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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.

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Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 5

Photo credit: Ned Leone

All week we’ve been counting down some of the most important storylines in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. Today, we address the top five. These stories will likely influence the entire complexion of the season, so keep them in mind as the sport puts on its most important championship in years. (If you need to catch up, here are the first, second, third, and fourth parts of the series.)

5. The rumored driver boycott of Texas will be a serious problem for the series.

FICTION: Besides the fact that plenty of drivers have dismissed the notion, a boycott stands fully against common sense. In the series’ many years of racing at Texas, the worst wreck took place in 2003, effectively shortening Kenny Brack’s driving career but not quite ending it. With the new rear wheel covers meant to prevent liftoff in rear-ending situations, the new Dallara DW12s are safer (and reportedly slower on ovals), and clearly the sanctioning body will take every precaution to make sure that this year’s Texas event is as clean as any IndyCar race in history.

4. Rubens Barrichello will be one of the series’ top drivers in 2012.

FACT: The only worry for Rubens will be ovals, which he has never run before, but the stars are aligned for a strong season. Barrichello will drive for KV Racing Technology, perhaps the third-best team in the sport behind Ganassi and Penske, and will have good friend Tony Kanaan’s brain to pick over the nuances of American open-wheel racing. He’s been fast in testing, and with road and street courses comprising the bulk of this year’s schedule, he won’t be too far out of his element after nearly two decades in Formula 1. Expect at least one win.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

3. IndyCar will miss Danica Patrick greatly, for both diversity and marketing reasons.

FICTION: For every reason that the sport may miss her, the rest of the paddock can probably rattle off four others why they won’t. Diversity isn’t an issue, with plenty of female drivers still in the series. And while the marketing end now lacks an international superstar, this will allow both the sport and the networks to focus on other (perhaps more successful) drivers.

2. Dan Wheldon’s passing will lead to major safety changes in IndyCar the way that Dale Earnhardt’s did in NASCAR.

FACT: The safety changes were already somewhat in place before Wheldon’s accident at Las Vegas, with a brand new cockpit and new rear wheel guards on the new Dallara chassis that will now bear his name. But in an age where racing has become much safer than ever before, any fatal accident has significant sway over the public’s perception of the sport. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was the long-developed response to Earnhardt’s accident; IndyCar will have no choice but to go further in the wake of Wheldon’s.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

1. Dario Franchitti will win his fourth consecutive IndyCar title.

FICTION: Dario’s going to make me look stupid for saying this, but it just seems like it’s time that a new champion is crowned. Dario’s won each of the past four titles he’s chased (remember, he skipped 2008 for an ill-fated NASCAR adventure), as has Chip Ganassi (Scott Dixon took that title). As Jimmie Johnson showed in NASCAR last season, any streak that lasts longer than a presidential term isn’t much longer for this world, because bad luck has a way of catching up eventually. He’ll challenge, but this might just be somebody else’s year. My money is on Will Power.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 2

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Today, we count down stories 20-16 at the beginning of this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series season. This is the second part of a five-part series previewing this year’s IndyCar season; the first post went up yesterday, while the next three will go up in the coming days.

20. The Milwaukee Mile will flourish with Michael Andretti at the helm as promoter.

FACT: Unlike last year’s promoters, Andretti is doing everything he possibly can to make Milwaukee an attractive race for all sorts of fans. Four tickets for the race go for under $100, which goes a long way towards keeping the event affordable for families. Beyond that, there will be plenty of entertainment to entice fans to make the Milwaukee IndyFest an annual event on their calendar. Andretti must have learned something about good business from his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, because everything he’s done with the event so far suggests that the track’s promoter troubles are through for good.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

19. Oriol Servia will be Lotus’ top driver this year.

FACT: Last year’s fourth-place points finisher is working with Lotus’ most experienced entrant, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. That being said, this team doesn’t seem to have an obvious fatal flaw compared to its fellow Lotus competitors. Sebastien Bourdais may be the brand’s most talented driver, but Dragon Racing has been one of the most tumultuous teams in the sport in the past few years. Alex Tagliani and Bryan Herta Autosport are making the jump to full-time competition for the first time together, a transition that will likely lead to some growing pains. As for Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing, they’ve never been particularly lucky in IndyCar. If only by process of elimination, Servia is Lotus’ best entry.

18. IndyCar’s street race in China will not only avoid the problems that Champ Car had staging a similar race, but it will also lead to a lengthy association with the sport and the country.

