SEBRING, Fla. -- With a new car, competing manufacturers for the first time since 2005, a larger than expected field of entries and the addition of a top international racing star, the IZOD IndyCar Series has high expectations for the 2012 season. But as teams participated in the first open test of the year this week in Florida, they realized a few issues remain and that a fallen comrade continues to cast a large shadow over the sport.
The full week of activity was completed at Sebring International Raceway on Friday. The test spanned four days of testing and included the annual media day at St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday -- site of the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 25. Despite the changes the series has made, the late Dan Wheldon continues to be the topic of conversation.
Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 and 2005 IndyCar champion, was killed in the horrific multi-car crash at the ill-fated season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011. The popular driver from Emberton, England, lived in St. Petersburg, where his widow, Susie, and two young children, Sebastian and Oliver, remain. The Turn 10 section of the St. Petersburg street course was officially renamed Dan Wheldon Way during a ceremony on Wednesday, a fitting tribute to the city's adopted son.
Susie Wheldon made a rare public appearance on Wednesday -- only her third since her husband's death. She attended Wheldon's public memorial in Indianapolis on Oct. 23 and accepted the "Baby Borg" trophy that goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 this offseason.
But even Wheldon's closest friends in IndyCar realize that while Wheldon should never be forgotten, the sport must move forward this season.
"This was the first time I was back to St. Petersburg after I had to bury him," said his former teammate and friend Tony Kanaan. "The first race will be in his hometown. The two toughest races will be at St. Pete and at the Indianapolis 500.
"But we need -- I need -- to let it go. We need to move on. But the real closure will be after this year's Indianapolis 500. After that we will remember him the way we want to remember him."
His death created an aggressive debate on improving safety and finding a way to do away with pack racing. It has brought about a serious look at the unusual fence design at Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) tracks, which put the large steel fence posts on the trackside rather than the grandstand side, creating an abutment for any vehicle that gets into the fence.
That was an issue first reported by SI.com on Oct. 26, 2011.
IndyCar will compete on only one SMI high-banked oval this season, the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, and a war of words erupted between track president Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar drivers this week in regards to the safety of said fence design. Although no driver said a boycott of the facility was planned, they all want to get a clearer understanding of why the SMI tracks have arranged the fences in such a manner.
"If there isn't going to be a race [at Texas], that would be an IndyCar decision," Kanaan said. "I don't think we have that power and I don't think we want that power. After what happened to Dan last year, I think it would be stupid from anybody's point of view to put ourselves in that position again. We never talked about a boycott; we have talked about safety.
"If you say your track is the safest in the world -- prove it. Show me. Have the engineers tell us. We aren't picking on anybody, we just don't want to kill someone else. Eddie Gossage has been very vocal about it and that is fine. He has the right to defend his track, but we want his engineers to show us. We have been calling to see what the answer is to the question we have. But the bottom line is we will go racing in Texas because it's a good market, but we will not kill someone at Texas."
While that debate rages on, IndyCar's positive developments continue to percolate in the background. Here are four of those developments:
1. F1 Star Rubens Barrichello Joins IndyCar
Although he won't do for the sport what Nigel Mansell accomplished when he competed in CART and the Indianapolis 500 from 1993 to '94, Rubens Barrichello is a tremendous addition for IndyCar. The 39-year-old Brazilian was the most experienced driver in Formula 1 history, with 322 starts, 11 victories, 68 podiums (top-three finishes), 106 top-fives, 172 top-10s and runner-up finishes in the Formula 1 world championship in 2002 and '04. He joins his boyhood friend and "brother" Tony Kanaan at KV Racing Technology -- a team that also includes Venezuela's E.J. Viso.
Barrichello was one of the true "glamour names" in Formula 1 and is a national hero in Brazil. In fact, according to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, in the days after Barrichello announced he was joining IndyCar, ticket sales for the IndyCar race on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, increased 80 percent.
"We've said all along that one of the most important factors that will make the IZOD IndyCar Series successful is having the best drivers in the world, and there's not a person in the world who knows racing that wouldn't tell you that Rubens Barrichello is one of the greatest drivers of all time," Bernard said.
Barrichello proved to be a quick learner with the Chevrolet-powered Dallara on Thursday's round of testing as he was the fastest driver with that engine and the third fastest of the day around the Sebring short course.
"Today it proved to me -- it is the second time for me coming to Sebring -- I don't start from zero," he said. "It feels good. I know the track. I can go fast and so on."
Barrichello drove the car last month during manufacturer testing and he loved the experience so much he decided to sign a two-year contract to compete in IndyCar.
"What made me decide to come here was that I fell in love with the car straight way," Barrichello said. "That's as simple as that. It's just a different thing."
Barrichello likes the IndyCar because a race driver can actually "drive it" compared to the technologically-advanced Formula 1 car that depended far too much on technology, often leaving superior drivers at a deficit.
He even joked about a conversation he had when he arrived in the U.S. on Wednesday.
"Today when I came in from Brazil and I went through immigration and the guy said, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I'm a race car driver,'" Barrichello recalled. "He said, 'What are you going to race?' I said, 'I used to race Formula 1 and I'm racing Indy now.' He said, 'Good jump up -- that's good.' I like that because in a way we should not consider one minor or less. ... I've been a fan for such a long time. I feel that it is a step up. I'm doing it because I really fell in love the first time that I drove the car."
