- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The spring road racing season has come and gone for the Izod IndyCar Series, and it was dominated by Will Power, Team Penske and Chevrolet.
Power won three of four races and holds a 45-point lead in the championship over his Penske Racing teammate Helio Castroneves, who is the only other driver to win a race in 2012.
With four poles spread among its three drivers and four wins from four attempts, Team Penske has clearly stepped up its game this year. Given the relative parity between engines from Chevrolet and Honda and the level playing field provided by the Dallara DW12 spec chassis, it's an impressive achievement for the organization managed by Tim Cindric.
The general consensus is that the Honda engine wasn't that far off, even before the introduction of a larger turbocharger inlet that boosted its performance at the most recent race in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Instead, most pundits believe Chevy has a stronger overall lineup of teams and a couple of the Honda teams -- notably four-time defending IndyCar Series champion Ganassi Racing -- are underperforming.
It has all added up to Power sprinting away to a comfortable early championship lead heading into the hallowed month of May at Indianapolis. If the rapid Aussie has a solid run through the series of oval races that dominate May and June, he could have an untroubled run to the championship that has eluded him the past two seasons.
With that backdrop, let's take a look at how each team and engine manufacturer is performing so far in 2012 by issuing grades for the first quarter. The envelope(s), please!
Chevrolet -- A:
Roger Penske was the driving force behind General Motors' return to Indy car racing. Teamed again with Ilmor Engineering, as it was from 1986-93, and blessed with the IndyCar Series' strongest lineup of teams, Chevrolet has come out of the box very strong. The PR nightmare of grid penalties for premature engine changes at Long Beach was quickly swept away when Power won from 12th on the grid, and even after the Hondas were granted a performance increase through a larger turbocharger inlet, Chevy pulled off another 1-2 finish in Brazil.
Honda -- B: Honda hasn't won a race in 2012 but it should have with Ganassi's Scott Dixon at Barber Motorsports Park. Although the results don't show it, the Honda engine has been quite competitive; Dixon was second in St. Petersburg and Barber, Dario Franchitti looked more like his old self at Brazil and less vaunted Honda runners such as Simon Pagenaud and Mike Conway have shown impressive speed at times. The big test comes this month at Indianapolis, as Honda's single turbo design was expected to be slightly superior on high-speed ovals compared to the twin-turbo layouts favored by Chevrolet and Lotus.
Lotus -- D-minus: "Day late, dollar short" effectively sums up the Lotus IndyCar program. A surprise and tardy third addition to the battle between Honda and Chevy, the Lotus engine didn't hit the track until January. And while the prototype showed impressive initial reliability, it hasn't carried over to production engines. Plagued with severe turbo lag, a general lack of power and poor reliability, Lotus can count itself fortunate that Sebastien Bourdais' brilliance delivered a top-10 finish at Barber. Lotus already has released two teams and doubts remain that the program will continue beyond the Indianapolis 500.
Teams and drivers
Team Penske -- A: A rejuvenated Power is finding that a more relaxed approach to racing and life is making him an even more accomplished driver. Although upset at the circumstances that left him starting ninth at Barber and 12th at Long Beach, Power triumphed from midfield at both venues in what were arguably the finest of his 18 Indy car race wins. His win in Brazil was clear-cut from the front. Helio Castroneves' season got off to a good start with a win in the St. Pete opener and third at Barber, but he's faded slightly since then. Castroneves heads to Indianapolis as a favorite to win his fourth 500. Ryan Briscoe said he thinks the DW12 suits his style. He scored pole at Long Beach but hasn't put together a podium finish.
Schmidt/Hamilton Racing -- A-minus: One of the surprises of the season, Simon Pagenaud was consistently fast in the first three events of the season before slipping a bit in Brazil. He's a savvy road racer, making the most of his first opportunity to run open-wheelers since 2007, and he is expected to make a smooth transition to ovals.
Rahal Letterman Racing -- B-plus: Takuma Sato was set for a career-best third-place finish at Long Beach before being crashed out on the last lap. In Brazil, he made it to the podium, and did it after a savvy drive through the field that proved the driver once known as "Red Mist" can keep his cool.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing -- B-plus: Small, one-car team with a rookie driver is usually a recipe for disaster, but the emergence of 20-year-old Josef Newgarden is one of the best stories of the season so far. Newgarden started from the front row in Long Beach and wasn't intimidated by the moment or by the four-time series champion he raced hard into the first corner. It almost didn't matter that Newgarden didn't make the corner; he had served notice.
