Wheldon Returns; New Dallara Debuts

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 28 2011

The new Dallara IndyCar chassis is tested by Dan Wheldon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Two-time and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon insists the six-week testing program he has undertaken for the IZOD IndyCar Series 2012 prototype chassis has made him “a more complete race car driver.”

Idle competitively since winning the 100th anniversary edition of the Indy 500 on May 29, Wheldon will return to the series this weekend as driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda for Sunday’s Kentucky Indy 300. The race on the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, Ken., is round 16 of the 17-event schedule and Wheldon’s second start of 2011.

“I’m really, really excited to be back racing again,” said Wheldon, who will be making his ninth career start at Kentucky Speedway. “I’ve been really blessed to do this stuff (testing the 2012 Indy car). That time has really enabled me to perfect some of my weaknesses. As a driver you’re always looking to make yourself better.

“But for me, I’m an extremely competitive person. I miss that competitive aspect of the driving, so I’m really, really excited to be back. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Alex (Tagliani) has given me with Sam Schmidt. It’s going to be a good few weeks for me.”

The No. 77 entry Wheldon will wheel at Kentucky Speedway is the same car Tagliani qualified on-pole for this year’s Indianapolis 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway in June. As previously announced, Wheldon will compete for the $5 million Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the season-ending IZOD INDYCAR World

Dan Wheldon celebrates his victory in the 2011 Indy 500. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Championships presented by Honda. Wheldon has the chance to win $2.5-million for himself and a lucky fan on Oct. 16.

Wheldon won the 2011 Indy 500 in a one-off ride with Bryan Herta Autosport, the team with which he has been testing the 2012 Dallara Automobili-built prototype chassis fitted with a twin-turbocharged Honda V-6 engine. The announced pairing of Wheldon with SSM for the Kentucky event coincided with the first public test of the new package Tuesday on the 2.5-mile IMS oval.

“Any time you come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is always good, and when you come as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champ, it’s special,” said Wheldon, who overtook the crumpled car of rookie JR Hildebrand exiting Turn 4 of the final lap to take the checkered flag. “The first time I was back here since winning the race I was on the road course, so it’s nice to be back on the oval.”

Tuesday’s test was the first of a three-day superspeedway validation session of the Dallara chassis before engine manufacturers begin their testing Oct. 4-5 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, with drivers Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Will Power of Team Penske (Chevrolet) in their own chassis. Teams are scheduled to take delivery of their first 2012 chassis in mid-December and begin testing after the first of the year.

“We’ll wait ’til (Thursday) to put the big (speed) numbers down,” Wheldon said. “We have to manage our expectations. I know everybody wants to see huge speeds, but it’s about doing what’s right for the car. This is our final test, and it’s important that we learn enough so when the customers get their cars we feel we’ve given them something they’ll be very happy with.”

Will Phillips, INDYCAR’s vice president of technology, said the sanctioning body will work

Dan Wheldon pulls the new Dallara out of the pits.

with manufacturers Honda, Chevy and Lotus during their test period of 2.2-liter, turbocharged V-6 engines.

“We’ve gone through all the different types of circuits but one (1.5-mile oval, which will be addressed during the manufacturer test phase) and validated the aero configuration against the speed that we intend to have for next year,” Phillips said. “It’s really been a good collaboration from Bryan Herta Autosport, from Dan and his previous experience and from Dallara.”

Aerodynamic and mechanical information has been collected into a Dallara “megabook” – a spreadsheet – that will be delivered with base information to series teams.

“It’s been very good to be part of the process – to learn about the car, to be at the track and help in the initial testing and development of the car,” team co-owner Bryan Herta said. “Some things take a bit getting used to but I would say this car represents an improvement in almost every area, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

“It’s lighter, safer, faster, and we’ve worked to validate the mechanical reliability of the car and making sure the way Dallara has designed and engineered the car to perform that the wind tunnel numbers are matching up on track.”

The program on the 2.5-mile IMS oval also includes a Firestone tire test. Next week, Wheldon will return with three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal for tire-testing in the current Honda-powered Dallara to get a back-to-back comparison. The 2012 car is lighter, and its oval and road/street aero packages will produce different tendencies than the current Dallara chassis.

“We’re doing our due diligence to make sure we don’t have any issues,” said Dale Harrigle,

A side view of the new Dallara.

Firestone Racing senior project engineer. “We’ve been working with Dallara and with INDYCAR to confirm the changes to the car, but still nothing beats track-testing to make sure we’re in good shape for next year’s Indy 500.”

Tire-testing will continue on ovals and road courses during the manufacturer test period through mid-December.

Wheldon, meanwhile, has posted five top-five finishes – including three third-place runs –in eight starts at Kentucky Speedway. He will be teamed with rookie Wade Cunningham, who will be making his first IndyCar Series start at Kentucky for SSM. In 2009, Cunningham led 22 laps en route to victory in the Firestone Indy Lights Kentucky 100.

Wheldon started second at Kentucky Speedway in 2005, the year he won his first Indy 500 and the series championship for Andretti Green Racing. His third-place finishes have been in 2004-05 and 2010.

“It’s a track where I’ve always been fast,” said Wheldon, who has led a total of 269 laps at Kentucky Speedway. “Obviously, I was very quick there last year. Unfortunately, I got caught out on fuel strategy at the end. Alex was incredibly quick there, too, with what is now Sam’s team. We know Tag well enough to know that he’s done a lot of hard work, so I think we’ll have a good baseline set-up.

“I feel we have the ability to contend for the win. By no means is it going to be easy. There are certainly a number of incredibly talented people out there. But we’re going to give it our

The new Dallara is pushed into the pits at Indy.

best shot. At the end of the day, I’m not competing for a championship. I just have one sole focus, which will help simplify the weekend. ”

Wheldon added that his laps at Kentucky Speedway definitely will help him prepare for the season-finale at LVMS, another 1.5-mile oval.

“Everybody’s been talking, or the message I’ve been getting, is ‘Hey, you can come in and win this,’ which has been very nice,” said Wheldon , the winner of 16 IndyCar Series events in his career. “But by the same token, I’ve been out of the car for an incredible amount of time _ the current car, I should say. Do I feel confident going to Kentucky? Yes. But I’m cautious with that confidence. It’ll be good prep.

“Everybody at that team (SSM), you know I’ve been part of that team at Indianapolis with Bryan’s team and they tend to be able to roll out of the truck very quickly. So that will be a huge help and it’s a track that I’ve been to a lot before. I do think it will be good preparation, but don’t underestimate all those guys. They’re obviously seriously good, and they’ve been in the cockpit all year.”

INDYCAR has fined Helio Castroneves $30,000 and placed him on probation for the remainder of the season for actions following the IZOD IndyCar Series race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on Sept. 18. The penalty was announced in a statement issued by the sanctioning body on Tuesday.

Castroneves was penalized for use of improper, profane or disparaging language in reference to officials for comments he made toward the Race Director via Twitter after he was penalized for passing under a local yellow on the final lap around the 2.983-mile road-course.

Because of the public display of his actions, Castroneves will be able to work off the fine by making a series of public appearances on behalf of INDYCAR throughout the remainder of the season.

Castroneves, of Team Penske, may contest the penalty as prescribed in the IZOD IndyCar Series Rulebook. A protest/appeal may result in an increase, decrease or no change to the penalty.

– John Sturbin can  be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 28 2011
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