Roundtable: Previewing the 2012 IndyCar Season w/ 4 IndyCar Writers!


There has been a lot of predictions being made about the 2012 IndyCar Season. From who will go with who for engine supply and teams.  What new team will be the best? Who has the advantage for engines? What about the new races? What is your dream IndyCar schedule. All of those questions will be answered in this article. I managed to get a hold of  Zachary Houghton from IndyCar Advocate, John Oreovicz from ESPN Racing, Bill Zahren from Pressdog and George Phillips from Oilpressure to preview the 2012 season. They all said yes and answered my questions. I will be giving my answers in this roundtable. Here is a little Key.

  • GP= George Phillips
  • BZ= Bill Zahren
  • ZH= Zachary Houghton
  • JO= John Oreovicz
  • KM= Kent Mueller (me)

Q: What are you looking towards for the whole 2012 season?
GP: Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to the new cars nad the engine competition among manufacturers. So far, I can’t say I’m a fan of the new car. I think from the cockpit back, it is extremely ugly. Most say they don’t care what the car looks like son long as it races well – but I do. The looks of the car will have a great bearing on the marketability of the sport in the future. I’m a very superficial male, so I should know. One of my hot butons for the past few years has been lack of competition among engine and chassis manufacturers. Not only do I recall the nineties when you had Lola, Galmer, Penske, Truesports, Reynard, Swift and Eagle chassis to choose from – I go back to the sixties where almost every car looked different. It may not mean much to the general public that a Reynard beat a Lola in the 1995 Indianapolis 500, but it sure meant a lot to the hard-core fans. That’s why I was supporting multiple chassis manufacturers, although I understood it wasn’t economically feasible in today’s climate. Still, in a competitive world; I believe that it is up to Dallara to get it right as soon as the car is shipped. If they didn’t, perhaps the Swift, BAT or Lola chassis hit the sweet spot. With only one chassis manufacturer (again); Dallara has no real incentive to come up with a faster car. They only have to beat themselves. To placate fan’s disappointment with only one chassis, we were told aero kits would be available. For 2012, we won’t have those. I’m not sure we will in 2013 and beyond, either. One intriguing aspect of the new car is that everyone is starting from scratch. Never forget that the big teams can sometime outsmart themselves (Team Penske at Indianapolis in 1995). It will be interesting to see if a small team like Sarah Fisher’s, Dale Coyne’s or Ed Carpenter’s can figure something out about the new car before the Penske/Ganassi jugernaut can.

BZ: I’m looking forward to seeing home the new car pans out and if helps any of the smaller teams compete with the big three. The different engines will also add some welcome variables to things. At this rate it will be good just to see the schedule. I’ll also be interested in seeing how TV numbers go in 2012 and if the lack of ovals does anything to the popularity of the league. I guess it will be a good test to see if a majority twisty schedule can be viable with American fans. I’m also looking forward to watching Randy Bernard perform this season. I think the pressure is mounting on him to lead IndyCar in making some strides. He’ll have two seasons under his belt, which should be enough to have gotten the lay of the land. A lot of people will be expecting Bernard to make some moves in 2012, and it will be interesting to see what they are.

ZH: So many things! There’s the competition between the new engines, seeing the progression of the new DW12, watching teams like Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing grow, the return of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, tough competition on the Mazda Road to Indy, and of course, another Indianapolis 500.
If that’s not enough for you, there’s also USAC Champ Bryan Clauson getting to try and qualify for Indy, former F1 driver Jean Alesi trying to do the same with Lotus, and watching veterans like Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves duke it out with a new generation of drivers like James Hinchcliffe, J.R. Hildebrand, and Joseg Newgarden. Really, between a healthy car count, new car and engine questions, and a wild silly season, this shaping up to be an amazingly intriguing year. We have more question marks in terms of competition than we’ve had in a long time, and that can only be a good thing. It’s going to be a long winter waiting for that flag to drop!

