IndyCar Owners Hinting At Depths Of Status Quo

We’re coming off of the best Indianapolis 500 we’ve seen in years. The new Dallara DW12 is incredibly racy on all tracks, providing drivers with passing opportunities. Speaking of “DW,” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave the late Dan Wheldon a fantastic tribute on Sunday, with former owner Bryan Herta driving his 500-winning car from last year around the track one more time. The payoff was an 8% increase in TV ratings and plenty of momentum as the series heads into its busiest month of the season.

So why are we looking at status quo?

Multiple sources – including AP writer Jenna Fryer as far back as May 21 and Robin Miller in a radio interview yesterday – are suggesting that, in the wake of Honda’s successful appeal to adjust the turbochargers on its engine, Chevrolet IndyCar owners want IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard out of a job. Bernard has confirmed it in a tweet:

#INDYCAR@indycar it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing

Bernard, Fryer, and numerous others have said that the owner is not Roger Penske, arguably the series’ biggest power player and winner of the first four races of the season before Honda received its engine alterations. Rumblings suggest that the culprit could be Tony George, IndyCar founder and current co-owner of Ed Carpenter Racing, though Carpenter, his stepson, has taken to Twitter to vehemently deny the allegations and plead with fans to make 500 winner Dario Franchitti, not Bernard, the story of the week.

Beyond that, the culprit is anyone’s guess. Michael Andretti now promotes two races, Milwaukee and Baltimore, so unless he has a power trip in mind, it doesn’t seem like he would be the culprit. Kevin Kalkhoven used to run the Champ Car World Series before merging it into IndyCar in 2008, and could be unsatisfied with the sport’s direction. John Barnes of Panther Racing was recently fined $20,000 for a tweet critical of the series, but many have suggested that it’s not him.

Sadly, whoever is responsible for the unrest in the IndyCar owners’ community seems to forget how poorly an owner-led series has worked out for American open-wheel racing in the past. The hubris of the former CART series, especially in its ill-fated attempt to launch a rival to the Indianapolis 500, eventually led to its downfall as its biggest teams eventually began to defect to get back to Indianapolis. George, however, created a decade-long rift in the sport that utterly destroyed what had been a feasible rival in popularity to NASCAR and in talent to Formula 1.

The result is a series that struggles to attract attention, merely flirts with stability, and could be completely ruined with one stupid move. Ousting Bernard could prove to be that move.

While Bernard hasn’t been perfect since taking over IndyCar in 2010, the advances seem to greatly outnumber the detriments. He established the ICONIC committee, which led the series to select the car and engine specifications that have performed so well this year. He landed series title sponsor Izod, as well as a host of other partners, and has overseen a car count that has increased every season.

He took a lot of blame for creating the conditions that contributed to Wheldon’s passing in Las Vegas last season, but many factors – not just the ones that Bernard created by establishing a $5 million prize if Wheldon could win the race – contributed to that accident. This year, the chief complaint has been Lotus’ failure to provide a competitive engine, but that has very little to do with Bernard, who had no control over when the company began to build its engines or its sale, which halted development for 45 days as its finances were frozen.

So instead of celebrating Franchitti’s win in the most exciting Indianapolis 500 in years, we’re stuck with psychoanalyzing an ownership group that has lived up to the “psycho” end of the term for decades. Unrest in IndyCar management is an accepted part of fandom these days, and most fans are desensitized to the whining after 12 full seasons of two series whose initial sum was far greater than any of its parts. But that doesn’t make the complaints any less ridiculous – not after all that Bernard has done to help try and turn the series around.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail (perhaps if aforementioned anonymous owner’s team scores a victory this weekend at Detroit) and this will be a non-story by next week. If not, this may be a long year – and IndyCar may have a short future.

– Chris Leone


Indy Bump Day Produces Heartbreak Of A Different Variety

Photo via IndyCar Media

Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the highest-attrition, most exciting days in motorsports. As cars attempt to fill the 33-slot field for the Indianapolis 500, only the fastest survive, sending slower cars and drivers home with only the thoughts of what could have been.

But this year’s field of 33 won’t feature any of that, thanks to a new engine formula and mid-season brand switches that have overextended the engine departments at both Honda and Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Lotus, left with only two remaining entries, has failed to show any sort of reasonable speed all month, leading Jean Alesi to call the car “unsafe.”

As such, a handful of teams pondered the idea of putting together extra entries, which would likely have had no issues in bumping the Lotus racers from this year’s field. At one point, Roger Penske reportedly said that he had the capability to field five cars, while A.J. Foyt and Sam Schmidt, this year running two cars apiece, have both entered more in the past. In response, the hungry drivers started patrolling the garages; both Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, graduates of the Firestone Indy Lights Series who have struggled to make the full-time jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series, tried to put together deals all month, while former IndyCar competitor Vitor Meira was also seen visiting the Honda camp during the week of practice. Howard, in fact, had a deal with Michael Shank Racing that was abandoned when the team couldn’t acquire a competitive engine, and Shank refused to accept a Lotus.