FACT: First things first: IndyCar’s management structure right now is far more stable than Champ Car’s ever was. But one of the issues with the Champ Car China round was an inability to secure a decent promoter. The series took the original promoter to court, while their replacement wanted to switch the inaugural Chinese Champ Car Grand Prix from May to October. The FIA rejected the new date, and so the race was shot down. IndyCar doesn’t foresee the same problems with the Qingdao Indy Grand Prix or its August race date, claiming the full support of the local government, and so any bad premonitions may be a non-issue.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

17. Tony Kanaan can match his top five finish in points from last season.

FICTION: There’s just too much talent in the sport to make this a sure bet. If you want to be bland and predictable, the top Ganassi and Penske cars total five on their own. But Andretti Autosport will hope to put at least one of their cars in the top five, while even friend, teammate, and IndyCar rookie Rubens Barrichello could steal a top five position if he adapts to ovals well enough.

16. Either Chip Ganassi Racing or Penske Racing, depending on whose engine is better, will see its lead drivers slip down the standings in 2012.

FICTION: Not based on Sebring testing, they won’t. Penske Chevrolets were the class of the field in their test session, while Ganassi Hondas made everybody else look slow in theirs. Different weather conditions on different days make the two sets of data difficult to compare to one another, but the point is that they’re both going to be strong this year as usual.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Tony Kanaan

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#11 GEICO/Itaipava/Mouser Dallara-Chevrolet, KV Racing Technology

Born: December 31, 1974

Home: Salvador, Brazil

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Kanaan finished fifth in the championship, remarkable given the fact that he signed with KVRT in March, just before the start of the season. He scored three podiums, with a best finish of second at Iowa, and by finishing fourth at Indianapolis, secured his best finish there since 2006.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Besides the stress of his tumultuous offseason, Kanaan had four DNFs in 2011, and took his share of hard hits. At Loudon, his car landed upside down after a backstretch crash; during a practice session at Baltimore, he lost his brakes heading into a sharp corner and flew over Helio Castroneves. Kanaan was also leading at Las Vegas when the worst wreck in recent IndyCar memory took the life of his former teammate and close friend Dan Wheldon.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After leaving what had been a sinking ship at Andretti Autosport, the 2004 IndyCar champion latched onto KVRT as a mentor to the wild Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso and helped the entire organization take a step forward in 2011. He’ll return to the team in 2012, once again as its undisputed lead driver, and this time will (hopefully) have the same engineer all season; last year, Michael Cannon left Kanaan’s timing stand mid-season.

Kanaan still has one race to conquer, though: the Indianapolis 500. His misfortunes at the track have been well chronicled, and as the top Andretti driver for years he seemed to have inherited the “Andretti Curse” from owner Michael Andretti. Last year’s fourth place finish may signal the start of a turnaround, though, and while another top five points finish may be out of reach, Kanaan won’t care if he finally gets the Indy monkey off his back.

Barrichello Brings Respect, Legitimacy to IndyCar

Image via KV Racing Technology (@kvracing)

The biggest news of the day in international motorsports doesn’t usually belong to the IZOD IndyCar Series, unless it’s in relation to the Indianapolis 500. Today, however, IndyCar is at the forefront of the racing world, as Rubens Barrichello will suspend a 19-season Formula 1 career to join KV Racing Technology for the 2012 IndyCar season. Barrichello, who will drive a #8 Dallara-Chevrolet backed by a Brazilian construction company, joins “brother” Tony Kanaan (the two are very close) and E.J. Viso at KVRT.

It will be KV’s second big driver-related move in two years, after Vasser sprung for Kanaan last offseason when his ride at Andretti Autosport vaporized. Previously, KV had made a history taking on drivers who brought their own sponsorship, and the lineup didn’t always work according to plan; in 2010, Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes combined for over 30 accidents during races and practice sessions.

Now, their lead two drivers have combined for only 15 DNFs (Kanaan nine, Barrichello six) in 106 starts (Kanaan 51 in IndyCar, Barrichello 55 in F1) the past three seasons. Their ability to keep cars out of trouble on the track (only eight of those DNFs were accident-related) should have the team very confident about where they stand in the sport. In fact, Vasser may have, car for car, a more talented driver lineup than his former owner, Chip Ganassi.

But beyond that, landing Barrichello is a huge caveat for IndyCar, as he is the first big name Formula One driver to defect to the United States since Nigel Mansell made the move in 1993. Mansell tore up the CART ranks, winning back-to-back F1 and CART championships. Barrichello tested the new Dallara DW12 multiple times for KV as an advisor in the offseason, having experienced some of the new engineering concepts in Formula 1, and really enjoyed the car.

It also suggests that IndyCar’s safety improvements on the new car, made in the wake of Dan Wheldon’s tragic passing last October, have been significant enough to satisfy those worried about running open-wheeled cars on ovals. While his wife was initially concerned about the safety of running ovals, which could have resulted in a partial schedule, his kids reportedly convinced her to give the okay to run every race in 2012. That simply wouldn’t have happened if the car wasn’t deemed safe enough, and no amount of pleading from Barrichello’s kids would have changed that.

