If people thought it was a mug’s game to try to preview the 2012 Formula One season, think about what it is like trying to guess – yes, that’s right – guess what’s going to happen on Sunday when the IZOD IndyCar Series starts its season in St. Petersburg, Fla.
There is a new car – the Dallara DW12 (named for the late Dan Wheldon, who lost his life at Las Vegas last autumn) – and two new engine manufacturers – Chevrolet and Lotus, who are joining long-time Indy Racing League supporter Honda.
So it’s a new car, new engines and, in some cases, new drivers.
Which means it’s about as close to a level playing field as you can get — so far as the beginning of the season is concerned. So to say that defending series champion Dario Franchitti will win on Sunday and repeat as champion in 2012 is as much of a stretch as saying Simona de Silvestro will do one or both.
So it's going to be great fun watching that first race on Sunday (see “George’s TV listings for race fans” to check channels and broadcast times) to find out who's hot and who's not; who's got potential and who should throw in the towel before they (or somebody else) gets hurt.
The plum, so far as fresh talent is concerned, is Rubens Barrichello, who's a potential race winner. And why not? When Nigel Mansell left F1 for CART back in 1993, he won his first race.
Barrichello's F1 career with Williams came to a halt this year and he opted to race Indy cars rather than retire or continue in a European series like the German Touring Car Series or the Le Mans Series for sports cars. He will join countryman and best friend Tony Kanaan at KV Racing.
Other new faces are Katherine Legge, who is racing alongside Sebastien Bourdais at Dragon Racing, Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden racing for Sarah Fisher and sports car ace Simon Pagenaud, who will strap in at Schmidt-Hamilton Racing.
(Actually, when you get right down to it, Barrichello and Newgarden are the only true newcomers as both Legge and Pagenaud previously raced in the Champ Car World Series and, in fact, Pagenaud made three starts last year in IndyCar.)
Familar names in familiar places include the three drivers returning with Team Penske – Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe – and the four back with Chip Ganassi – Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. Other veterans in the field include Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Oriol Servia, Ed Carpenter and Justin Wilson.
Many eyes will be on one Canadian in particular this season. James Hinchcliffe of Oakville is now being paid to race cars, rather than having to rustle up the cash to take to a team (as has been the case in previous years), and has taken over the seat at Andretti Autosport that was previously occupied by Danica Patrick, who’s now a NASCAR driver.
Hinchcliffe won the top rookie award in IndyCar last season, edging out young American speedster J.R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand will drive a second season for Panther Racing this year and it’s expected that the Hinchcliffe-Hildebrand rivalry will be one of the most-watched of 2012.
And Alex Tagliani of Montreal is driving for Bryan Herta Autosport again. “Tag” — who won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 in 2011 — is one of the most talented and intense racers in IndyCar.
MIA, of course, is Scarborough’s Paul Tracy who is on record as saying he won’t accept a part-time ride any longer and the team he’s been hoping to drive for, Michael Shank Racing, hasn’t’ been able to raise the required sponsorship to start the season. Don't be surprised, though, if Tracy has a car for the Indy 500.
Tracy did some races last season for Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing but the door was closed for him on further involvement with that team when, among other reasons, Legge showed up with sponsorship.
Now, in a blog I wrote a while ago, I questioned (if you want to call it that; critics described it as a diatribe . . .) IndyCar’s commitment to quality if it was just going to stand back and let lesser-talented drivers like Legge buy seats, particularly when CEO Randy Bernard had said the objective of the series was to attract the best drivers in the world.
Having said that, Jack Long — the guy Tony George hired to get the original IRL off the ground — told me over lunch once that a series can do just about anything — except tell an owner who to put in the car. So give Katherine Legge credit for doing what Michael Shank, Paul Tracy and Jay Penske weren’t able to do: land sufficient sponsorship so she could drive the race car.
I still don’t like it but so long as the commercial realities of auto racing remain as they are, money will talk and everybody else will walk.