Advertisements

IndyCar: Brazilian Drivers Look To Carry Momentum Into Sao Paulo

The Sao Paulo Indy 300 is one of the most popular IndyCar races on the schedule, and a point of pride for the series’ Brazilian drivers. US Race Report’s Chris Leone looks at how IndyCar’s Brazilian stars – Helio Castroneves, Rubens Barrichello, Tony Kanaan, and Ana Beatriz – have started the 2012 season, as they each hope to win their home race.

Advertisements

In The Spotlight: 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series, Edition 1

It’s only been two races, but already, the front-runners and backmarkers of this IZOD IndyCar Series season have started to reveal themselves. With the majority of the season taking place on road and street courses, the drivers who normally excel outside of the ovals, as well as those who adapt well to the new Dallara DW12 and 2.2-liter turbocharged V6 engines, will likely dominate this year’s championship.

With that in mind, we’ll periodically visit the biggest names in IndyCar with these pieces, establishing who’s on top, who’s overachieving, and who’s disappointing over the course of the season. Through the first two races, held on back-to-back weekends on the streets of St. Petersburg and at Barber Motorsports Park, here are some of the drivers to watch:

Photo credit: Ned Leone

STAR: Helio Castroneves. After failing to win a race in 2011, Castroneves opened this season with a win at St. Petersburg and a third place finish at Barber after winning the pole. A hard-fought battle with Graham Rahal at the end of the race ensured his second podium finish in a row and a two-point lead on Scott Dixon going into the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race that Castroneves won in 2001.

DARK HORSE: Sebastien Bourdais. There’s a reason why Honda was courting the four-time Champ Car champion heavily in the offseason: he can drive the wheels off a car. Bourdais set some of the fastest sector times at St. Petersburg before having a motor issue, and sliced his way to a ninth place finish at Barber with a series of impressive moves. Bourdais is only 14th in points, but has shown plenty of why he has 31 career victories (all in Champ Car), and if the Lotus engine ever catches up to Honda and Chevrolet, he’ll win at least one more.

UNDERRATED: Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has yet to attempt any oval runs, with his first test coming at Texas next week, but his road course prowess should give Schmidt/Hamilton racing reason to smile most of the year. Despite a 10-place grid penalty dropping him to P16 at the start at St. Petersburg, he finished sixth; he followed it up at Barber with a fifth place run. Bourdais’ performances may be stealing the attention from his countryman, which is who so few will notice that he currently ranks fifth in points.

IMPROVING: Rubens Barrichello. The 19-year Formula 1 vet is still petitioning IndyCar to restore his rookie status for 2012, but a respectable run at Barber showed that he may lose that battle. Barrichello took eighth place late in the race after starting 14th, thanks to an impressive late race pass of Marco Andretti. He’s now 10th in points – not tearing up the series like Nigel Mansell in 1993, but as the top KV Racing Technology driver in the standings, not failing to make the transition well by any means.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

ALBATROSS: Dario Franchitti. It seems clear that the DW12 doesn’t entirely suit Franchitti’s driving style, which is drastically different from teammate Scott Dixon’s. While Dixon has managed two second place finishes in two races, Franchitti could only manage a 13th place finish at St. Petersburg and barely squeaked into the top 10 at Barber. He’s now 11th in points. While things aren’t as bad yet as Dixon’s title-defending 2004 season, where the Kiwi followed up a strong 2003 with an absolute stinker due to a weak Toyota engine, Franchitti still has some serious work to do.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 3

With today’s post, we’re halfway through our season preview for the IZOD IndyCar Series. We’ll break down stories 15-11 today; the first ten stories went up in the past two days (see part one and part two), while the top ten will be revealed in the next two days.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

15. Mike Conway will bring A.J. Foyt’s team back to relevance with a strong season.

FACT: Conway, last year’s surprise Long Beach winner, has improved every year he’s been in IndyCar. Foyt, meanwhile, landed a Honda engine contract early in engine negotiations and will be one of the brand’s top teams in 2012. With an emphasis on road and street courses, tracks where Conway excels, the Foyt team has hired the right driver to put together a competitive season, especially since they’ve never been particularly strong on those sorts of tracks.

