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2012 Season Preview, Pt. 1

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After what has felt like a lifetime of spec-car boredom, IZOD IndyCar Series fans, teams, drivers and analysts finally have something to get excited about.

The changes for 2012 are well known, and they all add up to what should be the least predictable season of IndyCar Series competition to date, thanks to:

• A new, more modern spec chassis from Dallara (the DW12, named for its chief test driver Dan Wheldon, who lost his life at the Las Vegas oval in October), a new engine formula, two new engine manufacturers in the form of Chevrolet and Lotus, some exciting new and returning drivers, one popular driver who left, a big shift in the balance of road/street and oval races on the calendar, the demotion of Brian Barnhart, new staff in Race Control, and upgrades throughout most areas of the organization serve as the major highlights.

• The hiring of Beaux Barfield, Arie Luyendyk, Johnny Unser and Gary Barnard should go a long way to restore the respect the series lost with throughout the world of open-wheel racing, the struggles with the new chassis are common knowledge (along with some of the issues the engine manufacturers have faced in testing), and the feared loss of Danica Patrick has been tempered by Rubens Barrichello’s switch from Formula One to IndyCar.

• Versus morphing into NBC Sports Channel, which should help nudge the series’ TV ratings in the right direction as questions about the reliability of the new cars and engines should deliver plenty of drama to chronicle.

The series has assembled what’s arguably the greatest level of driving talent it’s ever seen which should make for a fascinating 16 rounds of racing to follow, but the new cars will make the biggest difference in how the championship plays out between the season opener at St. Petersburg on March 25th and the finale at Auto Club Speedway in September.

Sure, handicapping the drivers is easy, but with Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus in the mix, some of the regular contenders could end up wishing they’d signed with a different manufacturer.

So who will win the 2012 IndyCar title? We might have an idea by late August, but any guesses before then would require the help of a psychic, a Mayan prophet and an IndyCar Whisperer.

The Big Differentiator

Call it “The year of understeer.”

The old Dallara IR07, which the DW12 replaces, required its drivers to live far out on the edge of adhesion to extract the final few tenths per lap on road and street courses.

The rear bounced and slid the entire time, making it a car that fit a guy like Team Penske’s Will Power perfectly.

But what happens when the new chassis does the exact opposite? And what does that mean for the aggressive drivers who like to attack the entry of each corner, but can’t get the DW12 to turn to their liking?

For many of the IndyCar drivers who’ve come over from Europe, slight understeer is preferable. For those who prefer understeer, and we’ve seen a number of them jump up to lead certain test days during the off season, the DW12 is a dream machine.

But for some of the animals in the series—those who’ve reeled off poles, fastest laps and a lot of wins in the past few years--the DW12’s inherent understeer has been causing major headaches.
Unless some of those oversteer-loving drivers adapt to what they regard as backwards handling with the DW12, look for a few of them to drop down the time sheets a few spots, if not more.

And the opposite should also be true. The understeer lovers who never really connected with the IR07 could generate a few “why is he/she that far up the grid” comments this season in the DW12.

Tip: Monitor the comments from the drivers who are father back/farther up than you'd expect at St. Pete and beyond, and their quotes will likely center on how they love/hate the DW12's rear-heavy handling.

The Big Assimilator

“With all the extra downforce, this car will make a [bad] driver look good,” one driver told this writer. And that sentiment has been echoed by a few others as well.

The IR07 was incredibly hard to drive quickly, but according to the series’ best, the DW12, with a lot more downforce than its predecessor and not enough power to balance that extra aerodynamic help, is much easier to pedal.

It wouldn’t put a Milka Duno on pole, but it has lowered the bar a bit to produce fast lap times on road and street courses.

Tip: Monitor the gap in lap times between the best and worst driver amongst the Chevrolet/Honda/Lotus teams to see how this dynamic plays out.

The Big Differentiator Pt. 2

For all of the concerns about needing to break up pack racing on 1.5-mile ovals, the problem will likely solve itself in the form of the three different engines being utilized. And on road and street courses, the same should be true as each marque has displayed different strengths and weaknesses.

