Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Return of Spider Man

IndyCar/LAT USA Photos
It’s hard to imagine a better start to the season for IndyCar – Helio Castroneves winning and climbing the fence at Dan Weldon Way in celebration.

That’s just what happened in Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  It was the first race for IndyCar since Weldon, the popular two-time Indy 500 winner, was killed at Las Vegas last year in a season-ending 15-car accident.  Not only did the race and finish honor Weldon, it served as redemption for Castroneves, still IndyCar’s most popular driver, coming off the worst season of his career, a winless 2011.

The race itself was ok, mostly follow-the-leader stuff.  A couple of early caution flags forcing teams into strategic pit decisions and then a long green flag run to the finish.  Somehow the television broadcast missed the only pass for the lead (and it was a good one, shown on replay), Castroneves getting around the outside of Scott Dixon in turn one.  Then he cruised home to the finish.

After a disastrous 2011, more than a few questioned Castroneves’ position as leader of the Penske Racing team.  It didn’t help when teammates Will Power and Ryan Briscoe qualified on the front row at St. Pete, relegating Castroneves to a fifth starting position behind a pair of drivers from Andretti Autosport.  But all that was forgotten by the end of the race.  

We never lost confidence, we never stopped believing,” said Castroneves.  Last year, unfortunately because of many issues, some of them were mine, some of them were bad luck, some of them were because of the new rules (double-file restarts).  I have to say I did not felt comfortable at that point.

“I never stopped believing.  Trying to search for answers, to be honest, it would be hard. You have to work to get the results that you want.  As I said, everything played very well together.  The yellow played in our favor.  But at the end of the day we have to make a pass, to go for it.  I'm happy one pass was important enough to be here today.
The rear view of DW12 is least attractive
A good crowd turned out for the race and the debut of the new race cars at St. Petersburg.   Chevy engines powered the first five cars in qualifying and four of the five top finishers, only Dixon breaking ranks with a Honda.  The Batmobile rear fender flares on the DW12 are going to take some getting used to.  Especially from the rear, the cars look much more like a sports car than the classic Indy car.  More than a few teething problems with the new cars, mostly the electrical gremlins.  Missing so far is the “push-to-pass” technology the cars had the past couple of seasons.  The series will consider adding the feature if necessary in the future.

Pit Stops:  Rain, the great equalizer, made for a heck of a Malaysian Grand Prix Formula One race. Fernando Alonso and his Ferrari team played the tire dance perfectly, after appearing uncompetitive in qualifying. The most interesting moment came late in the race when young Mexican driver Sergio Perez was reeling in Alonso, closing to less than a second of the leader. “Be careful, we need this position,” came a cryptic team radio transmission. The Speed TV commentators immediately wondered if the message was some sort of code, pointing out that Perez’s Sauber was powered by a Ferrari engine and that Perez himself is rumored to be in line for a ride at Ferrari. Within a lap Perez ran wide in a turn, falling well back of Alonso.  But afterwards Perez didn't appear to be someone who had been ordered to settle for second, just someone who had screwed up with victory within grasp.  Regardless, he became the first Mexican driver to finish on the podium since Pedro Rodriguez in 1971...Rains also figured in on the finish of the Sprint Cup race in California, ending the race just past the halfway point.  Tony Stewart had the dominate car and won his second race of the season, two more than he had before the Chase last year...What!?!  Roger Penske told USA Today he’d be willing to set up a separate engine shop and continue building Dodge engines for NASCAR teams next year if the company is interested, even though his team will be running a Ford.  Now let me get this straight.  Penske wants to race a Chevy in IndyCar, race a Ford in NASCAR, and build Dodge engines for other NASCAR teams.  Hmmmmm.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Wing and a Prayer

Marco Andretti in new DW12
The 2012 IndyCar season gets underway this Sunday with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  Competing for the first time will be all-new Dallara – selected last year as the new IndyCar chassis – along with three new engines from a trio of manufacturers: Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.

Also making news this past week was the car IndyCar didn’t pick, the DeltaWing.  Nissan announced it will provide the power plant for the car when it competes this June in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

For IndyCar, it will be the first race since the 2011 season ended in a fiery Las Vegas accident,  claiming the life of Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Weldon.  The new Dallara has been designated the DW12 in Weldon’s honor and the Englishman who called St. Petersburg his adopted home, will be the focus of much of the pre-race activities.      