14. Los Angeles will provide a better setting for a series finale than Las Vegas.

FACT: Last year’s tragedy aside, Los Angeles and the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana actually have a few natural advantages over Las Vegas for IndyCar. For one, IndyCar’s media headquarters are in Los Angeles, and with the announcement of a new Dreamworks film, “Turbo,” about a snail that dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500, it’s not a stretch to figure that the series will have plenty of marketing tie-ins to utilize. The sport has had ties with plenty of movie stars over the years, from the late Paul Newman’s team ownership to Mark Wahlberg’s IZOD commercial appearances in the past couple of years. Las Vegas has its attractions, including a parade on the Strip that highlighted last year’s event, but the thought of taking over Tinseltown is too good to be true.

13. With the strongest freshman class in years, the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award is anyone’s to win.

FACT: 19 years of Formula 1 experience rendered Rubens Barrichello ineligible for rookie honors in IndyCar according to new race control czar Beaux Barfield, and ovals aside, he’s probably right. That leaves the class open to two former Champ Car drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Katherine Legge, who receive rookie status again in IndyCar because of the different sanctioning body. Meanwhile, Josef Newgarden will move up from Indy Lights, while Luca Filippi shifts from the European GP2 championship starting at Indianapolis. All have plenty of talent, and with the right luck, could feasibly take the honors. Smart money goes to Pagenaud, however, as his Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports team has the most full-time experience.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

12. Helio Castroneves is revitalized enough to be a consistent performer all season.

FICTION: 11th place in last year’s points should be motivation enough for Castroneves to pick up his performance in 2012. But for all the time he’s spent in the employ of Roger Penske, the popular Brazilian has never shown late-season consistency in his hottest seasons, and never had quite enough sizzle in his more consistent years. It seems a little late in his career to finally pick up a first championship, but keep in mind that Dario Franchitti spent a decade in the sport before his first title. And even if it never happens, Castroneves will still have three Indianapolis 500 wins (at least) to hang his hat on. Don’t expect a title, but that fourth Indy win doesn’t seem out of the question.

11. Lotus will be a distant third in this year’s engine manufacturer race.

FACT: Things look bad for the British engine supplier, which prepares its products at John Judd’s base in England. They got a late start in developing their engine, and the results showed in testing. With a solid driver lineup and what appears to be a conservative plan to gradually work its way up the charts this season, don’t expect too much from Lotus in the early stages of the year. They’ll improve later in the season, but that may be too late to compete with Honda or Chevrolet over the course of the full year.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Helio Castroneves

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#3 Shell V-Power Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: May 10, 1975

Home: Sao Paulo, Brazil

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Castroneves made his 200th career open-wheel start for Team Penske at Loudon, and after running a team-sponsored car for much of 2010, picked up new sponsorships from Shell and AAA, among other brands. Castroneves finished second at both Edmonton and Sonoma.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: 2011 was Castroneves’ worst season since he drove for the underfunded Hogan Racing on the 1999 CART schedule. For the first time as a Penske driver, he didn’t win a race all season, and dropped to 11th in points after underperforming at many tracks. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner even finished a miserable 17th in that race, a lap down.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Castroneves, for the first time, enters the season as Penske’s clear-cut number three driver. Even though Will Power was the only Penske driver to win last season, Ryan Briscoe’s finishes were much more consistent. If Castroneves is still higher on the food chain, it’s only because of the star power that comes with three Indy wins, a book deal, and a Dancing with the Stars title.

That being said, even if he’s on the downside of his career, it’s not likely that Roger Penske will let Castroneves slip much more than that. In fact, a trying 2011 season may have been just what “Spiderman” needed to revitalize his career, much as a winless 2006 allowed Dario Franchitti to come back strong in 2007 and win his first career title, more than a decade into his career. If the Ilmor-built Chevrolet engines outperform the Honda and Lotus offerings, Castroneves will be a serious championship contender.

– Chris Leone