JO: Obviously most of the focus has to be on the new car, and what a disappointment bordering on disaster it has been so far. I’ve seen ugly race cars and I’ve seen slow race cars and I can’t believe it took them nine years to come up with a car that is both ugly and slow. The engines, as you would expect from HPD and Ilmor, have been functioning to plan. Of course then there’s Lotus…
But the chassis needs major work. Based on the way they have semi-enclosed the rear wheels, safety was the primary focus long before Dan Wheldon got killed in Las Vegas. I’m not an engineer, but I can’t help but thinking that the huge plan area of the floor and the lack of downforce producers in front of the rear wheels are contributing to the car’s unpredictable high-speed oval handling. The guys working on the DW12 _are_ engineers and they admit they don’t know why the car has way more drag than the computer and wind tunnel numbers say it should.
Since they are re-doing the suspension and will likely need to make major changes to the aero package, why not try to make it look a little bit better? On one online poll, 98 percent of 6,000 voters had a negative reaction about the DW12′s appearance. It really is a cartoon car.
Beyond that, I’m watching to see if Dario Franchitti can effectively make it five straight championships. As we saw in Champ Car in 2007 when they brought out the DP01, the same old teams don’t automatically win all the races in the new spec car. Sure, Bourdais and Newman/Haas won the championship, but Doornbos/HVM and Power/Walker won races and kept NHR honest.
I’m also curious to see how INDYCAR rebounds from the Wheldon tragedy. In some ways, the series just seems to be pretending the accident (indeed, the whole Las Vegas event) never happened.
KM: I am looking forward to everything. The new car on new tracks. How the final schedule turns out and the racing. Plus, how the new race control looks like (more later)

Q: Do you think China and Belle Isle is a bad move for IndyCar’s direction?
GP: I’m not going to say either one is a bad move. China won’t win over any new fans running a street course in the middle of the night. I’ll probably be one of only about two thousand that will stay up to watch it live, but it is a good move financially for the series – so I’m all for it. Belle Isle is one of the most boring races to watch on television – and I’ve watched every single one dating back to their debut at the Isle in 1992. But given Chevy’s re-entry into the series, the series needs to have a presence in or near the Detroit area. I just wish it was at the two-mile oval in the Irish Hills at Brooklyn, Michigan.
BZ: I try to think of things like a random fan and maybe advocate for their interests, so I think Belle Isle is a mistake. It’s hard to say for certain given the new car variable, but Belle Isle in the past has been a Festival of Non-passing. I just don’t see legions of fans wanting to watch a race at Belle Isle, especially on TV. I think Chevrolet has a lot of influence in encouraging IndyCar to go to both Belle Isle and China. Detroit is obviously the home of GM, and China is a huge market for them. So from the standpoint of keeping a major sponsor happy, it’s probably a good move. Also, I assume IndyCar will get bails of cash to go to China, so that money will help subsidize races back here. I think the danger is getting into the business of making money off sanctioning fees and not being concerned with TV ratings. Champ Car at the end went to an attendance-based business model, where they focused on how many showed up at the track and just racing wherever a road or street circuit could pay their sanctioning fee. That’s an oversimplification, obviously, but TV ratings are the most important thing for attracting sponsors. If the race doesn’t draw ratings on TV, you’re in trouble. No ratings, no sponsors, no teams — no matter how many buy tickets at the local level.
ZH: I’m not a huge fan of races that far out of wack with our domestic time zones, but China is a huge potential market for a lot of companies. It’s sort of like Sonoma; the racing isn’t ideal, but sponsors love it to pieces, so it stays. If China can provide good racing, help attract (or keep) sponsors, and fund some of the other things the Series wants to do, then I’ll count it a success. For Belle Isle, I hope the racing is better than the last go-around, but it’ll make Chevy happy, and that’s important, too. Good racing has to be balanced with fan interest and keeping sponsors content. We’ll have to see if that lesson has been learned for those venues.
JO: Belle Isle is nothing more than a Penske stroke job. Roger delivered Chevrolet to INDYCAR and he got Belle Isle back on the schedule in return. The modern incarnation of that event is Roger’s baby. It’s a good track for a Formula Atlantic race. I’d rather see INDYCAR back at Michigan International Speedway (a track once owned by Mr. Penske before he sold all of his tracks to International Speedway Corp.), and you’d think that with the lack of ovals on the schedule, MIS would be back in play.
With China, I’ll believe it when I see it. I sat through numerous press conferences talking up plans for Champ Car races in Korea and China and none of them ever came to life. Tony Cotman says the China street circuit will be mega (3.8 miles!!) and his short-lived 2007 Las Vegas layout was one of the best street courses to come along in decades so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Randy Bernard has been tasked with generating income, and foreign race sanction fees are the easiest way for INDYCAR to pull in cash.
KM: I hate the fact the IndyCar is going to China because when I thought Randy Bernard was making the right decision by dumping an Asia parade he goes to China. As for Belle Isle that street course is the worst street course I have ever seen! No passing areas whatsoever. You could go to Road America, Road Atlanta, Sebring, Cleveland and Mosport but NO we gotta do street parades and turn IndyCar into CART of 1995 and 2003!

