What has been the biggest storyline of the season so far?
Steph Wallcraft, MoreFrontWing.com: To me, it's Dario Franchitti's weak start. It's very odd to make such a statement about the driver who won the Indianapolis 500, but that win was the only time that Dario has come even remotely close to the form that has seen him take the title in the last four seasons that he's contested. His struggles with adjusting the DW12 to his braking style in pre-season testing are well-known, but we're getting late enough now that continued use of that reasoning is wearing thin. That we'll see a new Series champion at the end of the year is now very nearly a lock, and the questions about Dario's struggles are starting to dig a little bit deeper.
Kyle Lavigne, ICN Contributor: For my money, the success of the DW12 chassis has been the biggest and most entertaining story to follow. A great amount of doom and gloom surrounding the 2012 machine, whether it was its early struggles on ovals or its overall appearance, during the winter. However, from St. Petersburg onward, the car has performed nearly flawlessly.
The opening rounds of the season were as entertaining and intriguing as anyone could have hoped for. The Indianapolis 500 was lauded as one of the best in recent memory (if not ever). The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway was also among the best we’ve ever seen and provided a great platform for future races on 1.5-mile ovals.
Quite simply, the DW12 has been a hit in just about every way possible.
Chris Estrada, IndyRacingRevolution.com: The Dallara DW12’s performance has to be credited here: Seven great races and the only one that really wasn’t – Belle Isle – turned out that way due to outside factors. Obviously, the racing it put on at Indianapolis and Texas stand out, but for me, the breakthrough for this chassis came in April at Barber Motorsport Park. While Firestone’s softer tire compounds played a role, the DW12 enabled drivers to take more chances on passing (and, thanks to its smaller fuel cell, forced them to race hard instead of fuel saving). It was a great show on a course that had been previously criticized for its lack of passing zones – and proof that this car could cut the mustard.
Zachary Houghton, IndyCarAdvocate.com: Looking at the points battle for the IICS Championship, we have a good fight through the top five, with Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Helio Castroneves all with a single win’s point margin of one another. While Will Power and Penske had the early upper hand this year, right now, it’s still anyone’s fight. Watching each week to see which drivers can avoid disaster has been absolutely riveting. The DW12 and Firestone’s tire program have helped enable some tremendous battles on-track, and that’s reflected in the closeness of the top drivers in this field right now. The new car may not have been everyone’s cup of tea when unveiled, but it’s doing a great job out there.
Paul Dalbey, MoreFrontWing.com: I think that the biggest storyline, without a doubt, has to be the on-track success of the new DW12. Initially panned by critics and fans alike for it's less-than-appealing initial visuals, the new car has performed better than anyone could have predicted at a bulk of the races. With the new chassis and the engines, races that have previously been lackluster snoozers like Barber and Long Beach were turned into fascinating, exciting events. Not everyone is yet sold on the aesthetics of the new car (though I think it has really grown on a vast majority of fans), the performance characteristics of it are way beyond expectations. So good are they, in fact, that fan reception to the news of delayed aero kits (again) was met with something of a calm acceptance instead of outright furor and indignation.
Which drivers have been the best so far/biggest disappointment?
Steph: Having detailed Dario as a disappointment above, I'll turn my attention to the best drivers through the first half of the season. This is such a strong field, and there are so many great performances to choose from -- Will Power is an obvious pick as points leader, Scott Dixon has been at peak form, Simon Pagenaud is tearing up the rookie battle, and Josef Newgarden has been surprisingly fast despite the odds being stacked against him. My attention at the moment, though, is firmly held by James Hinchcliffe -- not because he's Canadian (honest!) but because a quiet and consistent first half of the year has allowed him to come out of nowhere and climb to second place in the point standings. And he's been so consistent that he's pulled it off without a win, too -- he's finished sixth or better in every event but Detroit, where he was removed from contention by a freak incident that was in no way his fault. He's definitely on a roll and continuing to get stronger. Were I Will Power, I'd be watching my rear-view mirrors pretty closely at the moment.
