Heading into the 2012 season, one of the biggest questions facing the IndyCar Series is fan and driver reaction to the new car, the DW12. Dallara’s new chassis features controversial rear body work designed to prevent interlocking wheels (and tragedies like Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident at Las Vegas).
At a Chevy-sponsored open test at Infineon Raceway this Saturday, drivers and fans sounded a positive note. That’s a far cry from early season grumbling that the new car was (a) ugly and (b) a handful. After watching a test featuring two cars from Penske, two cars fielded by KV Racing, and single entries from Andretti and Panther, we can say unequivocally that the car looks – and sounds – like a proper IndyCar. While the rear more closely resembles a Le Mans prototype, the overall performance and exhilaration are still there. These cars can walk the walk.
Team Penske quickly established itself at Infineon, topping the time sheets on Saturday. Time spent in front of the tricky bus stop chicane suggested that not all drivers have come to grips with the new car.
KV Racing driver Tony Kanaan responded directly to the critics. “Drivers are complainers,” he said. “We can win a race with a car and come back and say ‘it’s terrible’.” What about pre-season worries among drivers who trashed the car? Kanaan cautioned that early concerns also stemmed from the newness of the car, as much as any inherent design flaw. “Concerns were on the ovals more than the road course,” Kanaan said. “In the beginning [the car] was different. ” Hearing complaints by other drivers “plants something in the driver’s head to complain about. This is what happens when you drive something for 9 years”.
Kanaan praised the car for its performance: “The biggest difference in the new car is the carbon brakes for all circuits. Last year, we used a mixture of carbon brakes and steel brakes. This year, we felt we had to go to all carbon. It’s more expensive”, Kanaan noted, “but it provides more stopping power”.
“You can go deeper into corners,” the 2004 series champion said. Venezuelan EJ Viso also noticed the difference in brakes. Barrichello must have wondered what all the fuss was about, given F1’s longstanding use of carbon brakes. Most drivers who switch to an F1 car from other series immediately notice the increased stopping power.
Kanaan praised Chevy’s turbo engine, noting its effectiveness in slow corners (“love it” ). Ultimate horsepower numbers are a closely guarded secret, but it’s in the range of 750hp. The car is lighter and faster on road courses, he said. The series will set boost targets that must be adhered to. Will Power replaced his engine during the test, but for the most part, the new Chevy lump sounds like the real deal.
Kanaan also showed off the new steering wheel, which (for the first time), features an F1-style hand clutch, in addition to the usual complex array of data thrown at a driver. The engine is mated to a sequential paddle-shift gear box.
Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay described the chassis as “more nimble” with more grip. “Everything’s diferent,” he said “The new car is really good here.” Penske driver Ryan Briscoe was immediately pleased: “The car feels good straight away. We’re matching last year’s red tire qualifying times.” And, tellingly, by the end of the first day, teams were dipping into the 1:17s.
Panther’s JR Hildebrand (a native of nearby Sausalito), had very basic objectives for the test. “A lot of us are trying to sort out a lot of things.” But Hildebrand was impressed “right out of the box.” “I was so surprised how much grip this car has here”, former Infineon-winner Will Power said.
Regardless of the new chassis, the series will also face a new race director, Beaux Barfield. Barfield has a challenge ahead, after a season of mixed officiating that left drivers, teams and fans, thoroughly confused.
Kanaan looks forward to the return of single file restarts. “We saw what happened when we put a bunch of cars together….in a very personal way, I lost one of my best friends (Dan Wheldon).” Kanaan said there have been “plenty of conversations” with Barfield, but Kanaan had nothing negative to say about outgoing (and much criticized) Brian Barnhart. “Discretion is not a rule. All we ask for is consistency. As long as we understand, it’s fine.”
Same here. Judging from what we saw of the new car, and fan reaction to it, 2012 may go a long way towards re-building the series’ goodwill.