While there continues to be concern about the handling of the new car on oval tracks, most drivers seem satisfied with their car and the engine packages as they completed testing at Sebring and headed to St. Petersburg.  Fastest on the Sebring speed charts was Target Chip Ganassi, not surprising as it is the lead team for Honda, the sole carryover engine manufacturer from last year.

"We're trying to learn the new car, what might break on them, where the weak spots are, how to make them go fast,” said Dario Franchitti, who was second fastest behind teammate Scott Dixon.  I'm very happy with the two days we've had.  We had a lot of questions coming in to this test and we got answers to most of them, so hopefully we can put the pieces together for St. Pete and onwards."

Fastest of the Chevrolet teams was Formula One refugee Rubens Barrichello, who’ll be joining fellow Brazilian and friend Tony Kanaan at KV Racing Technology.  Speeds by the Honda and Chevrolet teams were closely bunched, while Lotus, the last of the engine manufacturers to begin testing, focused on durability runs. 

"We were able to run a good amount of laps again today and look at some different setups. We also practiced pit stops which will serve me well,” said Barrichello, who’ll be making his first IndyCar start at St. Petersburg.  “I was able to see how the car reacts coming in on warm tires and leaving on cold tires and seeing where to position the car, all things that are very different to what I am used to. Overall though, we have had a very good two days of testing."

A tick behind was Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport, both making the switch to Chevrolet power.

“It's actually not that different from the old car,” said Marco Andretti, who’ll be making his 100th IndyCar star and wearing a special helmet as a tribute to Weldon.  “I always say it still has four wheels. So a lot of the things that worked on the old car are working now. So it actually has more grit and more down force and stuff like that. So that's always fun for a driver.

No sooner was IndyCar done with its pre-season testing at Sebring than the revised DeltaWing arrived at the track.  It ran demonstration laps prior to the 12 Hours of Sebring with Marino Franchitti, younger brother of Dario, behind the wheel.

The brainchild of former Lola Indy cars designer Ben Bowlby, encouraged by Chip Ganassi and other several other IndyCar owners, and bankrolled by Don Panos, the man also behind ALMS, DeltaWing was originally proposed as an alternative to the traditional Indianapolis race car.  But when IndyCar elected to play it safe and go with the design from its longtime partner Dallara, the group looked for another opportunity to showcase the car.   

Up stepped Dan Gurney’s All America Racers, who agreed to build a running version of the car.  Le Mans organizers hinted that if a viable version of the cars did exist, it could be invited to compete in the 24 Hours as the “56th Entry,” a special invite occasionally handed out to showcase new technology.  Michelin agreed to develop the special four-inch wide front tires and Nissan completed the package.

It is a brilliant move by Nissan.  If the DeltaWing is successful, the company will share in the credit.  If not, it's doubtful the engine will get the blame.  The 1.6-liter, turbo-charged, four-cylinder Nissan engine will produce about 300 horsepower, about 200 less than the Audi turbo-diesels that dominated the 12 Hours of Sebring.  But the DeltaWing will tip the scales at about half what the Audi weighs and the team is hopeful it will turn competitive lap times at Le Mans.

Taking on Le Mans in its first race is a daring and ambitious.  No track in the world, not even Indianapolis, puts as much emphasis on aerodynamics as Le Mans.  It’s long, undulating straights and high speed sweeping turns have sent some of the most advanced and well-tested racers hurtling through the air.  Expectations will be low, but anything near a successful race will quickly make the DeltaWing the darling of the racing world and leave IndyCar wondering what might have been.

