The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the start to the 2013 season is a bit over a week away, and after the horrendous six month off season, no better words could be spoken. The 19 race calendar is primed to produce incredible on-track action and another championship battle that will go down to the wire. Drivers and teams are in year two of the new equipment package and the previously mentioned lengthy offseason allowed engineers the time to refine their machines in preparation for a tough year ahead. Double-headers, Pocono and the Grand Prix of Huston all make returns to an already diverse championship trail and will even further test drivers and teams who have Astor Cup dreams. The racecars are faster, the grid is more competitive and everyone is more prepared for the coming season. A super-sized predictions and people preview will come next week, so for now here are some tidbits to think about.
Five Things to Watch
Testing times – I know you don’t win anything for practice, but any season preview that doesn’t mention the blistering testing times may not appreciate the gravity of the feat accomplished at Barber. Teams were able to shave nearly three seconds off of the pole time Will Power set at the track during the 2012 edition of the race. There were a few factors that were identified as causes for the increased speed. The freshly ground race surface was much more grippy than last year, Firestone brought a new compound tire to test on and the weather was cool, allowing the turbo engines to gulp, compress and burn just that much more air. However, the teams and engine manufacturer’s contributions cannot be overstated. There is clearly more power on tap especially after Honda came out to say they were playing it conservative in testing and the teams have had more than six months to find a few extra tenths in chassis construction and setup. They may not be the 900 horsepower beasts seen in the heyday of open-wheel racing, but there will definitely be track records falling all year long.
Tires – With the new found knowledge that Firestone brought a tire with more grip than last year begs the question: how will the degradation affect the racing this year? In 2012, the rubber actually lost grip throughout a run. And in some cases on ovals, drivers were asking for fresh rubber before the fuel windows opened because the tires degraded that much. In years past, you could almost double stint the tires at every facility the series visited. Now that Firestone has brought the new tire; will similar high grip compounds be used during the season, and will the newfound degradation seen in 2012 be carried into this new generation of tire? The Pirelli era in F1 and to a much smaller extent, indycar 2012, showed that fast burning tires can not only add a new wrinkle in race strategy, they can also greatly improve the show in a very pure way.
Engines – After an underpowered 2012, it looks like the Honda and Chevy have both found some extra power in the 2.2 liter engines. At road courses when the engine is running at nearly 700 horses, an extra percent or two of power could really go a long way. My biggest complaint about the IRL/Dallara era was the engines inability to accelerate the car the entire way down the straights. It seems like every competitor stalls out at about the same speed and in about the same places on track. This makes passing very hard, but problem was hidden a bit in 2012 due to the tires. Any gains in power will help this issue and it looks like we may have a sniff of extra muscle.
Reliability will undoubtedly be ahead of last year so we shouldn’t see nearly as many grid penalties as last year and now with the “if you take any extra engines over five, you won’t score manufacturer points” rule, Honda and Chevy will be pushed to increase reliability. But this may be done by turning down the new found power to levels similar to last year and in effect, increase reliability and fuel economy in the process. It will be very interesting to watch which path the manufacturers choose to take.
Pocono –Open wheel racing finally makes its return to the odd 2.5 mile oval in north east Pennsylvania. The once indycar stronghold with its three turns modeled after three historic ovals, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Trenton, and the longest superspeedway straight in the world was sorely missed, and an exciting addition to the schedule. Of course, with Fontana back on the schedule and now Pocono, INDYCAR management has revived the Triple Crown, albeit with the Pocono race clocking in at 400 miles, 100 miles short of what it should be due to the dreaded ABC TV window. 400 miles or not, the track should produce some incredible racing when the DW12’s finally hit the asphalt this summer after 23 long years that should have never taken place.
Double header weekends – New for 2013, and by all accounts a singular oddity in the modern era as they will most likely disappear in 2014, are double headers. Two full distance, full points paying races back to back on the streets of Belle Isle, Toronto and the Reliant Park parking lot in Houston are poised to push the paddock to its limit of sanity and logistical might. One mishap on Saturday could spell doom on Sunday. Will the teams be able to repair a heavily damaged car in the 20-22 hours between the Saturday and Sunday races? How will using Saturday morning warm up as qualifying for Sunday affect their setup and prerace process for race one? Simply put, there are many unknowns, and we could very well see huge championship swings given the totally foreign nature of these double header events. A cool vestige from the past that probably should have stayed in the past, but they still should produce some interesting story lines.
We are almost there and I can almost hear squealing tires! Without even getting into the people, 2013 has a very different look from 2012. It’s a very good thing that teams have had a year to figure out the equipment because they could be spending more time prepping for race weekends than developing their cars. Well, except for the four week break before the final two weekends, but that is a story and rant for later in the season. The summer stretch of eight straight weeks of on track action spanning from opening weekend in Indianapolis to the checkered flag of race two in Toronto will separate the serious championship teams from the rest and give us weeks upon weeks on non-stop indycar action. But it all starts on the runways of St. Petersburg… one more week…
P.S. – For once, isn’t it incredible not discussing worries and problems of race control for an upcoming year?