate cautions are a part of American racing, the effort to retrieve get a stranded car moving again seems to be too much.
The Championship standings see Ryan Hunter-Reay sitting on top after a hat-trick of wins at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto, a lead which if he can hold on to will be just what the series needs, a US driver powered by Chevy winning a championship for a name as evocative as Andretti can give the series a real shot in the arm.
Just 34 points back is Will Power, who managed a hat-trick of wins himself earlier this year, then first round winner Helio Castroneves, who is 11 back of his Penske teammate. Penske looked untouchable almost at the beginning of the season in winning the first 4 races, but they have certainly been caught up now and they have had some very un-Penske troubles themselves – Power taking a driver though for colliding with Kanaan at Texas and running into Viso at Iowa thanks to a confusion with his spotter.
Top Ganassi runner is Scott Dixon in 4th, who would be much further the sharp end but for a crash whilst leading at Texas and an early mechanical failure in Toronto. James Hinchcliffe, who is now backed by GoDaddy.com and finds himself on the service providers homepage in what was once Danica Patrick’s spot, sits 5th, having dropped back from 2nd in the standings after Milwaukee.
Rounding out the top-6 is Brazilian veteran Tony Kanaan for KV Racing, who has managed a 2nd, 3rd and a 4th in the last 3 races. His longtime friend Rubens Barrichello is classed as a “Rookie” this year, despite being a veteran of 322 Grand Prix’s and has shown some good form in flashes as he gets used to IndyCar, he is a good draw-card for the series for sure.
A big surprise has been the downturn in form of defending champion Dario Franchitti. The Scot, save for a win at Indy, has only managed one more podium, and although he has sat on the pole for the last three events, including a stunning pole lap at Milwaukee, he has not converted any of these into any points.
IndyCar seems to be back on the up. My tip for 2012 Champion? – Will Power.