Q: What would be your dream IndyCar Schedule?
GP: Being old-school (and just plain old); my dream schedule would have tweny-two races with about fifteen being ovals. The ovals would include Michigan, Fontana, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Pocono (we’re dreaming, right?), Nashville (selfishly), Loudon, Pikes Peak, Nazareth, Kentucky, Texas, Charlotte and of course, Indianapolis. My road/street courses would be Long Beach, Road America, Portland, Barber (because it’s close to me), Cleveland, Toronto & Mosport.
BZ: I would like to see ovals like Chicagoland and Kansas back on the schedule. I’d like a 50/50 oval/non-oval split. I’m partial to the ovals, so I like to see Iowa, Milwaukee, Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas in there among others (in addition to Indy, of course). I’d love for IndyCar to get to a place where it had more tracks that wanted it than it had slots on the schedule. Unfortunately we’re not there right now. I’m also kind of a market-based guy, so I don’t expect tracks to be lining up to lose money on hosting IndyCar races, which I think is the issue at Kansas, Chicagoland and Milwaukee. Even though I live 45 minutes from Iowa Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway is my first love in IndyCar. Having said that, I’d argue that the races at Iowa Speedway were  the best of the entire year in both 2010 and 2011, including the Indy 500.
ZH: For road/street courses, I’d love to see Road America, Watkins Glen, and Cleveland added back to the schedule. Oval wants include bringing back Kentucky, Pocono, Phoenix, Michigan, and Milwaukee, if there’s a promoter that can make it work. I also think IndyCar needs to eventually look at going back to Las Vegas. You can debate oval or street course, but it’s too exciting a destination for the Series not to be a part of. I’m hoping there’s a good chance we see several of those tracks and courses return for 2013.
JO: Well, it wouldn’t include Belle Isle or China, for starters!
Of the current schedule, I’d keep St. Pete, Barber, Long Beach, Iowa, Toronto, Edmonton, Mid-Ohio, and Baltimore. And of course the Indy 500. I’d add road races at Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen and Cleveland and would probably swap Infineon for Laguna Seca. The challenge would be ovals. I’d like to see Phoenix, Homestead, Milwaukee, and New Hampshire brought back. Maybe Michigan and Nashville too. I would not return to Texas for safety reasons – in fact, I’d avoid any of those  high-banked 1.5-mile tracks with the exception of Homestead, which I think is a safer layout – although INDYCAR’s last fatality prior to Wheldon occurred there.
KM: My dream schedule is really easy. 5 shorts ovals (1.0 and less), 5 long ovals (1.5-2.0), 5 street courses, 5 road courses and 2 ‘special races’ (Indy and Road America). To the short ovals keep Iowa, add Phoenix, Richmond, Loudon and Milwaukee. Long ovals; Chicago, Texas, Michigan, Kentucky, Fontana.

Q: What new team will be the most successful and why?
GP: Keep an eye on Ed Carpenter Racing. With Derrick Walker running things, they are putting together a pretty impressive staff. I think they will make some noise – especially in the first half of the season
BZ: Hard to say since we don’t know all the teams and drivers, etc. I like the look of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, though. I’m a huge fan of Sarah and Andy, and I think their driver Josef Newgarden is for real. Obviously proved himself in the FIL last year. The new partner, Wink Hartman, is bringing in a lot of cash, they’re building a new shop on main street Speedway and coming off the biggest oval upset in maybe the last five years when Ed Carpenter beat Dario Franchitti at Kentucky. So I like SFH Racing.
ZH: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing isn’t new, but they haven’t been full-time for a few years. I think they’ve shown before they can be a very competitive team, and I’m expecting big things from them. SFHR and Ed Carpenter’s teams will be fun to cheer for, but I suspect a slower progression for them.
JO: What are our choices? Ed Carpenter Racing? Mike Shank Racing? Do we call Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing a ‘new’ team? Derrick Walker runs a good operation so Ed will have some good runs on ovals but they will likely struggle on road courses. Mike Shank Racing is likely to be the exact opposite, but there are a lot more road races in 2012 than ovals. I also think Josef Newgarden will have a few surprisingly good outings for SFHR.
KM: I expect RLLR to return strong especially with Takuma Sato all but confirmed their. Ed Carpenter Racing could be an underdog. MSR Indy will be strong on the twisties. SFHR could be a front runner with RLLR because of Josef Newgarden and his diversity from road to street to oval races. Overall, I like Rahal’s team a lot.

