SEBRING, Fla. -- The first full-field test in 2012 for the Izod IndyCar Series proved at least one thing:
Even with the implementation of a new chassis and the return of engine manufacturer competition, the front of the field is going to be every bit as close as it was for the past six years.
The last time the Indy car landscape experienced this kind of shake-up was in 2003, when a new generation of chassis debuted, along with the arrival of Honda and Toyota as engine manufacturers to join Chevrolet.
Honda dominated the 2004 and 2005 IndyCar Series to the extent that Toyota and Chevrolet withdrew, leaving Honda as the sole supplier in what turned into a spec series from 2006 to 2011.
Now Chevrolet is back, and Lotus has supplanted Toyota as IndyCar's third manufacturer. The common denominators are the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the latest specification of Firestone tires, including a completely new rain tire.
Yet after four days of testing at Sebring International Raceway, it was as if nothing had changed at all. Target Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti ran 1-2, closely pursued by the three-car Penske Racing phalanx and a KV Racing Technology team enhanced by the presence of Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello.
The testing was far from trouble free, as just two weeks out from the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, teams are finding that the new Dallara chassis and turbocharged V-6 engines still have bugs to be worked out. But for the most part, everyone was just delighted to have something new and different to troubleshoot and develop.
Here are five themes that emerged from the Sebring test:
1. The new car is faster than the old one -- As a testing venue, the bumpy 1.67-mile Sebring short course has long been a benchmark for street course setups. And even in the early stages of development, the Dallara DW12 chassis and turbo V-6s already are producing better lap times at Sebring than the outgoing package.
Although the rear weight bias means the car understeers badly in slow corners, the increased downforce from the larger floor and rear wing have made a more stable car through high-speed turns. The introduction of carbon brakes has led to shorter stopping distances.
Target Ganassi's Scott Dixon turned the fastest lap of the test very early in his two-day program at 51.7932 seconds. The field was divided into two groups, with half the drivers running Monday and Tuesday and the rest Thursday and Friday, splitting a Wednesday media day in St. Petersburg.
Dixon, along with his three teammates from the Ganassi stable, ran with the second group, when conditions were hotter and more humid than earlier in the week. The New Zealander also set the fastest time on Friday, clocking just 0.0006 seconds slower than his Thursday effort.
"Not too bad," he assessed. "The car was good out [of] the box, it was pretty quick. We just went through the test program and tried not to just go for lap time, so all and all it was pretty decent. We weren't on track as much as we would like to, but I think we rectified a few of those issues.
"All in all, it's Sebring ... it's not anywhere we race."
Lap times around the Sebring short course are generally about 1.5 seconds quicker than the old car. The top 16 drivers were within a second of Dixon's best lap, with a 2.1-second spread among the 26 drivers expected to line up at St. Pete.
"The funny thing is if you didn't have any lap times, you'd think you were two or three seconds a lap quicker just because of the power delivery of the turbo," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was ninth overall for Andretti Autosport with a time of 52.3466 seconds. "When it gets going, it really sets you back in your seat. I think the lap times at St. Pete will be quicker, and this car will certainly go faster and faster as we develop it."
2. The new car is testing the drivers -- From adapting to the rear weight bias to just getting comfortable in the car, the new Dallara is proving to be a challenge to even the most experienced open-wheel drivers.
"This car drives very differently than any other car I have ever driven," said Justin Wilson, whose résumé includes two seasons of Formula One, four years of Champ Cars and four years in the IndyCar Series. "It has a lot of downforce, so if you get the balance right, you can really carry a lot of speed through the corners, but since we are so new to the car, we are still trying to figure out how the changes affect the car in every situation."
The new car has a larger cockpit intended to increase comfort for taller drivers like the 6-foot-4 Wilson and 6-2 Graham Rahal. But just getting a workable seating position has been a challenge for Wilson.
"At @DaleCoyneRacing today making a new seat," Wilson tweeted on Friday. "Last one was like sitting on a park bench only with less side support."
A more extreme problem was the one suffered by several IndyCar veterans, including four-time series champion Franchitti, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and perennial favorite Tony Kanaan: They were expected to switch to left-foot braking in the Dallara, which features a hand clutch and only two pedals.
