New year, new hope

With new cars and engines for the first time in six years, the IndyCar Series is hoping for a fresh start in 2012. This follows the dispiriting era of the old Dallara-Honda de facto spec car, which came to an abrupt and tragic end when Dan Wheldon was killed in an explosive 15-car accident at last season’s finale in Las Vegas.

Wheldon’s death focused everyone’s minds on the problems of pack racing on high-banked ovals with underpowered cars that have too much downforce. Many big names in the sport, past and present, have pleaded for a substantial increase in power and a reduction in downforce, but IndyCar’s new package makes only a tiny change to that equation. Nor was the issue addressed by the accident report into Dan’s death.

The aftermath to the accident highlighted the web of problems in which IndyCar is enmeshed, with a poor officiating team, a weak schedule of races and the smallest media footprint of all professional and many amateur sports in America. Brian Barnhart has been removed as chief steward but continues as vice-president of operations, while IndyCar’s boss Randy Bernard has struggled to find someone to replace Barnhart in race control.

With the drivers opposed to racing on high-banked 1.5-mile ovals such as Las Vegas, Bernard also had trouble planning a new calendar. IndyCar will race on only four ovals this season – the fewest ever – and no fewer than eight street or temporary circuits. Over the past 15 years 20 oval tracks have abandoned Indycar, which has become primarily a street-racing series in danger of ending up with only one oval race – the Indianapolis 500. It’s ironic that Tony George’s IRL revolution, intended strictly as an oval series, has resulted in the near-death of Indycar racing on ovals.

It’s also clear that many people find the new Dallara DW12 (above) aesthetically unattractive, while early testing of the car did not go well. Quicker than the old car on road courses, it lacked for speed on the ovals – at Indy in particular – because of weight distribution and aero balance problems. After four months of initial testing the first batch of DW12s were delivered to the teams in December, with Dallara offering optional new front and rear suspension at no charge to alter the wheelbase. Dallara hoped to resolve the aero problems in the wind tunnel in January. I’m sure Ganassi and Penske will figure out the new car, but it will be an expensive and demanding test for most other teams.

Many fans keep reminding me that while the car’s appeal is important, the most important thing for IndyCar is to develop a new generation of American stars. Until the drivers such as Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay or Marco Andretti can become regular race winners and champions, transforming themselves in IndyCar’s impoverished media environment into sporting superstars, Indycar racing will continue to languish in the margins.

Almost 30 years ago Emerson Fittipaldi, Teo Fabi, Derek Daly and Roberto Guerrero formed the leading edge of a wave of ex-Formula 1 drivers who swept over Indycar racing. For a while the influx of foreign drivers was a good thing, helping to broaden global interest in what was once a strictly American sport. But eventually the overseas drivers dominated, leaving us with only a handful of American drivers, none of whom had anything like the star power once enjoyed by such as AJ F oyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Al Unser, Rick Mears, et al.

It will be interesting to watch the engine battle unfold in 2012 between Honda, Chevrolet/Ilmor and Lotus/Judd, and if anyone can challenge Ganassi and Penske’s dominance. Almost lost among the grief surrounding Wheldon’s death was Dario Franchitti’s third straight IndyCar title and his fourth in five years. Franchitti and Ganassi have become the combination to beat in IndyCar, and it will be intriguing to see if the new formula has any effect on their chances of defending their crown.