While we’re coming off a Honda Grand Prix of Indy event that thrilled and invigorated the fans, not everyone has had cause to celebrate thus far in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Although drivers such as Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Helio Castroneves are off to white-hot starts, there are still teams and drivers looking for a ray of sunshine after a rocky start to their campaign.
The Lotus teams have had a mixed bag so far, with a near-legendary run by Sèbastien Bourdais for P9 Sunday representing their best of the season, but they’ve also had encouraging moments from veteran Oriol Servia. However, they’ve also seen a myriad of mechanical woes for Katherine Legge, and Alex Tagliani’s engine quit on the first lap Sunday. Lotus has at least shown their cars can give a good fight; now they need to work on the consistency of doing so.
Dario Franchitti is P10 in the standings after a spirited duel at the end of the Barber race, but that status belies just how uncomfortable the defending champ has look at times during this young season. So far, the best drivers for Honda have been his teammate Scott Dixon and Schmidt Hamilton Racing’s Simon Pagenaud; stunningly, Dario may only be third or fourth on that list so far. Franchitti has seemed to be searching for his comfort zone, glumly admitting before last Sunday’s race the team was simply looking for anything that would work. We’re not used to Franchitti missing out on advancing past the first round of qualifying; last Saturday, that’s exactly what happened.
Tony Kanaan looked to build on his 2011 successes to start off this season, but despite qualifying well, the KV Racing Technology veteran has been laid low on two consecutive race weekends. At St. Petersburg, battery failure sidelined him early, whereas at Barber, a faulty shock necessitated a lengthy repair and caused him to finish a lap down. There’s no doubt TK can compete up front, but he’s currently mired in last in the overall standings.
Just in front of Kanaan in the standings is Takuma Sato, who has matched him for mechanical issues in the first two races. Taku has also shown he can race hard in these first two events, but after mechanical issues sidelined him early at St. Pete, he ended up walking back towards the pits at Barber with his broken machine parked in the grass. Again, there’s no doubt the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team can compete, but the only luck they’ve seen so far this year has been of the bad variety.
The struggles of drivers the caliber of Franchitti, Kanaan, and Sato seems to reinforce just how important engineering and luck both play in racing, as well as how competitive this field truly is. Missing setup, losing time in the pits, or even just running afoul of Lady Luck, can be all the difference between a podium and the back of the field when there’s no room for error. Right now, nearly every driver in this field has a fighting chance at a Top 10 finish, which means a team can’t stumble in the pits or on the track and expect to still finish ahead of a host of backmarkers. Fall now, and you fall hard.
Fortunately, be it luck, gremlins, or figuring the new car out, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be another chance for teams and drivers to get it right. Two races do not a season make; the above drivers and teams have to be quite happy with that fact just now. They’ll be carrying a sense of urgency into Long Beach, along with the knowledge that a single race can not only be built upon, but can turn a season around in a hurry.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.