While Castroneves committed to make the switch to left-foot braking, Franchitti in particular struggled. Just in time for Sebring, Dallara introduced modified pedals that could be used to set the car up for right-foot braking.
"It's something that needed to happen," Franchitti said. "It's like taking a tennis player or golfer who plays right-handed and suddenly telling them they have to play with their left hand. It's not fair. At Sebring for our last test, it wasn't too bad and I was a couple of tenths off. But I just couldn't get to grips with it at Barber and I crashed the car. I had another off on the second day.
"I've got 25 years of muscle memory built up in my right foot and it's hard to unlearn that," Franchitti added. "I've wasted a lot of quality testing time waiting for Dallara to change the design and assemble the parts to make it happen, but now that I've had a chance to run the car in the configuration I like, I'm pretty happy."
Franchitti was second overall with a 52.0157-second lap. Meanwhile, Kanaan was unhappy after suffering what he termed "undisclosed issues" that left him 20th on the speed chart at 52.9195 seconds.
"It's been pretty frustrating," Kanaan said. "The beauty of having a car for all those years is you don't have those issues with reliability. It's tested my patience and it was a difficult couple of days for us."
3. Chevy and Honda look equally matched -- The different conditions from day to day meant that direct comparisons were impossible. But it appears that the engine manufacturer battle between Honda and Chevrolet is going to be a good one.
"You can tell the Chevys and the Hondas are really close," said Team Penske driver and two-time championship runner-up Will Power, who was fifth overall at Sebring. "We ran a lot together but no one will know who is best until we experience racing conditions. It's still clear that it's pretty even so far. The moment of truth is going to be St Pete. You'll have what you've got and there won't be any sandbagging there."
Power's Penske teammate Castroneves was the quickest Chevy driver, P3 overall at 51.1413 seconds. But the star of the Chevy camp was Barrichello, who took advantage of returning to a familiar track to post the fourth-best lap of the test at 52.1615 seconds.
"We didn't run as much as we wanted to, but I'm really just a boy with a new toy, learning what it can do," Barrichello stated after turning 165 laps over his two days in the car. "The biggest problem for me will be running without tire warmers and learning the tracks and the tendencies of the car.
"The time that Scott [Dixon] set was really fast," added the Brazilian. "It was out of the box, and it was really, really fast -- faster than anybody around here from the past week and this week. It looks like the Team Penske and Target Ganassi are the cars to beat, and I think that I'll be really happy to be sneaking amongst them."
4. Lotus is lagging but can't be counted out -- The Lotus engine program got off to a late start and several teams have found it difficult to finalize their engine supply. But the Lotus has generally shown decent reliability, if not outright pace.
Oriol Servia of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Alex Tagliani of BHA/Barracuda Racing were the only Lotus drivers to break 53 seconds. Dragon Racing finally secured one engine to allow Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge to split a day and a half in a single car.
"It's been difficult," said HVM Racing's Simona De Silvestro, who drove the initial shakedown tests of the Lotus in January. "We're definitely behind the other teams and manufacturers. But we're not that far off and every time out we are improving. The first two or three races will be difficult for us, but we have reliability and that is important. The lap time will come, but we have to work hard as a team to make that happen."
5. It could be a vintage year for Indy car racing -- While the Ganassi and Penske teams topped the times at Sebring, there's every reason to believe that a scenario like the 2007 Champ Car season could pan out, where the introduction of a new car allowed smaller teams like HVM and Walker Racing to score victories, even though Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing went on to win the championship.
Barrichello has shown that even approaching his 40th birthday he is quick and hungry, and there is a wave of young American talent emerging as well, including Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and rookie Josef Newgarden, all of whom are under the age of 27. Hunter-Reay and Ed Carpenter, both 31, are the most veteran Americans.
Of course, we won't know how the new turbo Dallaras will race until the green flag drops at St. Petersburg on March 25. But the indications are there that it could be a memorable year for the IndyCar Series.
"I think there are as many as 15 cars capable of winning races and eight or 10 legitimate championship contenders," said Franchitti, who is seeking his fourth consecutive (and fifth overall) Indy car title.
"We've got our work cut out for us, but I can't wait for the season to begin."