COUNTERPOINT: Did the new car live up to the hype?

Counterpoint, IndyCar — By on April 4, 2012 8:23 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on March 26, 2012. To access all of More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, visit indycarnation.indycar.com.

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This week: Did the new car live up to the hype?

STEPH says YES:

The new car absolutely lived up to my expectations. Did it not live up to yours?

Oh. Well, what were you expecting? Did you think we’d get multiple lead changes each lap with the field separated by milliseconds and Penske and Ganassi having their behinds handed to them by everyone else?

If you did, you were being entirely unrealistic. And I don’t remember anyone promising that when the car was being developed, either.

Look, I’ll admit that even I was a bit discouraged when I saw the time sheets largely dominated by The Big Teams after Friday practice. But by the time qualifying had ended, I was over it. By then, Simon Pagenaud was the only driver who had managed to put a Honda into the Firestone Fast 6, and nary a Ganassi was to be found.

And then in the race, neither Will Power nor Dario Franchitti played a significant role in the outcome. Sure, Helio Castroneves brought home the win (after making a fantastic pass on Dixon around his outside in turn 1, by the way), but he certainly wasn’t the Penske driver many people would have picked for top spot going in. Meanwhile, Scott Dixon was the only Honda in the top five and actually managed to finish a race at St. Petersburg for the first time in five years. Who saw that coming?

Plus, mechanical attrition took out some serious contenders. Tony Kanaan’s battery failed. Mike Conway’s gearbox broke. Sebastien Bourdais nearly led a lap – in a Lotus, no less – and then disappeared.

There may not have been insane amounts of passing this past Sunday in St. Petersburg, but there was something far more important: uncertainty. We didn’t know that Helio was going to make it to the checkers without incident. We didn’t know that the Chevy had that much more than the Honda in the corners in race trim. We didn’t know what the fuel windows were or how far the cars could be pushed – and neither did quite a few of the teams, apparently. There was far more doubt in play than there has been in many years, and doubt breeds excitement. Even when the end of the story is somewhat predictable, it’s far more exciting getting there when you don’t know for a fact that a wrench won’t be thrown into the works.

(And hey, you know what else there were? Turbos. Those engines sound sweet.)

The race may not have been absolutely perfect, but the new chassis performed exactly as designed, the new engines gave us a bunch of different storylines to follow, and the drivers drove like professionals and put on a great show. I’m more excited about INDYCAR racing than I have been in a long time, and it’s largely because of the new car.

I felt that the new car absolutely lived up to the hype. But maybe that’s only because my expectations for it were realistic.

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PAUL says NO:

So here we are. 2012. The year that everything was supposed to change in INDYCAR. The year that the rest of the field would finally wipe the slate clean and be on par with Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The year that brought about the end of the spec racing era and finally gave the little guys a chance to really stick it to the top two or three teams.

Except it isn’t.

With only one race in the books, many fans are ready to write the new car off as being either a) completely riddled with mechanical gremlins that should have been fixed during testing, or b) failing to accomplish its goal of leveling the playing field and knocking the two Power Teams off their perch.

The simple fact is that it the car isn’t the savoir or the reset button that many fans hoped it would be.

I personally don’t believe this car or the theory behind it is a failure. I think some people had expectations that were simply way beyond realistic. Many people point to the DP-01 that Champ Car used in 2007 as evidence that a new car can indeed level the playing field and knock the top teams back down to the rest of the competition. That’s a cute way of thinking. It’s also naïve and unrealistic. After suffering numerous mechanical problems in the season opening race at Las Vegas, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing won the next three races in a row and eight of the 14 races that season. Had the team retained the services of veteran driver Bruno Junqueira rather than 18-year old rookie Graham Rahal, there’s a good chance they would have won even more races. Yes, four other teams won races that season, but to claim anyone challenged Bourdais and Newman/Haas/Lanigan is an overstatement. The championship was clinched in the penultimate race after Bourdais quickly recovered from his opening race mishap.

The truth is that no matter what car or technology you throw at the teams, the biggest teams are always going to figure it out first, leaving everyone else to play catch-up. Guys like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have massive resources, and no matter how much you try to change things around, those men will use whatever resources they have at their disposal to figure it out quickly. Just as it was unrealistic to think a new car would really throw Newman/Haas/Lanigan for a loop in 2007 and render them noncontenders, it’s even more unrealistic to expect Penske and Ganassi to be completely out to lunch with this new iteration.

The other place this car fails to live up to the massive hype is with the amount of action this car produced in the season opening race at St. Petersburg — or at least action as defined in terms of passing. INDYCAR fans are a notoriously divided people, and those who complain loudest about street course racing say it’s boring because there is little to no passing. The street course apologists pointed to the spec nature of the IICS as the problem, saying it would be cured by the new car. “It is the old, dog Dallara that’s the problem,” we heard all too frequently. “It is the awful, normally aspirated engine with no torque and too little power that ruins the races. Just wait until the turbochargers come back,” was another favorite battle cry. Now it’s, “we need another 100 horsepower to get the cars to shoot out of the corners and really challenge the drivers.” It’s always something.

The truth is that street racing just doesn’t have the passing that oval racing does. Adding more technology won’t necessarily help that. I would argue it would actually make the problem worse. Turbochargers, carbon brakes, lighter tubs, diffusers, dampers, push-rods, ECU’s, paddle shifters, etc., etc., etc. only serve to take the driver further from the equation and make passing less of a reality. The sooner the street haters realize this, the sooner they can move on with their lives and learn to appreciate street racing for what it really is — a much more tactical form of racing that requires the viewer to pay attention to things like fuel strategy, tire management, and cornering versus straight-line setups.

(Of course, it would greatly help and enhance the product if the television coverage understood and focused on these aspects as well, but I digress.)

Think in terms of Rocky IV with ovals being Ivan Drago and street racing being Rocky. Drago is fun because he’s strong, aggressive, and just pummels the opponent non-stop from the opening bell with power. Rocky, on the other hand, survives because of his strategy, his ability to master the finest points of the sport, and occasionally landing a massive blow that cuts down the strongest of opponents and leaves the fans thinking, “Wow, that was impressive.” Rocky, however, will never turn into Drago. He’s just a different beast.

Few people hated watching street races more than I did just a few years ago, but with a bit of understanding (and realization that at least it is still INDYCAR racing), I have come to understand, appreciate, and even occasionally enjoy street races.

So is the new car a failure? No, at least not based on what we’ve seen yet. But I do think it will fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations that many people had for it. It will not revolutionize the sport of INDYCAR racing. At best, it is a small evolution, but please don’t fall for the notion that the DW12 will turn the IZOD IndyCar Series on its head and suddenly give everyone an equal chance at winning. It just doesn’t work that way.

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