Barrichello believes that some other Formula 1 drivers have interest in ovals, and that his switch to IndyCar (especially if successful) could open the door for other drivers to make the same choice in the future. That’s not to imply that these drivers will be mid- to low-level F1 drivers, as Sato, Justin Wilson, and Sebastien Bourdais were, either – Barrichello is referring to top talent in the sport. Mark Webber, Red Bull’s second driver, has been rumored on his way out for years now due to his age despite strong performances; he could be a candidate if those rumors ever come to pass.

In the early 1990s, IndyCar was on par with Formula 1 for the greatest open-wheel driving talent in the world. Drivers like Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., and Bobby Rahal established themselves well in solely American careers, while Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Mario Andretti brought Formula 1 pedigrees. The 1996 split between CART and the Indy Racing League undid a lot of the sport’s prestige, as drivers racing in America would look to NASCAR and the few CART drivers to earn F1 rides failed miserably. Barrichello’s signing, however, should do a lot to reverse that trend; not only will he bring a level of respect back to IndyCar, he should inspire other, better young talent to consider the series as a viable option once again.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Rubens Barrichello

Photo credit: Alex Comerford (CC BY-NC-ND)

#8 BMC/Embrase Dallara-Chevrolet, KV Racing Technology

Born: May 23, 1972

Home: Sao Paulo, Brazil

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: The all-time starts leader in Formula 1 (322 races run since 1993) raced with the Williams squad for the second year in a row in 2011, alongside new teammate Pastor Maldonado. Barrichello managed a pair of points finishes at Monaco and Canada, both times coming in ninth place. As usual, his only retirements on the year came from parts failures rather than driver error.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Barrichello could only muster four points, good for 17th place in the 2011 standings; while that topped teammate Maldonado’s single point and 19th place finish, it was enough to convince Frank Williams to replace the aging Brazilian with countryman Bruno Senna in 2012.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Landing Barrichello is a huge caveat for IndyCar, as he is the first big name Formula 1 driver to defect to the United States since Nigel Mansell made the move in 1993. Mansell tore up the CART ranks, winning back to back F1 and CART championships. Barrichello tested the new Dallara DW12 multiple times for KV as an advisor in the offseason, having experienced some of the new engineering concepts in Formula 1, and really enjoyed the car. While his wife was initially concerned about the safety of running ovals, which could have resulted in a partial schedule, his kids reportedly convinced her to give the okay to run every race in 2012.

Barrichello’s decision to join KV signifies Jimmy Vasser’s strongest play yet to become the next Chip Ganassi. After adding former IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan last year, Vasser now has another world-class driver in his employ, and he owes it all to Kanaan’s great friendship with his countryman. Barrichello has a reputation as a great teammate (remember all those years that he put up with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari), which should help E.J. Viso wring even more speed out of his KV car, and as a consistent driver who keeps his car together (only six DNFs in his past three F1 seasons). KV’s old reputation for tearing up two cars a weekend should be a thing of the distant past.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: E.J. Viso

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#5 Citgo Dallara-Chevrolet, KV Racing Technology

Born: March 19, 1985

Home: Caracas, Venezuela

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: At Texas, Viso scored a pair of top 10 finishes – seventh in the first race and 10th in the second. He also added a pair of ninth place finishes at Toronto and Sonoma, and finished every race after the Iowa round.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Viso scored only 241 points, the fewest in his IndyCar career, as he matched the 18th place championship finishes of his first two seasons. He also had five DNFs, as many as he did in 2010, and could not match his career-best third place finish, scored at Iowa in 2010.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Viso enters his fifth IndyCar season in 2012, his third in a row with Jimmy Vasser’s KV Racing Technology team. But thanks to the departure of Takuma Sato, for the first time (arguably) with KV, he’ll be looked at as the team’s second driver, rather than the third, following the team’s plans to promote an Indy Lights or junior European formula driver to Sato’s former team. This means that Viso may be looked at to perform much more than he ever has in the series, and it’s not an opportunity that he should take lightly.

While Viso is far and away a better driver than Milka Duno, the other Venezuelan state oil-sponsored IndyCar driver from a few years ago, his rank in the standings (best finish: 17th in 2010) has always suggested “pay driver” in a less than subtle way. The good news is that Viso’s problem is not for lack of speed, but lack of control, as he has never had fewer than four DNFs in a season (in 2008, his rookie year). While you can’t teach speed, you can teach control, and perhaps with another year alongside teammate and legend Tony Kanaan, Viso can break out in the way that Sato did last year.