Dario Franchitti of Scotland, drives his the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda Dallara DW12 during the Sebring Open Test for the IZOD INDYCAR Series at Sebring International Raceway on March 9, 2012 in Sebring, Florida.
(March 8, 2012 – Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America)
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — In five of its seven years, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has ended the same way 75% of Izod IndyCar Series races have since 2006. A Penske Racing or Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver has thrust his arms triumphantly, on a podium adjacent to the sparkling Salvador Dali Museum that faces the 14-turn course.
Sunday’s season opener might be no different, but it still demands watching if Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Briscoe or Helio Castroneves is leading the final lap.
Even for the powerhouses this year, there will be no sure things in a reliability minefield of potential engine failures and the unknowns of a new chassis.
“Right when you think you know who is going to win, it won’t be over until that last corner,” Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “It’s going to mix it up a bit. When you think you can predict what’s going to happen, it’ll change.”
Along with Penske and KV Racing Technology, the Andretti team has switched to Chevrolet, which returns to IndyCar after a seven-year absence. It figures to mount a challenge to Honda, which will keep Ganassi in its fold this year. Lotus, which doesn’t have a first-tier team in its lineup, also is building motors this year.
Engine failures were eradicated from IndyCar during Honda’s run as the uncontested supplier since 2006. But there were many problems in preseason testing as the competition for horsepower pushed manufacturers to test the breaking points.
Three-time defending champion Franchitti welcomed the unpredictability.
“I missed it,” said the 14-year veteran, whose career began in an era of stiff engine competition. “Every race I’ve won has been with Honda, so to work with them in a competitive environment is a lot of fun. During testing, all the manufacturers had blowups at certain points, and guys were like, ‘Oh, my God! An engine blew up.” I (said), ‘Guys, this used to happen all the time.’ You are definitely going to have reliability playing a part. In some ways I am excited about it, and in some ways, I hope I am not on the wrong end of it. But it’s a part of what we do.”
The four-time champ’s trademark consistency — his No. 10 Dallara-Honda finished all but two races over the past three seasons — might not be as sure a pathway to the 2012 championship. Dixon, his teammate, said the decrease in reliability would lessen the chances the title race would resemble the two-driver shows of Franchitti and Power in 2010-11.
“It’s hard to knock someone off when you are trying to catch up by a few points as opposed to a big swing,” Dixon said. “This year is going to be interesting (because) there’s going to be weaknesses in the car, the engine. It’s going to be crazy as far as the points chase.”
Though the established teams have turned more laps in testing with the new Dallara chassis, no one is close to mastering how to tune it. An underdog could hit on a magic setup earlier, particularly at a track such as St. Pete known for producing top-five surprises. Last year, Simona de Silvestro scored a career-best fourth for underfunded HVM Racing, and Hunter-Reay (Vision Racing) and Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing) finished second and third in 2009.
“You can’t underestimate the strength of some of the smaller teams,” said Penske’s Briscoe, the 2009 winner at St. Pete. “There is a lot of talent spread through the field on the engineering side and driving side. You can never underestimate that.”
Simon Pagenaud, a 2010 American Le Mans Series champion who will drive for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, said there’ll be some surprises in the first four races before the Indianapolis 500.
“Schmidt is going to be one of those teams because we’re figuring the car out,” he said. “But in the season, Penske and Ganassi will improve at a greater rate with people at the shop working to make the car quicker. Some smaller teams don’t have the resources to have people working at the shop while we’re racing.”