Kyle: James Hinchcliffe’s consistency has been a pleasant surprise this year. We all knew he had the talent to become a star, but he has rapidly turned into a legitimate title contender, currently sitting second in the standings as we hit the season’s halfway point. If not the track issues at Belle Isle, “Hinch” would likely have completed every lap this year. To be sure, a victory for him and the Go Daddy/Andretti Autosport team is coming.
Conversely, the most disappointing driver has been teammate Marco Andretti. A number of drivers have suffered bad luck in 2012, but Andretti’s has been marred by both bad luck and underwhelming performance. Outside of the Indy 500, he has not been a factor at all. And, that run at Indianapolis fell apart in the second half of the race before he crashed out in the final laps.
Andretti is somewhat infamous for his inconsistency, but his 2012 season has a nightmare.
Chris: Consistency isn’t always flashy, but it gets results and that’s why James Hinchcliffe is within striking distance of Will Power in the championship as we start the second half of the season this weekend at Iowa. Time will tell if the Canadian stays in the title fight, but you have to think he’s on the verge of rattling off a win or two. As for honorable mentions, rookie-in-name-only Simon Pagenaud and Oriol Servia have both done some mighty fine driving, too.
On the other side of the coin, Marco Andretti is simply not having a good year and has taken a major tumble from his usual Top-10 perch in the championship because of it. The only solace he can take is that some of the trouble has been because of tough breaks – and that Iowa, the track he won at last year, is up next.
Zachary: Will Power is still leading the standings, but let’s give some credit to Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe, who (among others) are keeping his feet to the fire. Power is still absolutely amazing on the twisty circuits, but wins aren’t coming without a fight. One such fight was with Simon Pagenaud at Long Beach, where the Frenchman nearly caught him in the closing laps. Considering Pags is a rookie on a normally single-car team, that makes his performance all the more impressive. He should have no trouble clinching the Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and might even still have an outside shot at the title.
On the negative side of things, Marco Andretti has not compiled a single Top 10 this year, and saw a great performance in the first half of the Indy 500 wasted in a late crash. In a year where his teammates have been running up front almost every week, Marco’s struggles are a big disappointment. The Andretti scion was a trendy pick to finish at the top before the season started, and it just hasn’t happened.
Paul: Without having seen the responses from my fellow contributors, I have a feeling most will say that James Hinchcliffe has been the best performer thus far this year, or at least the most surprising front runner, and that's a hard argument to go against. However, the biggest surprise to me so far has been the performance of Justin Wilson, especially on the ovals. Everyone knows that Justin is crazy talented and one of the best road-course racers in the series. However, I know I never gave J-Will much credit for his ability to get the job done on ovals. My eyes were opened with Justin's fabulous run during the Indianapolis 500, and his victory at Texas a couple weeks later cemented my belief that this driver and this team, yes Dale Coyne Racing, can actually be a contender week in and week out. After so many years of hard work and struggling, it must be an unbelievable feeling for Dale to see his cars running strong and competitively week in and week out.
As far as disappointment goes, I think Marco Andretti has to be one of the most frustrated drivers in the series (short of maybe Simona de Silvestro). At times this year, Marco has shown flashes of brilliance and given indications that he is ready to complete on a regular basis at the front of the field. Unfortunately, the results haven't arrived yet and week after week, another circumstance takes Marco out of contention. With one teammate having just scored his first win of the season in Milwaukee and the other sitting second in points, Marco's own confidence must been falling as his frustration level rises.
What has been your favorite moment of the year?
Steph: Hands down, unequivocably, with zero question: Justin Wilson's win at Texas. Who doesn't love cheering for an underdog? Find me one person who predicted that a man known as a road and street specialist driving for Dale Coyne Racing would win at a high-banked 1.5-mile oval, and I'll show you a genius who could probably retire on occasional visits to the bookies.
Kyle: Personally, I grew up a big fan of Greg Moore. James Hinchcliffe’s tribute to him (when he carried a pair of Moore’s red gloves with him during Indy 500 Pole Day) was one of the more touching moments of this season.
On track, it was great fun to watch Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing capture their first oval win at Texas. It was quite as big an upset as their 2009 victory at Watkins Glen was, but it was a great result that they earned on merit. Wilson was strong all night and brilliant managed his tires to make sure he ran well at the end of stints, a move that paid off in spades.