Based on pre-season testing, the Chevrolet camp appears to have its engine mapping refined quite nicely when its twin-turbo V6 powers away from low-speed corners. With three of the first four races on street courses—places where minimal grip and sharp, slow corners are in abundance—the Bowtie could be sitting pretty.

Yet Honda isn’t far behind in that category; there isn’t much of a separation. For the Honda teams, HPD’s single-turbo V6 has displayed some impressive mid- and top-end power, which sets up a nice Yin and Yang routine with Chevrolet.

Lotus, frankly, has yet to push its twin-turbo V6 to reveal any potential advantages, but has shown promise and reckons to be something worth watching towards the late summer rounds.

What it means to start the season is that some will get off the corners better while others will hit bigger tops speeds and get to the braking zones faster. Until we get a few races in the books, it’s hard to predict which manufacturer will come out on top from round to round.

Adding more complexity to the “who has the best package debate,” the cars now have carbon brakes that will be used at every race, which shortens the braking zones even more. Provided we have one engine with a top speed advantage, expect more passes under braking, but if the Chevrolet and Honda engines are closer than expected, daring out-braking maneuvers should actually be reduced.

Tip: If pre-season performance traits are carried into the early rounds, keep an eye on the Chevrolets to win the battle off the corners and between shorter straights on the street courses, and for Honda to motor by on the longer straights. If we're lucky, it could be a fun see-saw routine.

Season Preview

Car No.: 2

Driver: Ryan Briscoe
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Matt Jonsson
Engineer: John Diuguid
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish:6th

Pruett Says: It’s a back-to-basics season for the personable Aussie.

After being locked out of the win and pole position column for the first time since joining Team Penske in 2008, Briscoe heads into the 2012 season needing to deliver more than ever for The Captain.

After two seasons of the “Dario and Will Show,” the series needs a driver to turn the championship into more than a two-horse race, and to stay in Penske’s good graces, Briscoe must become that person.

And the solutions are easy for him: Do the opposite of 2011.

Briscoe spent too much of 2011 looking for ways to pattern his game after teammate Will Power, placing too much emphasis on beating Power instead of focusing on his own strengths.

Although he and engineer Eric Cowdin had a lot of success in their first three years together, the pair struggled to find the magic last season. Cowdin left at the end of 2011 to re-join with Tony Kanaan, and his replacement, Jonathan Diuguid, has clicked with Briscoe right away.

The understeery Dallara DW12 also suits Briscoe’s driving style quite nicely. When others have complained about the car, he’s often wondered what they’ve been upset about, which bodes well for his finishing position in the championship.

Two poles and something on the order of two wins--or more—doesn’t seem impossible for Briscoe. He’s been fast in pre-season testing and has the look of a driver who’s ready to show people that he’s recaptured the form that nearly delivered the 2009 IndyCar title.

Car No.: 3

Driver: Helio Castroneves
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Sean Hanrahan
Engineer: Ron Ruzewski
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 11th

Pruett Says:

13 wasn’t the lucky number for Castroneves at Team Penske.

His first 12 years with the team produced 25 wins, but 2011 was a wildly up and down affair for the Brazilian. When he wasn’t knocking Will Power out of a potential win at Long Beach, he was firing salvos at Race Director Brian Barnhart via Twitter after a late race penalty at Motegi.

The 36-year-old’s fun-n-fiery demeanor turned fiery-n-frustrated far too many times last year, which helped to deliver his worst Indy car championship finish since joining the IndyCar Series.

Like Briscoe, HCN also spent too much of 2011 trying to win the internecine Penske battle, rather than locking in on his ovals and road course strengths. For 2012, he’s back to his old self and looks more like a 26-year-old than someone rounding the corner to 40.

The similarities between he and Briscoe continue as the DW12 is also tailor-made for his driving style, which should shorten the speed gap—at least a little bit--to Power.

A happy Helio is a fast Helio, and based on his surprising pace at Spring Training, he seems destined for a few poles and at least one win in 2012. After all but disappearing at Indy last year, the three-time 500 winner should be a force at the Brickyard once again, provided Chevrolet is on par with Honda.

