ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - Never has IndyCar had so much to look forward to in an upcoming season, and so much to overcome at the very same time.
The entire 2011 season was a buildup for this year, when IndyCar introduces competing manufacturers, a new car, new faces and what’s expected to be the most wide-open championship race in years. But all of the momentum the series had built was halted in the season finale, when popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific 15-car accident.
Now, the series attempts to regain its footing and move forward while also honoring its fallen star. IndyCar opens its 16-race schedule March 25 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Wheldon lived and won the inaugural race through the city streets of his adopted hometown in 2005.
“You had a tragedy in our last race. This down season has been terrible, quite frankly,” said IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. “Any driver or owner will tell you the same thing. There’s so many good things going on, it’s part of the closure. It’s life. We need to figure out how we close it personally and move onto the next step.”
Wheldon’s absence will be felt all season but most notably during next week’s season opener and in May around the Indianapolis 500, which he won for a second time last year.
At the same time, his death could be the catalyst in an aggressive push to upgrade safety for both the series and the tracks where IndyCar competes.
Improvements were well underway before Wheldon’s accident by way of the first new car to the series since 2003. Wheldon, who entered only three races last season, spent most of the year helping Dallara with its development.
The car was designed to add numerous safety upgrades and update technology. After the accident, it was named the Dallara DW12 to honor the work he’d put into the project. After initial gripes about everything from the car’s appearance, its handling and its lack of speed, intensive winter testing has left drivers optimistic that everything will be just fine.
More important, it could level the playing field.
“There’s going to be teething problems, absolutely,” said four-time champion Dario Franchitti. “But I think it’s exciting that it’s a completely new car, and everyone has to figure it out.”
The car will be introduced at the same time as IndyCar welcomes two new engine manufacturers. Honda had been the sole supplier since 2005, but Chevrolet and Lotus have entered the series and engine reliability could be an issue for the first time in seven years.
Chevy, with Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport in its stable, will go head-to-head this year with Honda and Chip Ganassi’s four-car fleet. Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Franchitti paced last week’s spring training testing at Sebring and don’t appear to have missed a step in the transition to new equipment.
Lagging behind is Lotus, which came into the series late and has yet to catch up. The manufacturer is struggling to get its engines built and enters the season-opener with only five teams in its fleet. Its teams lagged behind in testing, with all five finishing in the bottom nine on the overall speed chart.
“It’s not ideal, especially with a new car,” said Lotus DRR driver Oriol Servia. “We knew they were starting late. It’s all about faith. Just need to make sure every lap counts in analyzing data and getting good conclusions.
“Where the engine stands, I don’t know.”