If you’re new to this open-wheel thing, you’ll quickly realize that there are three “seasons within a season” in the IZOD IndyCar Series: The races before the Indianapolis 500, the “500” itself, and the races after Indy which make up the run to the championship.
The first season is now complete. And now the second one has begun as the IndyCar rookies are undergoing orientation and taking their first laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the curtain-raiser for all the activities leading up to the 100th anniversary running of the world’s greatest race.
But even with the 500’s all-important status, it will still pay IZOD IndyCar Series points like all the other races do. With that in mind, let’s take a look back on what went down in the series’ first four events in 2011 before Indy Madness sets in for all of us and makes us forget that the third season is just one race away.
The duel continues
It’s as if they never stopped after Homestead. Dario Franchitti may have come from behind to take down Will Power and claim his third series title last year, but lo and behold, the two are once again fighting each other for supremacy at the top of the standings.
Franchitti claimed the season-opener at St. Petersburg with a dominating effort, but Power promptly answered back with his own pasting of the field at Barber Motorsports Park. Mike Conway broke up their fight momentarily with his victory at Long Beach, but Power jumped right back into the points lead with a water-logged win in Brazil. The Australian now holds a 14-point edge going into Indianapolis.
The best part about this rivalry is that it hasn’t even reached its full potential yet. Indy represents the first opportunity to see if Power can finally put everything together on the ovals. What will happen when that moment finally comes? And what if that moment comes at the Speedway with the whole world watching?
In the meantime, their tight championship battle will take on a new dimension this month. Every point counts for the both of them and neither may be able to afford a disaster as the other one will likely capitalize on it.
Add in the immense inherent pressures of the “500” alone and both men and their
teams will have plenty on their shoulders.
Restarts, 2012 aero kits cause drama
The IZOD IndyCar Series’ new double-file restart rule was intended to jack up the excitement, but it’s also jacked up the repair bills for many teams as they try to come to grips with it. So far, it’s been a mixed bag – while the Turn 1, Lap 1 crash at St. Petersburg and the wretched-looking restarts at Long Beach are memorable for the wrong reasons, it appears that the drivers finally got it down at Sao Paulo. Of course, they also had to take driving rainstorms into account at that event.
Meanwhile, as the essential re-launch of the sport looms on the horizon, the team owners voted to delay the aero kits for the new 2012 Dallara IndyCars until 2013. But the final decision on the matter goes to series CEO Randy Bernard, who has a tough choice to make: Go with the people that pay the bills or go with the fans, who have been screaming for something new.
The owners certainly have a valid argument as they’re going to be hit with a lot of things to pay for. But there’s simply been too much hard work, too much effort, too much build-up into 2012. While cost containment is important, this move has the potential to cripple all of IndyCar’s positive momentum that it has built up over the last year or so.
Bernard has to think very carefully on this one. Whatever decision he makes may become his defining moment as INDYCAR CEO.
New and improved Newman-Haas
Well, it’s not entirely new; after all, one of their current drivers, Oriol Servia, did race for the team in 2005 (Champ Car) and 2009 (IndyCar) before re-joining them this season. But after falling hard last season, the eight-time open-wheel champions have been revived and kickin’ so far in ’11.
Servia stands third in IndyCar points going into Indianapolis in a so-far stellar comeback following a year away from the cockpit. With his fifth place effort earlier this month in Sao Paulo, he’s turned in two top-5 and four top-10 finishes to put himself within 58 points of the championship lead. Granted, that’s a little more than one race’s worth of points, but if Servia continues his solid run – and gets some help in the form of trouble from Power or Franchitti – he can draw closer to the top two.
Meanwhile, the team has also gotten some spirited efforts from their rookie racer James Hinchcliffe. After missing the opening round at St. Petersburg while sponsorship details were being finalized, the Mayor of Hinchtown has made up for that lost time with back-to-back top-10s at Long Beach (fourth) and Sao Paulo (ninth) to get back into the fight for Rookie of the Year honors.
We’ll see if they keep it up at the “500,” but so far, it’s been nice seeing this legendary team back in fighting form again.
The clock continues to tick on Helio Castroneves’ quest to win a series championship. And after being involved in incidents at St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Sao Paulo, it appears that the 36-year-old will have to wait another season for that elusive crown.
Castroneves was one of the victims of a multi-car incident in the opening moments of the Brazil round and his 21st place finish stuck him 100 points behind his Team Penske teammate Power in the championship. He’s also taken serious heat this year for his roles in multiple wrecks, including one that had him spin Power out at Long Beach, costing the Australian his points lead.
All of this leads to the obvious question: Is he pushing too hard to catch up to his teammates (Power and Ryan Briscoe are second and fifth in the standings, respectively)? Castroneves probably won’t admit that, but until he turns it around, the question is going to be in the back of our heads.
And we haven’t even gotten to the matter of the IRS coming back into his life
again, asserting that he owes an additional $6 million-plus – even though he paid $5 million of incometaxes after he beat them in a federal court two years ago.
Yeah, he could probably use a fourth Indy 500 win right about now. Fortunately, even with his current problems, he’ll likely be in contention to do the job.
Prove me right
Coming off a lengthy rehabilitation following his devastating Indianapolis 500 crash, Mike Conway may not have been the driver fans had in mind to essentially replace Tony Kanaan at Andretti Autosport. But Michael Andretti made the call to bring the young Brit into the fold and complete his four-car arsenal.
His decision was rewarded handsomely at Long Beach, where Conway roared through the field and dusted Briscoe to take his inaugural IZOD IndyCar Series victory in a fashion that was about as stunning as the wreck that he survived last May. Suffice to say, Conway’s comeback is now complete. He currently sits fourth in the points standings going to Indy.
Even a month later, you can’t get over how unexpected his victory was. This guy had been flying under the radar for his entire IndyCar career. He doesn’t seek the spotlight and goes about his business with quiet professionalism; noble traits indeed, but they don’t always make for a star that everybody knows.
Well, we can forget all of that "under the radar" business now. From here on in, Conway's going to be known as a force to be reckoned with, especially on the twisty tracks. But with Andretti's experience around Indy, you can be sure that he'll be competitive this month, too.