The addition of Barrichello is very important to IndyCar because it creates more international awareness in the series. But how will it be accepted in the U.S.?
Some of the Formula 1 fans in the U.S. are likely to pay more attention to IndyCar than in the past, but that isn't a significant amount of spectators. The spotlight will be on him when IndyCar competes in Brazil and his arrival at the Indianapolis 500 will be met with tremendous fanfare. It remains to be seen, however, if he will have significant impact at other venues on the IndyCar schedule, but Barrichello has provided a positive story to the series as it tries to move forward.
2. True Manufacturer Competition Returns To The Series
Iconic American brand Chevrolet returns to the IndyCar Series for the first time since 2005. With powerhouse teams such as Penske Racing, Andretti Autosport, Panther Racing and others expected to be in the fold, Chevy should be competitive from the very start.
It joins long-time IndyCar engine supplier Honda and newcomer Lotus on the starting grid in 2012. From 2006 to 2011, Honda was the only engine manufacturer in the series, so the priority was reliability rather than pushing the competitive envelope. But with true manufacturer competition back in the sport, the stakes of the game have been increased dramatically. Expect a lively battle not only between drivers and teams, but also between engine companies.
Lotus, however, has had difficulty supplying its teams with an ample stock of engines. In fact, four-time Champ Car Series champion and former Formula 1 driver Sebastien Bourdais had to wait all week to get behind the wheel of his car at Dragon Racing. He was hoping to finally get in the seat on Friday.
"I may be the only driver that gets to St. Petersburg who hasn't had a chance to drive the new car," Bourdais told SI.com on pit lane Thursday. "That is no way for me to start my season. And when I get there much will be expected of me because of who I am. But I'm not a super hero. I need to have time with the car in order to be competitive. It is a very frustrating situation."
Competing against the Honda powerhouse will not be an easy task for the Chevy engines. While times between Chevy and Honda were fairly close, with the Penske Chevrolet drivers fastest on Monday and Tuesday, the second group of testing on Thursday saw Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and its Honda engines drive to the front of the time sheets.
"The car was good out the box -- it was pretty quick," Target/Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon said. "We just went through the test program and tried not to just go for lap time. We didn't really have the lap time that we had in the afternoon that we had in the morning, so all and all it was pretty decent."
"It's really difficult [to tell how the manufacturers rank] until we get to St. Pete to know where it is," Barrichello said on Thursday. "Everyone has a card up their sleeve, waiting to show. The time Scott [Dixon] set this morning was really, really fast, and it was right out of the box. They are what they are. I'll be happy to be sneaking up among them, but the Ganassi and Penske cars are the ones to beat."
Now that there are three different engines added to the equation, it has increased the competition in a series that had been stuck in a single-car, single-engine, single-tire "Spec Racing" formula for too long.
3.IndyCar Series Field Exceeds Expectations
The number of car-driver combinations has exceeded IndyCar's wildest expectations. Traditionally in a new car year the numbers drop because of the cost involved in competing. For IndyCar, it was a double hit because not only is this the first new chassis since 2003, but also othe engine formula has changed from the old normally-aspirated engine to the smaller turbocharged powerplant.
Last year, Bernard said he expected the car count to drop to 20-22 for this season at most of the races outside of the Indianapolis 500. But support has been high as new teams have entered the sport, and a few teams, such as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, have actually returned with a two-driver operation.
Ed Carpenter has formed a new team with Chevrolet under the hood and his former team owner, Sarah Fisher, has revived her operation with the help of businessman Wink Hartman with rookie driver Josef Newgarden of Tennessee behind the wheel. Newgarden dominated the Firestone Indy Lights Series to win the championship last year and is giving IndyCar another fresh-faced American driver who could one day become a future star.
The starting lineup at St. Petersburg in two weeks could have 26-27 cars on the grid with a 28-car count for many of the races that follow. The Indy 500 is expected to boast a full field of 33 on May 27.
4.Will End Of Pack Racing Take Away From The Thrill Of The Sport?
One of the trademarks of the IZOD IndyCar Series was its thrilling, high-speed, wheel-to-wheel racing on the high-banked ovals on the schedule. But that was also a recipe for disaster and the main reason for the catastrophic 15-car pileup on Lap 11 that killed Wheldon. Since that time, IndyCar officials and a driver's advisory committee have been working together to put an end to pack racing. So far, however, the proper formula has not been developed to keep that from happening at tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway.
The obvious answer is to take away downforce from the car so that drivers would not be able to run flat-out all the way around the oval, but according to some drivers that's not as easy as it looks.
"You need to be able to lift not to have a pack race," Kanaan said. "We need to go back to how it was in the old days. But the banking is so high it's the type of the track that creates pack racing. I don't know what we need to do, but we need to do something."
Safety is a key for IndyCar moving forward. But if the series moves too far in limiting the ability to race at high speeds around the track, the IndyCar "Thrill Show" could become just another "High-Speed Parade" with little passing on the racetrack.