- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- You'll hear the word "new" bandied about quite often in the Izod IndyCar Series this year.
And it's the undeniable truth. While the basic core group of teams, drivers and tracks returns -- led by four-time series champion Dario Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing and anchored by the Indianapolis 500 -- just about everything else is new.
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is hoping that the "new" factor for 2012 results in the addition of a complimentary word: Improved.
Improved performance from the new cars and engines. Improved safety. Improved television ratings and attendance. Most importantly, just improved visibility and impact for Indy car racing as it fights for its place in the 21st century sporting landscape.
The early signs are promising. In spite of the extra costs associated with a wholesale equipment change and a less-than-ideal economic and sponsorship climate, a full grid of 26 cars will line up for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Sunday 1 p.m. ET, ABC).
The arrival of Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello only adds to the quality of the field, which is as strong and deep as any Indy car field of the past 20 years.
From a competitive standpoint, the big question is whether the introduction of new cars and engine manufacturer competition will put an end to the dominance of Ganassi and Team Penske, which combined to win 75 of 99 races since 2006 in the Dallara-Honda spec car era.
The rule book has been simplified, and controversial chief steward Brian Barnhart has been removed from Race Control.
One other polarizing figure also will be absent from IndyCar Series races this year: Danica Patrick, who has chosen to forego open-wheelers in favor of racing NASCAR stock cars full time.
That duo often made headlines for the wrong reasons, and their departure should create an opportunity for the longtime anchor stars of Indy car racing like Franchitti, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan to gain the kind of recognition and acclaim they deserve. Over the past six years, they were often glossed over by the Danica sideshow.
"The engine manufacturers are a big storyline, and the other storyline we have coming in is our drivers," Bernard said. "Dario Franchitti ranks up there with A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, and I think that's been somewhat overshadowed by some of the other storylines in the past like Danica.
"Having drivers like Dario, and attracting drivers like Rubens Barrichello, gives INDYCAR tremendous credibility," he added. "Our biggest challenge is to continue to get those drivers' stories out there and grow that credibility so that it resonates in our viewership and attendance. It's setting up to be a really good year."
Here are five key things to watch for when the season kicks off Sunday in St. Petersburg:
1. New cars
The 2003 Dallara IR03 was not intended to have a nine-year lifespan, but the tough economic climate and the changing landscape of Indy car racing over the past decade made that a necessity. Once IndyCar became a spec series in 2006, the superiority of Penske and Ganassi was magnified. Those teams and their engineers and drivers extracted more from the basic Dallara-Honda package than anyone else, winning 74 of the past 99 races.
The introduction of the Dallara DW12 could change that. Named for the late Dan Wheldon, who did the initial development of the chassis from August to October 2011, the arrival of a new car levels the IndyCar playing field for every team, no matter how many resources they have.
Preseason testing ended with the Ganassi cars fastest, but there is no guarantee they will be able to repeat that performance in St. Petersburg or on a weekly basis.
"Right now, it's about learning and getting data," Franchitti said. "When you change something on the car, what is the result and how does it feel? There are so many things we're trying to learn about and change. With the old car we pretty much knew what we were going to do, and it was just a matter of suiting the car to each track."
It's time for everyone to put [their] faith back in IndyCar.
”-- INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard
Another factor that could produce separation in the field and perhaps a surprise result or two: The reintroduction of competition between engine manufacturers after a six-year absence. Some drivers are finding it harder than others to adapt to the power characteristics of the new turbocharged V-6 engines from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.
"I've been lucky to have a fair bit of testing over the last few months and I feel acclimatized to the car, but you can never have too much running time," observed Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe. "There are a lot of things that we're going to have to get used to before the first race, like the carbon brakes and the hand clutch."
Briscoe and most of the other Chevrolet and Honda runners got a three-month head start on the Lotus-powered entrants, anchored by four-time Indy car champion (Champ Car sanction) Sebastien Bourdais of Dragon Racing. Bourdais has just half a day of testing in the DW12 under his belt heading into St. Petersburg.
"It's not ideal -- we would have loved to get more done -- but at least I will show up in St. Pete having done some laps in the car," Bourdais said. "We're just slowly starting, really."
After six years with near 100 percent reliability from Honda engines, the return of manufacturer competition is expected to result in the occasional blow-up. Teams are also going to have to adapt to working on a new car and determining what its speed secrets are. Even pit stops will be different, given a new air jack location and modified fuel hose coupling.
"We started practicing stops from the moment we had a car in the building," said Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull. "If speed and consistency on track are a given among the top teams, then pit lane efficiency is what will make the difference."
Chevrolet and Honda will supply engines for 11 cars each, with Lotus slated to supply five entries.
"It's clear that it is pretty even so far," said Team Penske's Will Power, the IndyCar Series championship runner-up the past two years. "The moment of truth is going to be St. Pete. Everyone is going to have what they've got. There is no sandbagging or anything. We shall see there."
