The 2011 season closed with tragedy and questions instead of excitement and anticipation. The death of Dan Wheldon cast a dark cloud over INDYCAR as they moved toward a new car and engine formula and safety going forward was going to be of paramount importance. The show, as always, must go on and the drivers, once again, prepared for their season-long campaigns for the Astor Cup signifying him or her the champion.
The 2012 season was always going to be of great importance to the future of open wheel racing in North America due to the debut of the new car and engine formula instituted to create closer competition, faster laps, and more excitement. We will delve into the particulars of the DW12 IndyCar’s performance in a different article very soon, but it is time to look at the IZOD IndyCar Series 2012 season in generalities.
SEGMENT 1: ST. PETERSBURG – SAO PAULO
The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season began in St. Petersburg in an emotional weekend battle on the grounds that Dan Wheldon called his home in the United States. This was the important debut of the DW12 in competition as well as Chevrolet and Lotus engine package. With exception to a few electrical gremlins the race came off as an incredible show capped by Helio Castroneves returning to victory lane, but not until after celebrating with a fence climb on Dan Wheldon Way to cap the weekend’s festivities.
A street course is one thing with its own quirks and drama, but the first real test for the IZOD IndyCar Series came at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Originally built for motorcycle racing, Barber is notorious for follow-the-leader parades with periodic ill-advised attempts at advancement often resulting in torn up equipment and hot tempers, but 2012 was a completely different story. The DW12’s competitive ability coupled with new blocking rules resulted in the best race at the track in IndyCar history with Will Power coming from 9th starting position to win the race.
In the weeks following the race at Barber, Chevrolet found an issue with their engine that required all Chevrolet powered teams to change engines and suffer 10-position grid penalties making Pole Winner Ryan Briscoe start 11th in the race. Teammate Will Power started 12th and raced his way through the field to record his second straight win of 2012. Power would revisit Victory Lane in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
SEGMENT 2: THE OVALS (INDANAPOLIS 500 – IOWA CORN INDY)
When the IZOD IndyCar Series returned from Brazil, it was off to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Series’ Crown Jewel, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. IndyCar fans had been treated to some of the best road and street course racing ever seen in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but concerns mounted in testing about the car’s performance on ovals. We’ll get to the particulars of the car’s oval gremlins in a later post, but, in short, the technical department of INDYCAR developed a new wing package for the Speedway and Auto Club Speedway to correct imbalance in the car. They hit this package right on the spot resulting in, possibly, the best Indianapolis 500 in history.
After a street race in Detroit, IndyCar teams loaded into the most feared race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway. When the 2012 IndyCar calendar was released, nearly everyone was pointing at this race as the event with the most apprehension from drivers. In the wake of the death of Dan Wheldon, IndyCar drivers expressed their distaste for the ludicrous pack racing on high banked oval tracks that was a prime contributing factor to the crash that claimed Wheldon. Testing at the track revealed that the DW12 was capable of producing this type of racing that the drivers would no longer tolerate or participate. IndyCar’s technical department developed a package with minimal downforce in order to put the driver back into the equation and it worked.
Short tracks at the resurrected Milwaukee Mile and Iowa Speedway rounded out the early summer oval schedule highlighted by the Iowa Corn Indy 250 all the exciting IndyCar racing that we have all come to know and love.
The streets of Toronto marked return to road and street courses and would be followed by Edmonton, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore. Toronto began this stretch with Hunter-Reay capturing his third consecutive win of the season soldifying his place as a top contender for the championship. Edmonton saw Helio Castroneves capture is elusive victory at the track while Dixon continued his dominance at Mid-Ohio.
The scope of the championship began to change in Sonoma which became a game changer on the first lap when third in points Helio Castroneves’ attempted pass on Scott Dixon on the first lap resulted in Dixon’s car turned around against traffic and a drive-through penalty for Team Penske’s Brazilian driver. The race commenced as normal with Will Power maintaining a healthy lead over teammate Ryan Briscoe until a late-race pit stop by Power followed by an untimely caution flag allowing Briscoe to take the lead. On the ensuing restart Ryan Hunter-Reay was spun by Alex Tagilani seemingly dashing the American’s title hopes. Roger Penske’s standard of ‘no team orders’ allowed Briscoe to capture the victory instead of surrendering the podium’s top step to championship contender Will Power.
