New-Look IndyCar Grades Out Well In Debut

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 28 2012

A thoroughly transformed IZOD IndyCar Series debuted in St. Petersburg, Fla. over the weekend. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

There was nothing subtle about the changes introduced by the IndyCar Series this year. Just about everything was knew, in fact; engines, cars, drivers, teams, rules, officials. All put into play with limited off-season testing time.

Last weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., all of the new stuff hit the track, er, street, in anger for the first time.

So, how did it go?

Well, from here, it looked like:

Engines: Gone this year are the normally aspirated V-8s, arrived are V-6 turbos. And, from three different manufacturers; IndyCar stalwart Honda, newbie Lotus and returnbie Chevrolet.

There were some hitches, alright. Electrical issues, in particular. And while fixable for sure, they did knock some cars out of the race early. But overall, and considering the limited testing time which had a lot of people in the paddocks holding their breath on Sunday, the new engines performed well.

Performing best were the Chevrolets. Four of the top five finishers were in Chevy-powered cars, including winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske.

Chevy, and Lotus, have opted to go with engines featuring two small turbochargers. That proved

Helio Castroneves dusted off the fence climb at St. Pete. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

important on the street course of St. Pete as the Chevy’s clearly had more torque coming out of the corners.

Honda is using a single larger turbo. It’s top team, Target Chip Ganassi, had a disappointing day across the board. The Hondas should be suited better for ovals but there are only four ovals on the schedule. And while it was not like the Ganassi Hondas were totally outmuscled on Sunday – Franchitti was second to Castroneves over the final laps but was battling an emptying fuel cell  – they will require upgraded performance and soon.

Lotus, as was expected, emerged from St. Pete as No. 3. Engines arrived to teams late in the game and tweak time was virtually non existent. Lotus clearly has some work to do to catch the bigger boys.

Team Barracuda – BHA Lotus driver Alex Tagliani reacted by saying: “Some of the other teams have an advantage on us at the moment and we know that, but our race pace was fairly good. At some stage in the race, we were matching leader’s pace, but we are still working with Lotus to get the engine program where we all want it to be. With the group of guys and the engineer we have, we should’ve been a top five car today. We have some issues and unfortunately the team is paying the price.”

Grade for new engines: B.

Chassis: The series has elected to go with with the Dallara DW12 this year. Certainly better than the last generation of chassis, it was hoped the new breed would produce better racing.

Again, a couple of glitches occurred. Notably fueling problems during pit stops. Also, new gear boxes and hand clutches in the cars made it impossible to refire the cars when they stalled out on the track. A lot of laps were lost because of this and it left some drivers fairly steamed.

But overall, the teams and drivers seemed pleased.

The cars have an abundance of downforce. Maybe too much to keep things interesting for fans.

Will Power, who had a fast car but not a great finish (seventh) told reporters that his car may have been the best he’s ever had in terms of handling.

Grade for the new DW12s: B.

Officials: Last year, there was nearly open revolt among teams and drivers against series officials.

Rubens Barrichello got his IndyCar feet wet last weekend. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Barely a race went by when the howling from the paddocks wouldn’t drown out noise from the engines. Calls on penalties and non penalties built and built as the season progressed – or regressed.

It call came to a head when mild-mannered Will Power flipped off race control at a race and then proceeded to call for former director Brian Barnhart’s job.

Beaux Barfield was brought over from the American Le Mans Series to direct competition in the IndyCar Series this year.

The Barfield regime appears to be 1 for 1. The radio chatter during the race, and from the drivers in the paddocks after the race, featured very few complaints.

One iffy situation on track Sunday, in which Carpenter was was turned by Castroneves, resulted in a quick review and and a quick ruling of not guilty. It was the right call as it was a racing incident.

The race was extremely clean other than that. No massive wrecks, proper conduct on restarts, no cars upside down in Turn 1. Perhaps that was the result of a new attitude in race control, perhaps it was the new carbon brakes. Whatever. It was peaceful day on the Gulf Coast.

Grade for new officiating crew: A.

Drivers: Several rookie drivers were on the track Sunday.

The biggest name of the bunch was that of Formula 1 refugee Rubens Barrichello of KV Racing Technology. Barrichello felt his way through his first event. Nothing flashy, nothing provocative, everything professional. In short, Barrichello was Barrichello. He finished 17th, two laps off the pace. But he finished. IndyCars and F1 cars may look vaguely similar, but they are as different as IndyCars and Sprint Cup cars in terms of drivability.

Barrichello sure said the right things over the weekend. The things which fans and the series will appreciate.

“I had fun out there,” said Barrichello, who qualified 13th. “Unfortunately, we had a meter reading problem so I ran out of fuel at the end. However, I enjoyed the race and dicing with other cars, but would have liked to have been able to push more. It has been a good learning experience this weekend and I look forward to being back in the car in a few days for the next race.”

A lot of eyes were on Frenchman Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports. Over his career, Pagenaud has established himself as one of the top sports car drivers in the world and I don’t mean Mazda Miata sports cars. In the big prototypes that race at Le Mans and Sebring, Pagenaud was an ace. He ran well at St. Pete, qualifying as the fastest Honda driver. However, he was penalized 10 spots on race day for an unapproved engine change. He still wound up sixth.

He, too, was saying the right things afterward.

“I damaged the front wing early on, and it forced a little push. It was a really good recovery by the team today to get us up front. I want to thank the whole Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports team. They did a fantastic job in the pits. It’s because of their pitstops that we were able to gain so many positions. The strategy was fairly amazing.”

Katherine Legge has American open-wheel experience as she drove in the CART series. But she was a rookie at St. Pete and in the IndyCar Series. Unfortunately her Dragon Racing car was one of the Lotuses which succumbed to mechanical failure.

Josef Newgarden looked extremely solid driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He started 19th and finished 11th. That’s what you look for in a rookie. There was one small bump to the car in front of him and that damaged the front of his car. But, well, great day for new guy Newgarden. Biggest testemony: No drivers post race said get that rookie off the track. On the contrary, he drew praise from some old hands.

Grade for new drivers as a group: B

Overall: The race was not gripping for television viewers. Not a lot of action. The most drama at the end came from emptying fuel cells.

But neither was the racing marked by embarrassing driver mistakes and constant yellow flags.

Also, there have been numerous complaints this week that ABC, which broadcast the race, did not do a stellar job; that a lot of the good bits back in the field were witnessed only by those who were viewing live and in person at those portions of the race track.

The racing and new aspects of IndyCar was very satisfying. Open-wheel fans have traditionally been as interested in chassis and engines and brakes and tires and manufacturers as they are in driving stars and St. Pete featured plenty of interesting sidebars.

It will be very interesting to see what advances have been made for this weekend’s race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Grade for overall race experience at St. Pete: B (up from a D a year ago.)

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 28 2012
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