Pit Stops:  Brad Keslowski won the Bristol Sprint Cup race for Penske Racing and Dodge, but the real news was all the empty seats at the track.  Once a guaranteed sell-out, Bristol now suffers the same challenges as most other NASCAR tracks...Cup points leader Matt Kenseth finished second in a Ford, with a trio of Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas coming next, led by Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers.  Vickers was making his first start of the year in the car normally driven by Mark Martin and led 125 laps…Elliott Sadler, who at one time was slated for the Martin car, won the Nationwide race on Saturday, his second win in three weeks...Nelson Piquet Jr. won the pole and then the race in the K&N East Pro Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.  Piquet, the son of the former Formula One world champion, has been impressive in Camping World Truck Series events.  Piquet beat a couple of other sons in the process, Chase Elliott, son of Bill Elliott and Ryan Blaney, son of Cup regular Dave Blaney...McLaren appears to be back in Formula One, Jenson Button dominating in Australia to win after teammate Lewis Hamilton captured the pole.  Button won the race to the first turn and that was that…The Audi blitzkrieg launched at Sebring, running away with first and second in the opening race of the FIA World Endurance Championship.  Get used to it.  The GT Class race was much more competitive, with BMW winning in a wild finish over Corvette and Ferrari.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Manufacturer Muscle

NASCAR's Mike Helton poses with the 2013 Dodge Charger,
but it was the manufacturers that pushed move to incredased
brand identity
Dodge became the second manufacturer to unveil its 2013 race car this past weekend in Las Vegas, displaying the new Charger.  The car is another example of the manufacturer efforts to restore brand identity to the series.

It’s also another sign of the renewed manufacturer muscle in NASCAR.

Although careful to credit NASCAR for its “collaborative effort” in developing the new cars, the manufacturers are clearly the driving force in restoring brand identity.  NASCAR agreed to the move more than two years  following a meeting with manufactures in Michigan, where at least one company threatened to leave if the series if the change didn’t take place. 

"The race fans delivered a clear message," said Ralph Gilles, President and CEO – SRT Brand (Street and Racing Technologies) and Motorsports.  "NASCAR listened. We went to work, following the guidelines established for all manufacturers by NASCAR. The Dodge Charger revealed today validates our resolve to deliver a product that will be easily identifiable on the track without compromise in the area of competition."

Like Ford’s Fusion, the Charger is a great looking car.  But one thing not announced by Dodge, who will race the car after Penske Racing said last week it will be running Fords next year.  Gillies admitted Dodge “didn’t see it (Penske leaving) coming” and explained Penske wanted a five-year deal, something the company wasn’t ready to provide.  Gillies says the biggest challenge will be finding a team with an active engine program, although he noted there is some interest in bringing engine development in-house, similar to Toyota’s business model.

Another sign of renewed manufacturer clout last week came when Elliott Sadler was pulled from the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota without ever running a race.  In Phoenix, the team and driver  announced plans for Sadler to run five Cup races this year in the No. 55 Toyota Camry, filling in for the semi-retired Mark Martin and mostly retired Waltrip. 

Apparently Sadler forgot to mention the move to his Nationwide car owner, Richard Childress, who finally caught up with him – in of all places – Victory Lane at Phoenix.  Childress pointed out to Salder he had the best ride of all the Nationwide regulars, was running for a championship and that he was driving a CHEVY.  Sadler may not be the smartest guy out there, but he’s not the dumbest either and announced the next day he would not be driving for Waltrip, in order to focus on his Nationwide efforts.  Sadler tweeted:  “I can honestly say Phoenix is the first time I've ever won and lost in the same Victory Lane.”

Sadler has been replaced by Brian Vickers – a former Toyota driver – who will run six races for the team.  Waltrip still needs to name a driver for the season’s two road course races.  

PIT STOPS:  Robbie Gordon, hoping for added support from Dodge after Penske announced plans to run Fords next year, didn’t help his cause in Las Vegas, failing to qualify…If there was any doubt, Ricky Stenhouse is for real.  He handed out what Mark Martin called “one serious beat-down” in winning the Las Vegas Nationwide race.  He’s Cup-ready right now…The racing season really gets going this coming weekend with the running of the 12 Hours of Sebring and the start of the Formula One season in Australia.  Sorry, but F1 has now replaced Grand Am as the series with the ugliest cars…Enjoy the races.       

Monday, March 5, 2012

Early Start to Silly Season

Roger Penske is on the move again
Silly Season seems to start earlier every year, but less than a week after the season opener?  That’s just plain silly.

