Commentary

The new IndyCar ride looking ready

Updated: September 28, 2011, 4:26 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

IndyCarAP Photo/Darron CummingsTime will tell if fans embrace the new IndyCar Series car.

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the past three years, Indianapolis Motor Speedway has celebrated its past.

On Tuesday, IMS trotted out its future. The early verdict: It's not pretty, but it has potential and it sounds good.

The Dallara IR12 is the platform that will reintroduce manufacturer competition to the IZOD IndyCar Series after a six-year absence. More powerful but more efficient turbocharged V-6 engines from Honda, Chevrolet and (hopefully) Lotus will make the new car faster than the current car, yet it will be safer and less expensive to buy and operate.

Six weeks into its on-track development, the Honda-powered Dallara prototype has gotten positive marks from contracted test driver Dan Wheldon.

Rain kept the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion from turning any hot laps in the 2012 car Tuesday, but he offered impressions from earlier test sessions at Iowa Speedway, Barber Motorsports Park and the IMS road course.

"I'd say it's a more nimble and agile car," Wheldon said. "It reacts well to changes and it's a lot of fun to drive. It's lighter than the current car and the weight is distributed differently, with a lower center of gravity. You don't get that pendulum feeling that you get in the current car.

"On the road courses it turns in better and really encourages you to attack," he added. "We have three days here and I'll be able to tell you more about how the car feels to drive on a fast oval on Thursday. We have to manage our expectations. I know everybody wants to see huge speeds, but it's about doing what's right for the car."

Fans will notice two things about the new car. Although it has a different exhaust note, the turbocharged V-6 engine is much quieter than the current 3.5-liter V-8.

"Turbocharged engines are sort of the heart of Indy car racing and it's going to be good to get back to that, though certainly it's an additional level of complexity," said Roger Griffiths, technical director for Honda Performance Development. "I think everybody was very pleased to hear the sound of a V-6 engine as opposed to the V-8.

"There were a lot of smiles on people's faces and they were very complimentary about how it sounded."

INDYCAR officials will use turbocharger boost to regulate power and speeds. Horsepower is expected to be capped at around 600 for ovals and 750 for road and street courses.

"We've got a long way to go between now and the first race and the specification of the engine is going to change quite dramatically, I would imagine," Griffiths said. "Our responsibility here is to provide a reliable and stable platform for INDYCAR to be able to prove out the new car. It's not about us doing engine development at the race track. We just wanted to make sure that the engine was suitable to continue the test program that INDYCAR wanted."

The other thing that will take some getting used to is the look of the car, particularly the bulbous sidepods, which extend to the outer edge of the rear wheels in the pursuit of safety.

Dan Wheldon I'd say it's a more nimble and agile car. It reacts well to changes and it's a lot of fun to drive. It's lighter than the current car and the weight is distributed differently, with a lower center of gravity.

-- Dan Wheldon

Plans for manufacturers to offer alternate bodywork that fits the standardized Dallara safety cell have been delayed until 2013.

"There's a lot to like about it and if you don't love the current Dallara bodywork, you only have to wait a year to see what the mad scientists are going to come up with when body kits are introduced," said former Indy car driver Bryan Herta, whose Bryan Herta Autosport organization is running the test car in conjunction with INDYCAR. "This car is going to be much safer. … It's lighter, it's faster. When you put 20 or 25 of those on a track together, I think it's going to be cool. There's a lot to look forward to."

Two years ago, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard assembled what he called the ICONIC Committee to give the series technical direction when it was determining it's first major equipment change since 2003. Some critics unkindly point out that the Dallara IR12 looks like a car that was designed by a committee and remain hopeful that changes to the bodywork can be implemented before the car goes into production.

"What we ask out of a car is unique in auto racing and we're lucky that we have partners like Dallara who really understand that," said Tony Cotman, INDYCAR project director for the 2012 car. "They've been around for a long time and they know the expectations.

"It's going to be a lot faster and a lot safer due to the safety technologies that have been developed over the years. It will be a bit more of a handful for the drivers to drive due to an increase in horsepower. At the end of the day we hope it all equates to an exciting show. If we can provide an entertaining product, then we've done a good job."

Like it or not, the Dallara IR12 is the "Indy Car of Tomorrow." A series starved for technical innovation for the past decade needs it to be a hit, but its controversial looks could evoke the same negative reaction NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" received from the stock car fan base.

Wheldon, who so far is the only person to have driven the new car, thinks it's a step in the right direction for the IndyCar Series.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the new car and I think all the manufacturers are interested in putting the best product onto the track that we can," he said. "INDYCAR has a lot of momentum now and I think the 2012 car is going to be incredibly popular."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.