Drivers enthusiastic about testing
INDIANAPOLIS -- While the focus of the racing world was rightfully on Daytona International Speedway for the past week, IZOD IndyCar Series teams were in action at seven different venues testing their new cars.
They were spread out literally from coast to coast. Between Feb. 18 and 26, IndyCar testing took place at Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles, Infineon Raceway in northern California, Phoenix International Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and Sebring International Raceway in central Florida.
Two themes emerged: First, the Dallara DW12 with its turbocharged V-6 engine is already faster than the IndyCar Series' outgoing car in road- and street-course trim.
And while the new car is still lacking speed on high-speed ovals, drivers reported that the overall balance of the car has been improved.
The tests at Fontana, Texas and Phoenix offered the first opportunity to run Dallara's modified suspension package on oval tracks. The swept-back A-arms are designed to shift forward a portion of the tail-heavy car's weight.
Following his run at Fontana in Service Central/Ganassi Racing's Honda-powered car, Graham Rahal tweeted: "The car is good on an oval! We made huge improvements today, lots of fun in the end."
Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand was also upbeat after his test at Phoenix.
"The short oval package on the car was really good," he said. "The chassis was very responsive and generally did what we were expecting it to do as we went through a lot of changes."
Panther and Andretti Autosport used the Phoenix test to prepare for IndyCar Series races at Iowa Speedway and the Milwaukee Mile.
"IndyCar needs to come back to Phoenix," team owner Michael Andretti said. "The new banking will produce as good if not better racing than Iowa.
"Things felt really good," he said. "We tried the offset suspension configuration, and in terms of car balance, everything felt normal, which is sort of what we were looking for all along."
IndyCar is planning to set a maximum downforce level for Texas in an effort to keep some space between the cars and avoid pack racing on high-banked 1.5-mile ovals.
About 15 cars are expected to test at TMS on March 13 to assist IndyCar vice president of technology Will Phillips develop the final Texas aero specifications.
"Nobody -- spectators or drivers -- wants to see 28 cars going around like they're on the highway, but at 220 miles per hour," said Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson. "Will says there is still plenty of room to take quite a bit of downforce out from the underwing and he's confident we can get to a point where we're having to lift. He's given me confidence that modifications will be made, and we hope to see significant progress at the group test."
Dallara has also responded to concerns about the car's lack of pace at flat speedways like Fontana and Indianapolis by developing new rear-wing endplates that even further enclose the heavily shrouded rear wheels of the DW12.
Phillips said the new components performed as expected in recent full-scale wind tunnel testing. He hopes to have a few prototype pieces available to evaluate at the March 13 Texas test.
Dallara will provide the revised speedway aero components to teams at no charge.
"With Dallara issuing this part free of charge to teams, they have addressed some of the criticism," Phillips said. "Here's a good step on their behalf to give something back that aids the performance of the car. They want to live up to the expectations everyone, including themselves, have about the car."
Controversial looks aside, the DW12 generally has met expectations in road racing trim. It has matched the best times set by the 2003 Dallara at the Sebring short course, which is considered a benchmark for street course testing. It is already faster around Barber and within half a second of the lap record at Infineon.
"With approximately 700 horsepower for road and street courses, we expect lap times one to two seconds quicker," Phillips said. "And we expect the car to achieve 225 mph at Indianapolis with a projected power of 550 horsepower."
At Infineon, an estimated 1,500 fans turned out to watch two days of IndyCar testing that ended with Penske Racing teammates Will Power and Briscoe holding a comfortable .8-second advantage over their competition.
Although the Dallara's tail-heaviness has created a car with inherent understeer, the drivers are having fun adjusting to (or back to, in some cases) turbocharged power.
Power, who lapped Infineon within half a second of Dario Franchitti's track record despite using hard compound tires, said the DW12 is excellent in fast corners but feels "numb" and is not especially capable in slower turns.
"It's a whole new ball game for us," said Briscoe. "The car is a lot of fun to drive, and it's challenging, as well. I feel like it suits my driving style pretty well."
Franchitti certainly found the DW12 challenging at Barber, where he tore up a corner of his Target Ganassi Racing car in a minor accident.
Rahal's satellite Ganassi entry paced the 11 cars at Barber, lapping a shade quicker than 1 minute, 10 seconds.
"The car is impressive," Rahal said. "I'm lapping a couple seconds quicker than the old car on the same tires."
At Sebring, Takuma Sato emerged fastest of nine drivers as he got to grips with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's first Honda-powered DW12.
For the second time this winter, Honda had a troublesome test at Sebring, losing several engines. The problems are believed to be electronics-related, as teams are now using the mandatory McLaren sourced ECU rather than electronics supplied by engine manufacturers Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.
After several years of heavily restricted testing, the flurry of activity needed to develop the DW12 chassis and the turbocharged engines is keeping drivers and teams very busy.
"It's a nice change, actually," said 2008 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. "I think my first year with Ganassi  in the CART days, I did something like 60 days of testing."
"It used to be like this all the time," added Team Penske's Helio Castroneves. "The last few years we'd have a six-month break out of the car, but all this testing is keeping us fresh and active and fit."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.