How Level Is The Playing Field?
For the past several months, even before the end of last season, there have been a multitude of questions regarding the 2012 season of the IZOD IndyCar Series. For the most part, there have been more questions than answers. Which engine would be fastest? Which team will be the first to get a handle on the new Dallara DW12? Does the new equipment level the playing field, or will the gap between the haves and the have-nots widen even further?
We will get our first indication of some real answers beginning today at Sebring, as Spring Training begins for half of the full-time funded teams in the series. The sessions will be divided into two groups: One half will run today and tomorrow, while the other half will run Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be a media day in Tampa to kick off the season and to promote the season opener less than three weeks away in nearby St. Petersburg. The reason for splitting into two groups is to give teams room to work in the crowded Sebring pits and paddock areas.
The series did a good job in having a blend of top teams alongside second and third tier teams for both sessions. The Monday-Tuesday group will feature Chevy teams Andretti Autosport and Team Penske, with Honda partners Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing. Lotus will be represented by HVM Racing and will have one of the Dragon cars (Sébastien Bourdais) on track. The Thursday-Friday teams will be headlined by all four Honda powered Chip Ganassi cars, along with the fellow Honda teams of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan, Sarah Fisher Hartman and AJ Foyt Racing. KV Racing Technology, Panther Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing will be representing the Chevy bow tie, while Lotus teams will consist of Bryan Herta Autosport, Dreyer & Reinbold and in Katherine Legge in a Dragon entry.
Am I the only one that finds it a bit curious that Dragon Racing will be the only team split between both sessions? Currently, they are the only two-car team that Lotus is supplying engines for. To me, this adds more fuel to the rumors that Lotus is short on engines. If that’s the case, it appears that they don’t even have enough for Spring Training. If I were a Lotus powered team, I would be very concerned.
Not only is Lotus way behind their competitors in track time development, but if they should have reliability issues at the season opener at St. Petersburg and have most or all of their engines blow up – there would be serious questions if they had enough engines available to all of their teams by the next weekend at Barber. I haven’t heard that this is a real possibility, but given how Lotus has dropped the ball and indirectly affected teams that don’t even have Lotus power (Sarah Fisher) – it wouldn’t surprise me.
The teams considered to be the leaders of each manufacturer won’t be going head to head against each other, which could have given us a more accurate reading of which engine is superior. In the first group, the Chevy powered teams of Andretti and Penske are expected to be quicker than the Honda contingent of Coyne and Schmidt. However, it will be very interesting on Thursday as the four Honda powered Ganassi cars go head to head against the KV Chevy powered cars. If Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello and EJ Viso consistently turn quicker laps than Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal – I think we may have a good idea which engine may have the upper hand early on.
Of course, don’t forget the sandbagging issue. Top teams rarely show everything they’ve got in tests like these. Still, the competitive nature of drivers and teams give them motivation to want to leave Sebring with the top speed – if for nothing else to have bragging rights for the two weeks leading up to the first practice at St. Petersburg.
It will also be interesting to see how teams with like engines perform against each other on track at the same time. Comparing Andretti and Penske times from the first session to KV times from the second session may not be very useful. There could be a twenty-degree variance in temperatures between today and Friday. Most expect Penske and Andretti to be way ahead of Coyne and Dragon. But how will the two Chevy teams do against each other? Something tells me that Team Penske has the lead over Andretti Autosport in offseason development. But I could be dead wrong. We’ll have a pretty clear indication by the end of tomorrow.
Anticipation and excitement is really starting to ramp up, now that the calendar has flipped over to March and we can say that the season actually starts this month. Will we have a lot of answers at the end of this week? Maybe – or at least we’ll think we will. Spring Training in the past has not always been an indication of how the season will go. But that was in past years when teams were simply getting acquainted with a new driver or breaking in a new engineer. This year, everyone is starting from scratch with a supposed level playing field. By Friday night, we’ll probably at least know how level the playing field really is.