He looked ready for retirement for most of last season, and can’t afford to fall to third on the depth chart again, but if his pre-season form is maintained throughout the year, he could be a force for years to come.

Car No.: 4

Driver: J.R. Hildebrand
Team: Panther Racing
Engine: Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Dan Miller
Engineer: David Cripps
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 14th

Pruett Says:

What should we expect from Hildebrand this year? His rookie campaign had flashes of brilliance—at Indy, obviously, and again at Iowa and Motegi—and even when he struggled, the kid wasn’t lacking in bravery.

The young Californian stepped into a Panther team that had a formidable oval program, but admitted it had a long way to go to bring its road and street course program up to par. Watching JR attack at a few different street races with absolutely no grip was spectacular, but it spoke to how far the team had to go on setup.

So far in pre-season testing, it looks like some of those shortcomings have been resolved as he and his trusty engineer David Cripps continue to fiddle with the DW12, but there’s still a fair amount of work to be done. Catching the likes of Ganassi and Penske just doesn’t happen in a year.

With the championship so heavily slanted towards road/street races, it’s hard to feel bullish for Hildebrand and Panther—at least for the first half of the season—while their oval chances are as strong ever. Seeing Hildebrand spraying champagne at one of the five ovals would be cathartic and a nice payback for how the 500 ended.

There’s an urgency within Panther to win NOW, and Hildebrand should improve his championship standing this year—much closer to a top 10—but things like multiple wins and poles feel more like a sure thing in 2013 once they’ve learned all they need to know about the DW12.

After a few years spent in the wilderness, Panther will continue to find its way back, but there’s still some distance left to travel.

Car No.: 5

Driver: E.J. Viso
Team: KV Racing Technology
Engine: Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Kelly Potter
Engineer: Olivier Boisson
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 18th

Pruett Says:

Look, it’s hard to paint E.J. Viso’s tenure in the IndyCar Series in a flattering light, with possible exception to his rookie season with HVM in 2008. Since then, the Venezuelan has often been his own worst enemy and 2011 was no different.

Just three finishes inside the top 10—a seventh and two ninths—was all he had to show for his efforts at KV Racing, but, and this been a pleasant surprise, Viso looks like a driver who’s ready to leave his old ways behind.

Throughout pre-season testing, Viso’s demeanor has been much different than the “I ride a unicycle and have a boa constrictor” persona he became known for when he came over from GP2.

Does that mean he won’t make any mistakes in 2012? Not by a long shot; it takes more than a couple of months to rehab one’s approach to the sport. But the more serious and focused Viso who has emerged this year has an air of maturity that’s needed to produce better results. Baby steps.

Paired with his new engineer Olivier Boisson (who was promoted from being the team’s damper engineer), KV Racing should be able to count on Viso to produce better results.

I’m not ready to mention Viso amongst the serious threats in the series, but if he can blend his 2008 form with a new outlook—and maintain it for 16 rounds—Ernesto Jose could be a pleasant surprise.

Car No.: 6

Driver: Katherine Legge
Lotus Dragon Racing
Engine: Lotus
Crew Chief: Brad Larsen
Engineer: Brandon Thomas
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: Did not compete

Pruett Says:

Katherine Legge’s last full season of open-wheel racing came in 2007, and after three mostly frustrating seasons in the DTM, one of Champ Car’s most popular drivers has pulled off a major coup.

Determined to get back to racing in America, Legge sought, found and signed a significant sponsor to enable her return, but expectations for the engaging Brit simply don’t exist this season.

Her chosen team, Dragon Racing, got a very late start, and despite hiring the veterans at Newman/Haas Racing to build its cars, the team only made it out with one car at Spring Training, thanks to contractual issues between the team principal and engine supplier Lotus.

With few miles under her belt before the season-opening race, it’s hard to predict how Legge will get on in the early going. She’s had plenty of naysayers who’ve doubted her talent and chances in IndyCar, but based on her performance at Sebring, it’s clear she hasn’t lost the spark that was shown in Champ Car.

NHR’s Craig Hampson, who led her teammate, Sebastien Bourdais, to four open-wheel titles, will act as a consultant on her car early in the season. Hampson will mentor Brandon Thomas, who has come over from the Red Bull Sprint Cup team, as he learns the engineering aspects of an Indy car.

