Sebastien Bourdais leads EJ Viso at St Petersburg - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
The Dallara DW12 isn't quite the terrible chassis that everyone thought it was when it first arrived on these shores; having time since the middle of December to go through the tub and figure out what it needed has given the series, manufacturer and the teams ideas on how to develop the chassis in order to make it race-worthy, which it certainly was last weekend.
The engines are fairly equal, although at first glance it might appear the Chevrolet twin-turbocharged 2.2-liter V-6 is a bit more equal than Honda's single turbo solution.
Chevy/Ilmor engines dominated qualifying and race results, while Honda/HPD suffered the ignominy of an unplanned engine change on Simon Pagenaud's car on Friday, placing the French rookie driver for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports 10 places behind his original qualifying effort of sixth. (Any unscheduled engine changes result in a 10-place grid penalty as teams are allocated a total of five engines for the complete, 16-race 2012 season.)
The brakes from Brembo are taking some getting used to, as the discs and pads are carbon fiber and the calipers are billet aluminum. They stop much quicker than what the Indy cars used before and there were some noticeable instances of problems, particularly with James Jakes' Honda-powered Dale Coyne entry.
With fuel cells reduced from 22 gallons to 18.5 and with the series now using E85, this contest was bound to become a fuel strategy race, particularly since the final caution occurred before the race was even halfway complete. EJ Viso's great day--without any wall smacks or any other problems--would have resulted in a top-five result had he not had to stop to top up late in the going; Viso still finished a strong eighth.
Gearboxes are a bit on the fragile side as well, as several teams reported losing gears during the 100-lap contest on Sunday; Rubens Barrichello, the newcomer who (for some reason) isn't classified as a rookie had a gearbox problem on Friday that ruined his whole race weekend In KV Racing Technology's (KVRT) Chevy-powered race car; Mike Conway lost a couple of gears during the race that ended his day for AJ Foyt Racing (Honda). Charging systems were suspect as well, with KVRT's Tony Kanaan dropping out of the race with a battery problem early in the contest.
With fuel cells reduced from 22 gallons to 18.5 and with the series now using E85, this contest was bound to become a fuel strategy race, particularly since the final caution occurred before the race was even halfway complete. KVRT's EJ Viso's great day--without any wall smacks or other problems--would have had a top-five result had he not had to stop to top up late in the going; Viso finished a strong eighth. Reigning titleholder Dario Franchitti (Team Target/Honda) finished 13th after running ninth in the closing stages; he ran out of fuel on the last lap.
Looking forward to this weekend's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a 90-lap race on the Barber Motorsports 2.38-mile, 14-corner permanent road course in Leeds, just outside Birmingham, all the engine manufacturers are looking to optimize their powerplants now that they've seen what's possible in competition. There will be more spare engines available--and hopefully unneeded--this week, as Lotus intends to have a spare for every runner, where they only had spare engines for three of their five entries in Florida.
Two of Chevy's drivers have won at Barber in the previous Indy car events held at this track: last week's winner, Helio Castroneves won in the series' 2010 debut while his Team Penske teammate Will Power won the race last year. Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti sniffed at victory last year and he, too, has a Chevy engine.
If Lotus can get its ECU problems figured out this could be a break-out race for Dragon Racing's Sebastien Bourdais, who ran as high as third at St Petersburg last week before his ECU cut out--just as teammate Katherine Legge's did. Honda needs to get its mapping right for the Barber track--in addition to Pagenaud and Franchitti, second-place finisher Scott Dixon is hungry for another win with Honda power; fans would be remiss not to look at Honda-powered rookie Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Racing as a threat for top honors.
The health of the IZOD indyCar Series appears to be better than it's looked in ages, thanks to a strong driver lineup, new cars, three new engines and the same, reliable and tractable Firestone tires. With stable management and happy teams and drivers in the paddock, this could be one of the best seasons of Indy car racing yet. This writer hasn't had much positive to say about the series in recent years; right now I'm pumped.