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.


  1. Love the blog, Art! Glad to see you sharing your motorsports expertise with the world.

  2. Nicely done, Art. Why aren't you out here at Fontana reporting from the front lines? :-)