Andretti Autosport -- B: Although not as dominant as Team Penske, Michael Andretti's team demonstrated the early advantage of Chevrolet with a series of good early-season results. Morale within the team is better than it was for years, and new arrival James Hinchcliffe picked up where he left off from his 2011 Rookie of the Year campaign and lies third in the championship. Ryan Hunter-Reay is determined to contend for the title and lies fourth in the standings, while Marco Andretti's season is off to a rough start and he's back in 19th.
AJ Foyt Racing -- B: Larry Foyt's hire of engineer Don Halliday has elevated the team's road racing game, and the soft-spoken Conway is doing his part as well. Conway made the Foyt team's first Firestone Fast Six at Barber and he's shown plenty of speed in race conditions.
KV Racing Technology -- B-minus: Hard to imagine that EJ Viso would emerge as the consistent, steady driver within the KVRT ranks, but the Venezuelan has done a clean and tidy job this year. Tony Kanaan's season got off to a horrible start and was only salvaged by a fourth-place finish at Long Beach. F1 veteran Rubens Barrichello has struggled to adapt to new cars, new tracks and new strategies, such as fuel saving, but he's driven like a professional to a series of top-10s.
Ed Carpenter Racing -- B-minus: Owner Ed Carpenter's team came out of the box with immaculate presentation, and driver Ed Carpenter has improved his road racing skills over the past couple years. The addition of engineer Michael Cannon undoubtedly helped in that regard.
Chip Ganassi Racing -- C: Is it Honda? Is it Franchitti? Is it Ganassi? It's difficult to assess why things haven't gone especially well for the four-time defending IndyCar Series champions. For the first time in three years, Scott Dixon's season got off to a good start with a pair of seconds, but the runner-up finish at Barber really should have been a win. Charlie Kimball has looked racier and posted a pair of career-best finishes. However, Graham Rahal had one decent result at Barber but hasn't reproduced his preseason testing pace and took heat for a dubious blocking move on Marco Andretti in Long Beach. And Franchitti struggled to come to terms with the DW12 until new pedals were made available to facilitate right-foot braking. The good breaks he caught in the past haven't come his way in 2012, and he heads to Indianapolis nearly 100 points behind nemesis Power in the championship.
Panther Racing -- C: JR Hildebrand's road course qualifying pace has improved in his sophomore campaign, but nothing notable has come from the first four races of the season for Panther other than team principal John Barnes landing a $25,000 fine from INDYCAR for a fairly innocuous tweet that criticized the series' handling of the Honda turbo inlet controversy.
Dragon Racing -- C-minus: We've seen that not much can be achieved with a Lotus engine, which makes Bourdais' aggressive drive to ninth place at Barber all the more remarkable. The presentation of Bourdais' black and gold car is also top-notch, but that's the highlight of the Lotus saga. Katherine Legge's return to open-wheelers has been difficult at best, and while light-years ahead of Milka Duno, she hasn't run anywhere other than last place.
Dale Coyne Racing -- C-minus: Dale Coyne was hoping that reuniting the combination of engineer Bill Pappas and driver Justin Wilson would rekindle the kind of success that delivered the team's first victory in 2010. Alas, the combination has gotten off to a slow start, as Wilson has had a difficult time getting comfortable in the theoretically larger cockpit of the DW12. Second driver James Jakes appears to have advanced from his rookie campaign.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing -- C-minus: Another team that has obviously taken a step back thanks to the Lotus problems. They don't come any better than Oriol Servia in terms of team leadership and car development, and driver and team must be thanking their lucky stars they will have a more competitive engine beginning at Indianapolis.
Lotus HVM Racing -- C-minus: Still another team adversely affected by its engine partner. Simona De Silvestro put in ironman effort in initial testing of the Lotus, but it's been forgettable ever since.
Bryan Herta Autosport -- I: BHA was the first team to bail from Lotus, cutting its losses by electing to pass on traveling to Brazil. Expecting to land a Honda engine contract, Alex Tagliani now has a fighting chance to defend his 2011 Indianapolis pole position.
Attention, class. Professor John Oreovicz has your first-quarter grades. Team Penske: Congratulations, you're at the head of the class. Chip Ganassi Racing: Don't forget, you have detention.