She’s hungry and motivated, but with so few laps of testing, an engine still in its formative stages of development and a team that’s almost brand-new, Kat’s fans—for now--will just have to take solace in the fact that she’s back in open-wheel.

The No. 6 looked visually underwhelming in all-carbon at Spring Training, but will likely have a shiny new livery for the season. It isn’t much, but if her sponsors feel they are getting value out of the marketing and promotions side of 2012, maybe whatever’s missing on-track will be overlooked.

It’s great to have her back—she’ll become a fan favorite quickly—but it will be 2013 before her driving skill can be compared against IndyCar’s best.

Car No.: 7

Driver: Sebastien Bourdais
Lotus Dragon Racing
Engine: Lotus
Crew Chief: Didier Francesia
Engineer: Neil Fife
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 23rd

Pruett Says:

Dragon Racing made the wise decision to reach deep and pay for the Frenchman’s services, but will he have anything like the resources needed to deliver the goods?

As fans witnessed last year, the four-time Champ Car champion turned Dale Coyne’s small team into a serious contender in a season restricted to road and street courses. Limited means weren’t a problem for Seb; with a proper engineer and a solid car, he was a regular inside the top 6.

Seb’s 2011 season started off with a bang as brake failure in the pre-race warmup session sent him hard into the wall and left him on the sidelines for the race, and as of Spring Training, there were questions whether he’d even have an engine to power his car at St. Pete.

It will continue to be a question until he goes around the track next week, but all parties involved believe a Lotus will be installed in time to make it happen. Once his No. 7 is assembled and ready to run, it will turn its very first laps during the opening practice session.

If teething issues arise, which tends to be the case with most new cars, Bourdais will likely lose track time, which adds more pressure to the situation. His fans can only hope everything goes smoothly.

Dragon’s hired Neil Fife--Bourdais’ preferred engineer from 2011--to look after the No. 7, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this is a big step backwards competitively for SeaBass.

The team shook down Legge’s car at Sebring, which afforded Bourdais 69 laps to get a feel for the DW12, but when it comes to his own chassis, all of the little things that take a few test days to perfect like the pedals, belts and seating position could be slightly off.

Despite those limitations, will he give anything less than his best during his first full season of Indy car racing since 2007? Absolutely not. That’s not his style. Will he visit the top 6, much less the top 10 without a lot of attrition? For his fans, unfortunately, the answer is also “absolutely not.”

Even with Seb behind the wheel, Dragon is at least a year—if not two or three—away from bothering the top half of the field on a regular basis. He’s a loyal cat--hopefully he sticks around to lead the team for years to come—but with so much talent at the sharp end of the grid to fight with, it will be hard for Bourdais to watch them streak into the distance.

Car No.: 8

Driver: Rubens Barrichello
Team: KV Racing Technology
Engine: Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Chris Muir
Engineer: Garrett Mothersead
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: Did not compete

Pruett Says:

Welcome to the man who could be at the center of the most interesting plot line of 2012.

His credentials are impeccable: 19 years in F1 with 11 wins, still relatively young at 39 years old and highly motivated to try his hand at IndyCar racing. But Barrichello, for whatever reason, hasn’t been received by most fans as a force to be reckoned with. Sure, he had a long and distinguished F1 career, but he’s gotten old and slow, right?

Tell that to his best friend and KV Racing teammate Tony Kanaan who, for the most part, has been knocked off the perch as the team’s fastest driver. Barrichello has also been a huge bonus for the team technically as it has developed the DW12 chassis.

Engineered by the respected Garrett Mothersead, KV’s technical director, Barrichello already looks like he’s been driving Indy cars for years. He split the Ganassi and Penske cars at Spring Training, and has given every indication that he’s ready to mix it up inside the top 5 from the first race onwards.

Every track will be new for Barrichello this year (except for Sonoma), which means he’ll lose time in opening practice at every round, but he’s a fast learner and has a burning need to prove he can still get the job done.

