INDYCAR: Ramblings

The Indycar 2012 season has reached a critical stage with 3 races to go and 4 drivers separated by 28 points, the equivalent of a sixth place. The season has taken some interesting turns with Helio Castroneves winning the opening round after a winless 2011, and then Will Power looking dominant over the following 3 rounds. However, the oval courses saw the return of Will’s lacklustre performances (which surprisingly started happening in road and street courses as well) and this allowed Dario Franchitti to win his third Indy 500 (frankly the only positive thing he has done all season) and then Ryan Hunter-Reay to come out of nowhere, win 3 consecutive races and take the points lead. Scott Dixon also stepped up a gear and won at Detroit and Mid-Ohio whilst Castroneves returned to winning ways in Edmonton. So now Power leads from Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Dixon with 3 to go. As usual, Indycar is providing good entertainment even if most races have not been spectacular.

Interestingly, the last three races are at Sonoma (road course), Baltimore (street) and Auto Club Speedway (oval). Sonoma is one of those Indycar tracks that looks great on TV and (located in the California wine region) provides good booze to the fans, but unfortunately tends to produce extremely boring races with little overtaking. In 2010 the only highlight was an entertaining first lap incident whilst last year the race was so boring that Indycar threw a caution with a few laps to go as Chinese driver Ho Pin Tung parked his car in a perfectly safe manner. Both races were won by Will Power, last year’s also being a Penske 1-2-3. Surely Power is again favourite to win this one.

Baltimore is the typical modern Indycar street course, i.e. absolutely uninteresting and almost amateurish – one of the hairpins is so tight and narrow that it generated a traffic jam last year.

Will Power was last year’s winner but both Dixon, Castroneves and Hunter-Reay have won street courses this year, so it’s a difficult call.

The final race is at the Fontana superspeedway, nowadays known as Auto Club Speedway. This event marks the return of Indycar to superspeedways and it has been recently extended to a 500-mile race. The track is notorious for two things: producing incredibly boring NASCAR races and for those 1990s Indycar races run at 380+ km/h with drivers endlessly slipstreaming each other until their engines blew up in spectacular fashion. Brazilian Gil de Ferran set the closed course speed record on this track in 2000 lapping it during qualifying at an amazing 388.537 km/h. The video below shows that the track is so wide and the car looks so slow, almost as if de Ferran is on a Sunday drive.

It will be interesting to see how the modern cars and engines will perform, especially over 500 miles, and suspect that a few drivers will conclude that it is better to start the race with a new engine and take a 10 place grid penalty. It’s very difficult to predict this race and it has the potential to be either exciting and random or extremely boring. It seems a good idea to tune in to the Japanese commentary feed (the action below is not from Fontana but from a similarly shaped superspeedway oval course – the last lap provides the best entertainment).

The four title contenders will need to play to their strenghts and minimise the damage on bad days. Scott Dixon appears to be the best package overall as Power can be very strong in road and street races only for his title hopes to vanish with a DNF in Fontana. Castroneves has had ups and downs and it is difficult to see him doing 3 consecutive strong performances. Hunter-Reay has a decent chance and it would be really good to see a new Indycar champion, especially an American one. All in all a fascinating climax is shaping up in the 2012 Indycar season.

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