We kick the 2012 season off in St. Petersburg, Florida. 26 cars are locked and loaded for the ninth time open wheel has raced at the airport. Emotions will be heavy as the paddock returns to the adopted hometown of Dan Wheldon to contest the first race since the 2011 season and the fatal accident at Las Vegas. We will be watching, for all intents and purposes, a new series. Randy Bernard cleaned house over the off season and hiring some new blood into key positions. Turbo engines will see their first laps in anger turned in an open wheel car since 2008 and the first time INDYCAR and the old IRL have run turbos since 1996. An all new chassis that was designed from the beginning with road courses in mind will also see its first dose of action. F1 ace Reubens Barrichello makes his debut and four time series champion Sebastien Bourdais returns to open wheel racing. All the pieces are in place for an epic weekend and kickoff to the 2012 campaign.
5 Things to Watch
Turn 1 – Last time we saw our fearless hero’s attack turn one at St. Pete to kick the season off, it was painful. I know not all of the early yellow running last year was due to turn one shenanigans, but there were no less than three incidents before lap 20 that caused full course yellows due to contact in the first turn. I know I am not a driver, but the old adage you can’t win the race on the first lap needs to be in the forefronts of the drivers minds coming to the green on Sunday. It was downright embarrassing to watch the “most skilled drivers in the world” continually run over each other for the first quarter of the race. There will be many new and important eyeballs watching the start of this season and the drivers have to impress and be the professionals we know they are. This goes for restarts as well; they pilots have a year of experience doing these things under their belts so we should have no problems.
Brakes, Paint and Rain – We know rain may play a factor as it always does in south Florida this time of year. If there is some moisture on the track, couple that with the large amount of paint on the runway course and add in super stopping carbon brakes and we could see some crazy action in the braking zones. Again, I think cooler heads will prevail and we will be blessed with action and not carnage. The new brakes may play a deeper role throughout the weekend. Will the teams cooling package be too much or not enough? Carbon disks are fickle beings and the teams are probably taking a shot in the dark when setting up the braking package. Without more data everyone is stopping blind this weekend.
Blocking/Defending/Passing – Beaux Barfield, the new race director and for here on out also known as BxB, has loosened the reins on INDYCAR’s fauxvertaking rule. No longer will the leading driver have to leave the inside lane open; so long as their move is active instead of reactive. Covering the inside from the exit of the previous corner or making your move before the following driver does will be what I am looking for as acceptable behavior but that is the only move the leading driver should make. Anything else should be viewed as blocking. This could be easy or difficult to enforce depending on how nice the drivers decide to play. If all goes well, this should be the last time we see BxB in a worrisome light.
Lotus – It’s not even the first race of the season and I am already sick of harping on Lotus, but they keep giving me reasons to circle back. The manufacturer apparently only has six engines in the country for their five entries. One blown motor will hurt, but if two go before raceday then there will be a very angry Lotus team and driver sitting on the sidelines for the first event of the year. I doubt that the Lotus engineers will be pushing much boost this weekend in a hope to keep a few of these motors in one piece. I don’t really expect Lotus to be much of a factor this weekend but some food for thought anyway: Servia was only 1.2 seconds off the pace in testing and the Lotus camp includes Bordais and Tagliani; all may not be lost yet.
Honda and Chevy – Blown engines will be on more minds than just teams strapped to the Lotus engine. Although no one is sure of actually how many extra engines the two big marquees have laying around; we have been getting the feeling that supply may be limited. I’m sure they can absorb more than a few popped lumps, but there is only a single week between St. Pete and Barber. If either manufacturer has a problem with sick engines the issue may span more than one race weekend. Like Lotus, turning the boost down may be the only way to guarantee any kind of longevity in these opening rounds. I expect Chevy to be quick in the tight stuff and Honda to have the legs on the straights; everyone’s cards will be on the table this weekend so we will finally get an idea of true pace and running order.
Winner – Will Power – A win will start his championship assault early, again, this year.
Pole – Will Power – Not losing any pace over the off season, Will Power utterly dominates the weekend.
Epic Performance – Sebastien Bourdais – Overcoming the massive Lotus handicap, Seabass will impress this weekend. Even given his most likely awful Dragon Racing squad he cannot be held back. Bourdais will be a factor this year.
Biggest Loser – Honda – I just can’t shake the feeling that Honda is going to have a rough initial go at it. They seemed to be the only manufacturer with continuous issues throughout the testing cycle and confidence is not high for the manufacturer.
All in all it should be an amazing weekend no matter how it unfolds. Everyone’s number one concern is will the DW12 race well? This is a question I have avoided taking any type of strong stance through the off season, because I don’t want to be let down. The racing cannot be any worse than the old IR07 chassis so the only option is for it to be better. I am now cautiously optimistic about how the clandestine chassis will perform. Expectations for a car have never been higher while opinions simultaneously low. St Petersburg will truly be a baptism by fire for the chassis, engines, drivers and every single cog in the INDYCAR machine. I am nervous for the series; never has there been a more important weekend, but I am confident everyone will excel this weekend, if only because there is no other option.