Pencil Rubens in for at least one win, but don’t be surprised if he makes that prediction look foolishly modest. Barrichello will add some much needed spice to the top 5, and I can’t wait to see just how much pressure this quiet assassin exerts on Franchitti and Power.

And just as Briscoe and Castroneves hope to move up a few notches in the running order, Barrichello could be the wedge to keep them in place. This is going to be fun.

Car No.: 9

Driver: Scott Dixon
Team: Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Crew Chief: Ricky Davis
Engineer: Eric Bretzman
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 3rd

Pruett Says:

The two-time series champion has finished 4th or better in the quest for the title since 2006, and overcame a brutal start to the 2011 season to rally his way up to 3rd by the end of the year.

For reasons that haven’t always been of his making, that’s been Dixon’s M.O. of late: fighting from behind to overcome a big points deficit.

Dixon, who hates not winning more than most drivers, has given all the indicators he’s ready to challenge for his third title but, to be fair, I’ve said the same thing in the last couple of season previews.

The notes on Dixie and his team are the same: he’s got the same laser focus, there have been no personnel changes of note within his No. 9 team and he’s poised to give Penske’s Power and Dario Franchitti, his Target Ganassi teammate, the fight of their lives.

During pre-season testing, Dixon looked like an animal, and made great progress with his engineer while Franchitti was somewhat limited as he waited on a brake pedal setup that would allow him to attack the corners. If we’re evaluating the amount of chassis setup work that was done, the No. 9 moved ahead of the No. 10 in testing.

The only wildcard that could cause things to unravel is if the cartoon anvil hits the Kiwi more often than his rivals, which has been his undoing. Don’t ask me why, but that damn anvil loves Dixie, and especially at the opening round. If he can get to Indy without a DNF, watch out.

At only 31 years of age, Dixie has at least a decade left on the clock, but he’s not the patient type. Like so many other drivers in the paddock, he’s in dire need of an improved season.

Provided the racing gods allow it, look for three to four wins and a possible championship.

Car No.: 10

Driver: Dario Franchitti
Team: Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Crew Chief: Kevin O'Donnell
Engineer: Chris Simmons
2011 Driver’s Championship Finish: 1st

Pruett Says:

For those who were fans of Alain Prost, better known as “The Professor,” Dario Franchitti has more than earned a similar title in the latter stages of his Indy car career.

Franchitti is blindingly fast—that’s never been questioned—but as he’d edged closer to 40, it’s been interesting to see the Scot rely more and more on the “Sweet Science” than throwing the knockout punches that served him so well in CART.

The four-time IndyCar Series champion has routinely employed a season-long strategy that has differed from his main rival, Will Power, which has placed an emphasis on earning maximum points at every round. Knowing that winning every race isn’t an option, Franchitti’s willingness to bank seconds and thirds between victories has made the difference in the final tally, and it’s hard to imagine that approach will be altered in 2012.

Like Power, Franchitti’s pre-season hasn’t been without its problems. He’s had a few offs and engine problems, but the biggest point of note has been the late production of a brake pedal set that would allow him to right-foot brake.

He learned what he could about the DW12 in testing up to that point, but refining chassis setups could only happen once the pedal kit went in at Spring Training. Franchitti picked up a ton of time with it installed in the car, but will he be as strong in the early races as he’d like? Did he have enough time to tailor the No. 10’s handling to his liking?

For the first time in ages, there’s a small question mark regarding Franchitti’s ability to start the season from a place of outright strength. There’s no reason to doubt he’ll be in the fight for wins, but those testing and setup issues no longer make him a sure thing starting at Round 1.

The same can be said of Power, adding further intrigue to what the season ahead could hold for IndyCar fans.

Does that mean we should Franchitti out from becoming a five-time champion? Not if you’re smart.

Whether Franchitti’s Honda or Power’s Chevrolet is the engine to have will play a big part in who walks away with the crown, but if they’re close, Dario’s adaptability, guile and consistency could tip the balance in his favor.

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2012 Season Preview, Pt. 1
2012 Season Preview, Pt. 1
After what has felt like a lifetime of spec-car boredom, IZOD IndyCar Series fans, teams, drivers and analysts finally have something to get excited about.
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