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.”
Bernard flew into Sebring last week to meet with Lotus officials as Dragon Racing struggled to get on track. The team had no engine for Sebastian Bourdais the first two days he was scheduled to be on track, and he ultimately ended up sharing a car on the final day of testing with teammate Katherine Legge.
Bernard said Lotus officials insisted they’ll be ready for the start of the season, and “everyone with a signed contract with deposits will most likely have two engines, an engine and a backup.”
Regardless of how it unfolds, the focus in IndyCar this year will return to the race track and won’t be shining brightly on Danica Patrick, who has left open-wheel behind for a full-time job in NASCAR.
Her departure has opened the door for the many other personalities in IndyCar to be featured for the first time in years. From James Hinchcliffe, her replacement in the highly visible GoDaddy car for Andretti, American drivers Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay and JR Hildebrand, and perennial title contender Will Power _ all have an opportunity to thrive in Patrick’s absence.
Bernard recognizes the importance in building new stars for the series but stresses the on-track performance of the drivers will be critical to their commercial success.
“If you are not winning, you are not going to be a star,” he said. “If you look at most NFL football teams, most sports properties, if they are not winning, they are hurting in ticket sales. It’s no different in racing. You have to have great champions around you to build a sport. And I think we have great guys.”
The series also got a boost from the addition of Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello, who became available in January when he lost his seat in F1 after 19 seasons. Rather than call it a career, the popular Brazilian _ his nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers tops any driver in both IndyCar and NASCAR _ has teamed with best friend Tony Kanaan at KV Racing in IndyCar.
His presence will help IndyCar in international fan appeal _ ticket sales for the Sao Paulo event picked up considerably in the days after he signed with KV Racing, and he gives credibility to the series at a time it needs it most.
Barrichello also can lend a strong voice to the ongoing safety debate and can counsel drivers as they fight to be have their voice heard more this season. One of the largest issues this season is the drivers’ desire to break up pack racing, which played a role in Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The drivers want the pack broken up by June when they race at Texas Motor Speedway, a high-banked oval like Las Vegas. A second issue is the construction of the fences at Texas, as drivers are concerned about the poles that face the track. Wheldon was killed when his head hit a post in the fencing.
Barrichello, who spent two seasons as head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, is willing to lend his voice as needed and has strong ideas on how to influence change.
“Communicate. Not pointing fingers,” he said. “Drivers are very unique in that sometimes they don’t communicate very well. But on the other hand, people try to think `I know what they are going through’ and they don’t. So the communication and the expression is the best thing.”
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