Chris: It’s a toss-up. After winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Helio Castroneves delivered a perfect tribute when he climbed the Turn 10 fence to pat the “Dan Wheldon Way” sign in front of a roaring crowd; it may well be the image of the season when it’s all said and done. Then there’s the race at Texas, which went off perfectly after a palpable sense of apprehension going in. Safer but still exciting racing on 1.5-mile ovals can be done and INDYCAR now has the way to do it.
Zachary: There have been so many to choose from. There was the excitement of the battle between Power and Pagenaud at Long Beach, Justin Wilson’s stunning victory at Texas, and getting to return to Milwaukee and see what Michael Andretti’s team was able to accomplish with that historic track.
Still, I think I’d have to go with this year’s Indy 500, which was one of the most back-and-forth epic races I’ve seen in years. The emotions of the crowd were visceral, as their affections went from Marco Andretti to Ed Carpenter to Tony Kanaan to Takuma Sato. Much like the finish of the 2011 Indy 500, I felt like we all left there having shared an amazing common experience. For all the hysterics and worry leading up to the Month of May, it was a tremendous race.
Paul: My favorite moment so far this year was being in the stands for the last 50 laps of the Indianapolis 500. When Tony Kanaan stormed by Dario Franchitti to take the lead late in the race, the roar from the crowd was amazing and unlike anything I'd heard since Little Al beat Scott Goodyear to the line in 1992. If TK had found a way to roll his car into victory lane, I honestly think it would have been one of the most popular race victories in the 96 runnings of that great race. The battle up front during the closing laps, with the lead changing on almost every lap and knowing that five or six drivers had a legitimate shot of winning the race with only 10 laps to go, made the air electric throughout the stands and captivated even those in attendance with no idea about what happened during the first 450 miles of the race. It was everything Indianapolis should be.
With the standings as they now stand, who is your pick to be the IZOD IndyCar Series Champion?
Steph: With the exception of Iowa and Fontana (and, granted, potentially another race yet to be named), the balance of the schedule is road and street courses. Advantage: Power. With Dario no longer a factor in Will's head games, I think this is the year he finally gets the monkey off his back and starts a run of success that will see him counted among the sport's legends.
Kyle: At this point, it’s impossible to predict how the championship will turn. Will Power looked unstoppable after winning three races in a row (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo), but hasn’t been much of a contender since. James Hinchcliffe has been incredibly consistent, but doesn’t have a win to his name yet (and remains the most inexperienced of the title contenders). Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti have been feast or famine this year, while Simon Pagenaud has been strong on road/street courses, but has struggled on ovals.
For now, I’ll vote for Power solely because he leads the standings by 31 points right now. However, the season has been quite unpredictable and that gap can flip the other way very quickly.
Chris: If Power can keep his pursuers from cutting into his points lead this weekend, you have to think his chances are good with five straight road/street courses following Iowa (or six, depending on where the “Plan B” China replacement race ends up). Hinchcliffe will have to win some races to be considered a true rival to Power, while the rest of the contenders can’t afford any more subpar finishes. Power has fallen off a bit since his April rampage, but considering the big picture, he’s still my pick.
Zachary: I think you still need to start that conversation with Will Power. The host of street courses following Iowa should play to his strengths, but he still needs to close the deal—something he’s been unable to do in 2010 or 2011. Scott Dixon is part of a resurgent Honda effort, and is consistent enough to take advantage of any faltering by either Power or James Hinchcliffe. I think we could see Dixie add another title to his résumé. I’ll say this: if it came down to one final race to decide the champ, I’m not picking against Dixon.
Paul: Will Power is certainly in the driver's seat in terms of bringing home the championship. Unless he has some completely uncharacteristic performances at several races throughout the rest of the year, I just don't see anyone being able to catch him. I think Scott Dixon might pose the greatest threat as he is usually very good at sealing the deal, and I'm just not convinced that James Hinchcliffe can maintain the high level of consistence for the remainder of the year. With Dario way behind and showing little sign of getting the boat turned around this year, Will Power may not face a serious challenge the rest of the way unless he greatly falters this weekend at Iowa and at at least a couple more events down the road.