Sadly, Howard and Mann won’t make qualifying attempts in “Sunday specials” today, due to engine manufacturers pulling out.

Photo via IndyCar Media

Though Mann abandoned her pursuit of a ride before qualifying yesterday, saying that she had a sponsor, car, and engine available until that morning, yesterday’s three qualifying crashes could have affected the pursuit. Chevrolet owner-driver Ed Carpenter, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Oriol Servia (in his first race with Chevrolet power), and Honda’s Bryan Clauson all had various incidents, with at least Clauson’s requiring a new motor for the already stretched thin Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Howard put out a press release saying that his engine manufacturer didn’t abandon plans for a last-minute ride until after Pole Day.

Another part of the reason, likely, is so that Honda and Chevrolet don’t force Lotus out of the series entirely. All three manufacturers are obligated to power as much as 40% of the field in a three-brand setup, and up to 60% if a brand drops out, but neither Chevrolet nor Honda is looking forward to the latter possibility when they’ve already waived the former.

Of course, Bump Day has brought stranger surprises before. In 2005, Felipe Giaffone was pulled out of a mall to qualify a third entry for Foyt and help fill the field. If the Lotuses qualify early in the day, and show speed far off yesterday’s low qualifying pace (Sebastian Saavedra’s four-lap qualifying average of 222.811 miles per hour ranked 24th, making him the final driver to set his time on Saturday), the series will be stuck in a strange position, with a lot of questions to answer.

Is 33 cars “just a number,” as Tony Kanaan said before qualifying, and does that justify starting only 31? Would race director Beaux Barfield allow the Lotuses to start, and then park them if they can’t reach 105% of the race leader’s speed? (Were that rule to apply to qualifying, both Alesi and Simona de Silvestro would have to hit 215 miles per hour, which neither have done all month.) Could Barfield justify leaving the qualifying horsepower boost on the Lotuses for the sake of safety, knowing that neither could contend despite the unfair advantage?

Photo via IndyCar Media

Or, ultimately, would the possibility of starting two cars that run between 10 and 20 miles per hour off the pace be sufficiently worrisome enough to Chevrolet and Honda to make extra engines available? After all, roadblocks cause accidents, and if one of the Lotuses were to cause a melee that eliminated either manufacturer’s top contender from the event, they might be livid.

Starting and parking, like a lower-budget NASCAR team, isn’t an option. The issue isn’t a lack of funding – both Howard and Mann, your presumptive 32nd and 33rd starters, would have had enough money to run the race – but a lack of motor. And neither manufacturer would likely consider pulling in their last-minute entries, lest they alienate the traditionalists at Indianapolis to an incredible extent. (Indianapolis fans don’t take too kindly to failure to provide acceptable parts. Just ask Michelin.)

To the chagrin of many, this Bump Day will likely go without any of the bumping that makes it so entertaining. Instead, race fans will likely have to wait until next year, when a greater surplus of entries will be available. Maybe then, having a sponsor and car at the ready will be enough to make a qualifying attempt at The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. It usually is.

– Chris Leone

Indianapolis 500 Preview: Jean Alesi

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#64 Lotus Cars Dallara-Lotus, Fan Force United

Born: June 11, 1964

Home: Avignon, Vaucluse, France

2011 RESULTS: Alesi did not attempt to race at Indianapolis last season, having spent much of the year serving as a brand ambassador for Lotus by demonstrating their Formula 1-inspired T125 track car.

CAREER BEST: Alesi has never started an Indy 500. He has, however, raced in two United States Grands Prix at Indianapolis, with a best finish of seventh in 2001 for Jordan.

OUTLOOK: Alesi, one of Formula 1’s most respected drivers in parts of multiple decades, has transitioned gracefully into a role with Lotus as a sort of motorsports elder statesman, representing the brand in its major expansion into multiple disciplines of racing and helping get amateurs suited to the T125, a track day car built like a slightly less powerful Formula 1 challenger. Lotus has wanted to run Alesi at Indy since they got their IndyCar engine program off the ground, preferably with one of their existing teams.

Originally Alesi had planned to ally with the esteemed Newman/Haas Racing program, on hiatus from IndyCar in 2012, but the program wasn’t up to that organization’s high standards. Instead, Alesi will run for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights program led by early IRL driver Tyce Carlson that finally has a chance to make its IndyCar debut. Alesi will work with Greg Beck, who prepared cars for the 500 on a shoestring budget for years before joining FFU. They’ll face a serious challenge to perform, though; with the weaker Lotus engine and FFU’s inexperience at the top level, they may be a back row team, and their only guarantee to make it into the race likely comes from the 33-car entry list.

