What We Learned At Sao Paulo
At least that’s the obvious answer. The two prior IZOD IndyCar Series races run on the Sambodromo street course in downtown Sao Paulo were affected by wet weather. In fact, it rained so hard during the 2011 edition of the Brazilian event that the race was stopped due to flooding on the track, and not completed until Monday.
So with the forecast calling for a 60 percent chance of rain Saturday and 90 percent Sunday, inclement weather could be the big storyline in Sao Paulo.
“It’s always an interesting race,” wrote Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe in his regular blog for the Detroit Free Press. “There are plenty of passing opportunities, the crowd is huge and super enthusiastic, and there’s always the threat of a torrential downpour.
“You might say the Sao Paulo race has a reputation for being a bit unpredictable,” he added. “It’s certainly never boring, and that’s why I like it.”
If it does rain, things will certainly get interesting and unpredictable. Each driver has five sets of Firestone rain tires for the weekend, and management of tires – and tire strategy – is likely to be the key to victory in Sunday’s 75-lap contest.
“A street circuit in the rain is one of the toughest combinations a driver can come across,” observed Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe. “The race last year was probably the most challenging conditions I’ve ever raced in and just finishing felt like a win. Big rain falls like that aren’t uncommon there, so we will have to do our best to prepare for all sorts of different conditions.”
Some drivers actually relish running in the wet. The late Mark Donohue, who won the 1972 Indianapolis 500, famously called rain ‘the great equalizer.’
“I love the track and I had a lot of fun in the wet last year,” remarked Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti. “I really like it when it's treacherous because it really comes down to car control. I think we could capitalize on that this year if it happens again.”
Tires have played a key role in the way races have unfolded in 2012, with some observers calling it the best start to a new season in many years.
Through a combination of strategy and speed, Team Penske’s Will Power has won the last two races after starting ninth and 12th, respectively, on tracks where passing was known to be difficult.
The team determines the strategy of knowing when to bolt on the quicker, red-sidewall Firestone alternate tires, and then it’s up to the drivers to maximize their early speed advantage while managing their more rapid wear throughout a full stint.
Firestone is fully prepared for any eventuality. Each team receives five sets of primary tires, three sets of alternates, and five sets of rains.
“Many drivers and team officials have credited the new Firestone tire specifications for adding to the excitement by making passing opportunities much more frequent, and we truly appreciate the compliments,” stated Firestone Racing executive director Al Speyer.
“As we also remember too well from last year, it can rain in São Paulo and Firestone is prepared for that with the same wet tire spec that received many positive driver reviews, particularly from Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, following its use a few weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park.”
The other key storyline to follow this weekend is the potential of improved performance from the Honda brigade.
Chevrolet engines in cars fielded by Team Penske have won all three races this season, and while Honda drivers finished second in each of those races, the Chevy engine has clearly looked slightly superior.
Honda responded by testing an alternate turbocharger housing, one of two housings approved by INDYCAR for it’s 2.2-liter, single turbocharged engine. The housing’s revised inlet shape reportedly improved the throttle response of the Honda engine, which was lacking compared to the twin-turbo designs favored by Chevrolet and Lotus that reduce turbo lag on acceleration.
Four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, who has struggled to adapt to the new DW12 chassis and turbo engines introduced for 2012, was conclusively fastest in a test at Infineon Raceway and the modified turbo housings were installed on all the Honda cars prior to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
However, Chevrolet protested and the original housings were re-installed before practice began. On Thursday, a three-man panel denied Chevrolet’s protest by Chevrolet and upheld INDYCAR’s original decision to allow Honda to introduce the alternate homologated turbocharger housing (known as the 0.74 A/R compressor cover) starting this weekend at Sao Paulo.
IndyCar Series engine manufacturers Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus were permitted to submit two compressor covers for approval. The turbocharger assemblies contained within the shrouds are the same with either housing.
Chevrolet argued that the change in compressor was against engine specifications that were locked in on February 28. Honda reportedly claimed that the turbo housing change was a modification to the exhaust system and also documented that the participating manufacturers approved changes of this nature during a new car development meeting in late 2010.
Either way, the three-man panel (featuring one representative nominated by Honda, one by Chevrolet and one by the league) was persuaded by Honda’s case.
“INDYCAR committed well in advance of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season to structure engine regulations focused on creating parity between competing manufacturers, and this commitment played a significant role in our decision to adopt a single turbocharger configuration for the new HI12RT Honda Indy V-6,” read a Honda Performance Development statement.
“The new compressor cover helps to offset the performance disadvantage of the current IndyCar single turbo hardware as measured by INDYCAR’s turbo supplier. This correction was designed and provided by the turbo supplier under the direction of IndyCar and was approved prior to the 2012 season. We look forward to deploying the new compressor cover to optimize performance of the Honda Indy V-6, as we continue to do battle with our worthy adversaries from Lotus and General Motors.”
Chevrolet has until 5 p.m. Monday to appeal.
“Chevrolet believed the modification was contrary to the applicable series rules, and asked IndyCar to thoroughly review the issue so that the rules were applied fairly,” stated Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “We respect the diligence of the panel appointed to hear the protest and examine the situation. While we are disappointed with today’s decision, we are prepared to continue to compete at the highest level in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”
Rain or shine, it should be an excellent battle on track this weekend in Brazil.