And it’s game changer.  Penske Racing is on the move – again.
Roger Penske announced last week his team will join the Ford family in 2013.  Actually, he’ll be returning to the Ford family, having run the brand in past.  Since Penske Racing first ran a car in NASCAR, an AMC Matador back in 1972, it has raced Chevys, Mercs, Fords, Pontiacs and Dodges.  It has 27 Cup wins with Ford, one more than with Dodge.

Why the move and why now?  Penske was the lone dog at Chrysler, which was good and bad.  He had the complete focus of the company and received all of its financial and technical support.  But there was nothing to compare his team with.  Penske said he needed a benchmark.  Penske’s contract was up for renewal at the end of the year and not only wasn’t Dodge ready to make a long term commitment to Penske, it gave no indication of growing its NASCAR program.  And with the new cars coming for 2013 already under development, Penske figured the sooner he let everyone know of his plans, the better.   That’s Penske, never one to burn his bridges.
Where Penske Racing fits into the Ford hierarchy still needs to be worked out.   Right now Ford’s program consists of Roush-Fenway Racing and a bunch of satellite teams, led by Richard Petty Motorsports and the Wood Brothers.  Roush/Yates provides the engines. 
What happens to Penske Racing’s engine program?  Penske stressed that using Roush/Yates engines was not part of his deal with Ford.  But given several opportunities to clarify the situation, Penske said repeatedly they would evaluate their engine program against Roush/Yates engines.  The door was left wide open regarding the possibility of using Roush/Yates engines.  He compared his team’s relationship with Roush to that of Rick Hendrick and Tony Stewart.  But Stewart-Haas racing is clearly a Hendrick satellite team.
Penske said the move wasn’t about money.  Maybe it wasn't about the amount of money paid on a yearly basis, but it’s always about money.  He said repeatedly he was looking for a long-term commitment, which Ford was willing to make.  With auto sales running at a 15 million annual pace in February and approaching the good old days, auto makers are suddenly looking at a big year.  The Detroit 3 marketing dollars are starting to flow again.  No one is better positioned to spend some of that money than Ford. 

So what’s in it for Ford? In the past Ford has been all-in on Roush.  When the team missed the mark – and it has at times – Ford missed the mark. With another primary team, the company is hedging its bets.  Jack Roush isn’t getting any younger and there’s not a lot of management depth at the team.
Ford also has a lot riding on the launch of the new Fusion later this year. You can bet the company will be pulling out all the stops, just as Toyota is doing with the launch of the new Camry this year. Look for Ford to take a play out of Toyota’s launch playbook and supply the pace car for the Daytona 500 next year.

And then there's Penske's automotive empire.  His dealership group operates more than 150 dealerships, but only a handful of Ford stores.  Penske owns the world’s largest Toyota and Lexus dealerships and is close with Jim Farley, a former Toyota executive, who is now Ford’s group vice president for global marketing, sales and service.

Farley is a racer, running a Cobra in historic car events.  After winning the Daytona 500 last year, an emtional Eddie Wood credited Farley with helping save his team.  And he is frequently mentioned as one of several possible successors to Alan Mulally when he decides to step down as Ford CEO.  Farley also was one of those thanked by Penske during the announcement.  Their relationship is a plus for both Ford and Penske.

So what becomes of Chrysler's NASCAR program?  Chrysler’s first reaction was less than enthusiastic, noting its motorsports involvement isn’t limited to NASCAR and that the company “will be evaluating opportunities availability moving forward.”
Still, the manufacturer appears to be going ahead with plans to unveil its new 2013 Charger at Las Vegas next weekend.  It’s a great looking car according to several who have seen it.  But who will develop and race the car?  The early money is on Richard Petty Motorsports.  Petty has a personal history with Chrysler and the team’s contract with Ford is up at the end of the season.  RPM wasn't happy when Roush swooped in and grabbed the Best Buy sponsorship from the team at the start of this year.   
RPM showed new life last year, including a road course victory.  But it is strictly a customer team, running cars built by Roush and engines built by Roush/Yates.  It will take a significant investment of money and technology by Dodge to bring RPM close to the same level as Penske.  A more likely possibility is Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing, another former Dodge team.  Although it had a miserable 2011 and isn’t off to a much better start this year, Earnhardt/Ganassi at least has its own engine program. 
Stay tuned.  One thing for sure, more silliness will ensue.