The streets of Baltimore became the real game changer as the season raced toward its conclusion. IndyCar elected to remove a chicane on the main straightaway that hindered the entertainment factor of restarts during the 2011 race. It became very apparent that the chicane needed re-installation when the cars were dangerously leaving the track surface. Race day was the biggest wild card as mother nature presented herself as the wild card. In a huge gamble, Ryan Hunter-Reay, needing a win, remained out on the track on slick tires as ran began to fall on the course while Will Power, who dominated the race’s early stages, and other contenders ducked to pit road for rain tires. The track dried quickly and a coupled with a miscommunication from the Verizon Team Penske crew, Ryan Hunter-Reay found himself with a huge trackposition advantage over his championship rivals. The final restart was controversial as Hunter-Reay, running second to Power’s teammate Ryan Briscoe, jumped the Team Penske driver on the restart and set sail for the checkered flag capturing the race win setting up a two driver showdown in the season finale.
It all came down, as always, to the season finale for the championship. The 2012 IZOD IndyCar World Championships was contested at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California and was the first 500 mile race outside of Indianapolis in over a decade. This race was going to be a marathon that the two championship contenders, Hunter-Reay and Power, would have to navigate. Power entered the race with a 17 point lead on Hunter-Reay and by starting eliminated Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves from title contention. INDYCAR selected a downforce level comparable to the one used in Texas making the cars very difficult to dial in comfortably. The scope of the championship changed drastically on lap 55.
Will Power with a 17-point championship lead only needed to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay in his sights all night to win the championship, but, inexplicably, attempted to get past the DHL/SunDrop car, lost control and hit the wall in between turns 1 and 2 mangling the Verizon sponsored machine and, seemingly, dashing Power’s hopes for the title for the third straight season. Team Penske would thrash together to repair the car and Power returned to the track allowing him to make up one position in the final running order. The battle was far from over as Hunter-Reay still had to finish sixth or better to win the title. Eventually Hunter-Reay would prevail to win the championship while Ed Carpenter won one of the most exciting and drama filled races in the sport’s history.
OVERALL GRADE: As a Series, IndyCar gets a solid B grade. In terms of the racing product, there was no other series worldwide that produced better racing week in and week out. The championship was, again, extremely close without any “Chase” or “Countdown” system which speaks volumes for the talent depth of the IndyCar Paddock. The new race officiating system, and Beaux Barfield in particular, created some intense competition and each race was officiated consistently and fairly. There was productive and respectful dialogue between drivers and the technical department that allowed for an acceptable downforce package for high speed ovals. Track product aside, IndyCar faltered in a few areas. The degradation of the track in Detroit was difficult to foresee but, with the race being on ABC, it goes down as a black eye for the sport. The entry of Chevrolet had great benefit to the competition level, but the Lotus engine never got up to speed and was parked swiftly at all oval races due to lack of acceptable pace. Randy Bernard posting on Twitter that people wanted him fired was also ill advised publicity for a sport that just ran one of its best Indianapolis 500 races in history.
LOOKING AHEAD: Looking to 2013, IndyCar is in a great position to move foreward. The first season with the DW12 was a resounding success and 2013 should have high expectations as the teams get more and more into developing the car and further unlocking its performance abilities. It can be expected that the 2013 season will be second to none in terms of excitement and competition, however, the biggest hurdle to jump is getting viewers on television to see the amazing motorsport product that IndyCar has to offer. Formula 1 will join IndyCar on NBC Sports Network starting in 2013 which could give a boost to the television ratings. 2013 will also have the storyline of Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti both going for their fourth Indianapolis 500 victory putting them right next to the names AJ Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears. Everybody tune in starting in late March 2013 to see how the next chapter in IndyCar history is written!