Q: Which engine package will be the strongest for 2012 and why?
GP: I’m putting my money on Chevrolet. Everyone thinks that Honda has a leg up becuase they have been in the series since 2003 and they were the first to have their engine in the car in August. But the Honda engine that drove Chevy and Toyota out of the series after the 2005 season was built by Ilmor. HPD will be building the new Honda engine. The Chevy engine will be built and designed by who? Ilmor. Roger Penske doesn’t make the wrong choice too many times, even though he was saddled with the underpowered Toyota engine in 2004-05. I don’t think that’ll be the case in 2012.
BZ: I couldn’t tell ya. I don’t really dive much into the fine technical statistics of the sport, to be honest. I don’t get too frothed up about who will drive where and who will have what until I see it on the grid. Hard to argue against Honda given their history. But, Chevrolet has something to prove since they basically left the series years go with their bow tie tucked between their legs. I hear a lot about Lotus, but the teams that are relying on them for engines are probably a bit nervous at how far they seem to be behind the rest.
ZH:  have to admit, I’m cheering for Lotus as an underdog, but I honestly think Honda has a bit of a head start on the competition. I wouldn’t count out any of the three manufacturers–they all know how to build an engine–but I believe Honda will possibly have at least an early advantage.
JO: It won’t be Lotus. I think it’s a toss-up between HPD and Ilmor. HPD has been operating with increased independence over the last decade, and it will be interesting to see how they react to having to develop engines again instead of just build them for reliability. As someone who worked for PacWest Racing, I won’t ever forget Ilmor’s awful 1998-2000 Mercedes-Benz CART engines that proved to be the eventual downfall of the team. Ilmor did most of the design work on the dominant 2004-05 Honda IRL engine and again, it will be interesting to see how Ilmor performs on its own.
KM: It will be a tight race between Chevy and Honda. But I think Chevy comes out on top because they have got to test and they supply better teams than Honda. Chevy is supplying Penske, AA, KV and Panther. That is better than Honda’s (Ganassi, SSM, and Foyt) Lotus has lost out on testing but could be a sleeper with HVM, DRR, and Bryan Herta Autosport with Tagliani behind the wheel (99% confirmed).
Q: Your Champion is?
GP: Tony Kanaan. With the Chevy engine and a year at KV behind him, plus the liklihoood of him being reunited with his longtime engineer Eric Cowdin – I think his experience will pay off in sorting out the new car. 2012 is his year.
BZ: Will Power. The guy has to be raging over the last two seasons and Penske has something to prove this year. I’d be happy for Will, but I’d love to be wrong and have some totally unexpected team and person shoot into contention next year.
ZH: There are just way too many unknowns right now to make a solid guess on that, honestly. You would think what we know of the schedule would favor Will Power, but I have a feeling things will pan out far differently than any of us would guess.
JO: I’m going with Will Power. They guy is very fast, he’s improving quickly on ovals (not that that will really matter much in 2012 the way the schedule is shaping up) and if he can cut out his rare mistakes and calm down his emotions, he’ll be tough. Franchitti is always a safe bet and it’s unusual to see guys stay competitive or (in Dario’s case) actually improve into their late 30s. Most guys start to lose a step then, and all you have to do is look at the likes of Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy to see that. How long can Franchitti maintain the level of excellence he’s demonstrated since 2007? It’s one of the greatest runs of success in the hundred-year history of Indy car racing.
KM: My champion is Will Power. Ever since he came into the series in 2008; I have liked him a lot. His move to Penske really made him a championship contender. I say he wins one next year and then Dario retires. Will has had so much bad luck at the end of the season. And with the 2012 schedule being road and street circuits, Advantage Power!

I want to thank all of our guests to take time to answer these questions. It was very fun to do, and something I will look to do in the future for F1, ALMS, and NASCAR.

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  3. [...] Shameless Plug: About a week ago, I took part in a blogger’s roundtable discussion over at Racing Mania 101. The panel included yours truly along with our friend Pressdog, Zachary Houghton from IndyCar Advocate and John Oreovicz from ESPN.com. It’s interesting to read the different opinions and answers to the same questions. You can find it here. [...]

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