YES… The season truly feels like it is upon us as I pull my trusty crystal ball out and attempt to peer into the future for the first time this year. The 2011 offseason was a hornets’ nest of unbridled optimism following what could have been the beginning of the end for the series. We licked our wounds and eventually got to unwrap some really cool Christmas presents a few weeks early and now our heads have not had a moment to rest with the massive amount of testing the series has been undertaking. By all accounts, Indycar racing has had the best off season in years. The field is the deepest it has been since the split, and more teams are clamoring to enter the series. Hardware supply issues have capped the early season field, but we are still in for quite the treat during these first four races leading to the 500.
Five Things to Watch
Single vs. Double – Honda with a big honking single turbo and Chevy with the smaller, but equally powerful twin turbos; how these different layouts apply the power could make some difference in how the finishing orders play out. We all seem to think the Chevy lump has a bit more grunt when squirting out of the low speed corners; Will the Honda have stronger legs and make that high RPM horsepower? Chevy may have an advantage on the tight twisty stuff and Honda could clinch the wide open ovals. We haven’t seen engine competition in years, let alone competing configurations. The manufacturers’ battle will be hot this year.
She’s Pushy – The all new DW12 chassis is… not quite the dog she was during manufacturer testing. A slew of new aero parts coupled with a lighter weight gearbox and revamped suspension pieces have helped the chassis gain a bit of front end feel, but not as much as the majority of drivers would like. Our pilots are used to hanging the rear out and roasting the tires, but a bit of set up voodoo will be needed to find a similar feel to the car. Off hand, I know Sebastien Bourdais thrives on this kind of chassis. So much so he was fired from F1 team Toro Rosso because of his inability to come to terms with a looser car than he usually preferred. We could see a new group of road course ringers show their cards this year simply because of the changed chassis dynamics.
The Rubinho Effect – In all reality, Barrichello is probably the most prepared driver for the 2012 campaign from an equipment stand point. He has years of experience in finding the ideal operating temperature for the new carbon brakes. A hand clutch is nothing new to the F1 veteran and after years of the F1 rule makers robbing the machines of rear end grip, the new chassis tendency to have a bit of understeer may be a boon for Rubens. He comes from a series where the level of team professionalism is only dreamed of by all but a handful of Indycar teams. RB has the cards stacked in his favor, but I don’t think he will be a true championship contender this year. A race win or two is nearly expected, but throw in the ovals and he still has a steep learning curve to contend with.
First in Class – Who will be the best of the rest? In years past we were almost witness to a type of class racing in Indycar. Penske and Ganassi verse the rest of the field. Andretti, the perennial almost theres, were decidedly not part of that group once their engine advantage was wiped; but were undoubtedly the class of the rest of the field. They are going to face some still competition from KV Racing this year. TK plus Reubens plus Chevy will absolutely equal lost sleep for the entire paddock. I fully expect AA to challenge the red cars, and KVRT to be right there with them. Wins from deeper in the field? Sure, but I don’t see anyone other than these four teams having a shot at the overall championship.
Lotus…LOTUS? – I hate to say it, but I am going to start the season under the assumption that simply finishing a race will be Lotuses main aim in the early part of the season. With no realistic testing other than glorified shakedown and reliability runs; early engine development in the Lotus camp will, or should, be their only focus. If all goes well during the first four races, I could see the 500 as the first really competitive outing for Lotus. That is if they can stay in the indycar business, which has yet to be proven. And talks that Sebastien Bourdais may not have an engine does not bode well for the British imprint; whether their fault or not.
Overall Champion – Will Power – Against my best judgment to slot a longish shot in here; I firmly believe 2012 is the year of Will Power. He has been painfully close the last two years and will finally be able to win the season ending hardware.
Oval Champion – JR Hildebrand – No sophomore slump for JR. Panther regains a bit of its former self and consistently good results means he is one step closer to being the champion he’s capable of becoming. Please, stay out of the high groove in T4 Indy for all of us though, OK?
Road Champion – Will Power – Consolidating his overall championship with the addition of the road honors.
Indy 500 Winner – Tony Kanaan – Everyone’s favorite driver who still doesn’t have an Indy win. 2012 is his year.
ROTY – Simon Pagenaud – Is there really any question? He actually has less open wheel experience than Legge, but his sports car success put him in a league of his own.
Biggest Loser – Camp Lotus – if the engine isn’t poo, if enough can actually be found/produced, if group Lotus doesn’t implode taking a quarter of the paddock with it, if the engine can find some results before every signed team bails to Honda and Chevy at year end. Not much has to go right for it to be a successful year, but just a little bad luck is all that’s needed for it all to end in a blazing train wreck of embaresment.
The biggest question yet to be seen is will: the chassis race? Oval or road, it doesn’t matter. All we have been through this winter will possibly be for not if the DW12 is unable to complete a pass. A wider car, more downforce, better brakes, deeper talent and the Firestone rubber do not give me the warmest of feelings but I will not pass judgment until the checkers fall in St. Pete, and again at Indy. I always worry about the tires; year in and out they seem a bit too hard for my liking and may be detrimental to action in lieu of longevity. This is quite the short list of worries, containing all of one item; compared to the killer hand the series has been dealt. I think it will be a barnburner of a year; one for the ages. Ill go ahead and say it: we are entering a renaissance of sorts in American open wheel racing. Exciting, right?