2. New drivers and teams
Barrichello leads a group of five drivers who will compete for rookie of the year honors. He'll run for KV Racing Technology after being recruited by KVRT veteran Kanaan.
It seems absurd to call a 39-year-old man with more than 300 Formula One race starts a rookie, but the American style of racing -- especially ovals -- will be completely new to Barrichello.
"I fell in love with the car straight away -- it's as simple as that," said the popular Brazilian. "I've been a fan of Indy car racing for such a long time. I feel that it is a step up. Every circuit is going to be a challenge, but like any competitive driver, I want to get to the top very soon. Not just winning races, but close to my limit."
Ganassi's Hull believes that Barrichello has picked the best possible time to make the move to Indy cars from F1.
"Maybe Rubens' situation is best, coming in totally cold to this series, with no preconceived notion of what an Indy car should be," he said.
Katherine Legge (Dragon Racing), who competed in the Champ Car-sanctioned Indy car series from 2005 to 2007, joins the returning Simona De Silvestro (HVM Racing) in keeping INDYCAR a motorsports leader in terms of female participation.
"It was a little bit alien getting back in an Indy car after four or five years, and not having raced anything in more than a year now," Legge said. "It took me 40 laps or so just to feel comfortable again, but I'm very happy with the way it's progressing."
The popular Patrick's seat in the GoDaddy.com car at Andretti Autosport has gone to second-year Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, the IndyCar Series' top rookie in 2011.
"I don't think we need to replace Danica," Hinchcliffe said. "There are a lot of cool characters in this series, and going forward it is important that we branch out and let people know that it is more than just one driver."
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing rejoins full-time Indy car competition with an entry for Takuma Sato, and the team will add a second Honda-powered car for GP2 veteran Luca Fillippi starting with the Indianapolis 500.
Ed Carpenter, who drove Fisher's car to victory in the Indy car race at Kentucky Speedway in October, has formed his own team and will function as the IndyCar Series' only owner-driver.
3. New officials
Calls for Barnhart's ouster have been heard for years, but a pair of controversial events over the course of the past 18 months (including a perceived phantom blocking call on Helio Castroneves and an ill-fated oval race restart on a wet track) sealed his fate.
The new race director is Beaux Barfield, a former formula car racer who has served in an officiating capacity for the American Le Mans Series for the past several years.
Castroneves, who had two near certain race wins taken away by Barnhart's calls, is pleased with how Barfield plans to approach the topics of defensive driving and blocking.
"It's giving us an opportunity to race and allow things like challenges and great passes to happen," Castroneves said. "Beaux is able to look at it that way, and I feel that it's going to be really challenging. I am optimistic because that's the way that all the drivers used to race and it gives us a chance to fight for it."
In his first month on the job, Barfield simplified the IndyCar Series rulebook and outlined steps to improve communication with teams during races, including the implementation of an MMS messaging system. Double-file restarts will be eliminated at Indianapolis and Texas and Barfield is considering introducing standing starts for selected road and street course venues later this year.
4. New venues
Some longtime Indy car racing observers are worried about the lack of ovals on the 2012 schedule -- there are only four. But that's expected to be a one-year aberration as Bernard strives to achieve a 50-50 mix of oval and road racing events.
INDYCAR had four oval tracks drop off the schedule this year -- Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (all owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. In addition, the oval race at the Milwaukee Mile and the popular Baltimore street race barely hung on to their places in the schedule after suffering promoter issues.
In return, the IndyCar Series is adding a street race in Qingdao, China, and heads back to Auto Club Speedway in Greater Los Angeles for the first time since 2003. The Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix also returns after a three-year absence.
While controversial in some circles, the move into China is popular with IndyCar Series title sponsor Izod.
"China is extremely important for Izod as we continue our expansion in this emerging market," said Mike Kelly, executive vice president of Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. "Our Izod licensee in China, Dishang Group, has commenced opening stores under a plan that is expected to see over 500 Izod stores opened within the next five years. Exposing an iconic American sport to the world's largest population aligns perfectly with our brand messaging and in-store design."
5. New attitude
Bernard is the hardest-working, most aggressive and visible front man that Indy car racing has ever had. His first two years on the job were not easy, but noticeable progress has been made and INDYCAR turned a profit in 2011 for the first time in its 18-year history.
He's hungry for additional growth.
"In 2011, I told you one of our goals was to increase our television audience by 15 percent," Bernard said. "We are very fortunate and happy that our viewership increased by 28 percent. IndyCar is proud of that 28 percent gain in a year many wrongfully predicted that would be boring because of an 8-year-old car. They forgot we have great drivers and great storylines with them.
"We saw a 9.8 percent growth in attendance, and next year we anticipate even a more aggressive goal than that -- 15 percent for 2012," he said. "We had a 36.8 percent increase on our print articles and a 29 percent increase in web impressions, and this year, we will have a dedicated staff member strictly for all of our social media.
"It's time for everyone to put [their] faith back in IndyCar," he added. "I know when you come out to the track or tune into ABC and NBC Sports Network, you'll see what an incredible product we have."