– Chris Leone

Jean Alesi and Fan Force United: Lotus’ Last Hope?

Photo via: Jean Alesi Facebook

Plenty has been made of 47-year-old former Formula 1 star Jean Alesi’s decision to run in this year’s Indianapolis 500. For the most part, it hasn’t been positive.

Those who were paying attention to the early stages of Lotus’ IndyCar engine development knew that the legendary British marque had been planning on running the Frenchman at Indianapolis since last September. But despite his work as Lotus’ top driving instructor for the T125, a $1 million open-wheeler reminiscent of a late Champ Car or lesser F1 racer, most questioned Alesi’s ability to get up to speed in an IndyCar – especially over a decade removed from his last Formula 1 start.

Now, with the systematic crumbling of Lotus’ modest engine program, the brand has lost four of its five full-time entries and two prospective ones from Newman/Haas Racing and Michael Shank Racing. Alesi was due to drive the Newman/Haas entry at Indianapolis, but instead will suit up for Fan Force United, an Indy Lights team with zero career IndyCar starts and no intent on running this year’s 500 until Alesi became available. As such, car and driver are being almost universally written off as a team that wouldn’t even make the race if not for the likelihood of exactly 33 cars trying to qualify.

This is a warning: don’t underestimate them.

It’s true that Alesi has never raced on an oval before. But it’s also true that Alesi has maintained a relatively active driving profile since his exit from F1, racing for Mercedes in the DTM championship from 2002 to 2006. During that time, he scored four race victories and a best finish of fifth in points. But the successes didn’t stop there; in the Speedcar Series, a Middle Eastern-based stock car championship featuring former F1 drivers, Alesi scored four more wins in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he rejoined Ferrari, his former F1 employer, in the GT2 class in the Le Mans Series, and alongside fellow ex-F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella finished second in points. Only last year did Alesi stop competing full-time, and that was to develop the T125.

As for FFU, they are an Indianapolis-based team bent on breaking into IndyCar after years of Indy Lights competition, and many of those involved are names that die-hard fans of the sport would recognize. One of the team’s owners is Tyce Carlson, a veteran of 29 IRL starts from 1997 to 2002. Also involved is Tim Wardrop, who won the 1997 Indianapolis 500 as Arie Luyendyk’s engineer and helped Luyendyk set one- and four-lap qualifying records in 1996 that stand to this day; Mike Colliver, who served as engineer for Kelley Racing, Hemelgarn Racing, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the 2000s; and Greg Beck, who fielded cars at Indy for much of the 1990s and 2000s, and facilitated Billy Boat’s fourth place finish in the 2001 IRL standings.

No, this isn’t the IRL of the late 1990s, in which this team would likely have dominated. That doesn’t mean they should be written off entirely.

In the end, FFU’s success or failure at Indianapolis may prove to be either the final straw for Lotus or a step towards finally finding its footing in IndyCar. Most fans know the story so far: Lotus only scored one top 10 finish in the first four races of the season, a ninth place run by Sebastien Bourdais at Alabama, as only two of its drivers – Oriol Servia in 17th and Bourdais in 20th – managed to stay in the top 20 in points. Servia’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team and Alex Tagliani’s Bryan Herta Autosport squad were the first to announce a split, with BHA skipping the series’ trip to Sao Paulo entirely. Meanwhile, Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing squad, with Bourdais and Katherine Legge behind the wheel, has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and plans to transition to Chevrolets.

Newman/Haas was unsatisfied with the way their Indy program was shaping up, and Shank wouldn’t justify fielding a car with an uncompetitive engine. Besides Alesi and FFU, Lotus is left only with its flagship squad: HVM Racing and Simona de Silvestro, currently 24th in points with three DNFs.

No, it’s not an ideal situation for anybody involved. Lotus would like to have retained more of its teams, while Alesi – who reportedly turned laps of 223 miles per hour at Indianapolis in Dallara’s DW12 simulator – and FFU would probably prefer to have a faster engine. But simply making the race and not embarrassing themselves may be success in and of itself. Just finishing the race should prove to folks that Alesi’s still got the talent. And not producing a back-row dog of a car would go a long way towards helping FFU realize its goal of becoming a full-time IndyCar team someday.

In the end, success may be their only option.

IndyCar: Lotus Regroups After Releasing Two Teams

Over the past year, Lotus has greatly expanded its motorsports commitments, from Formula 1 to sports cars to the IndyCar Series. But as US Race Report’s Chris Leone explains, the latter has been an exercise in frustration, as Bryan Herta Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have left the engine manufacturer for uncertain futures.

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 4

Photo credit: Ned Leone

We’ve finally broken into the top ten stories of our IZOD IndyCar Series season preview with today’s post. After going through some of the stuff that’s under the radar in the past three days (see part one, part two, and part three), today we begin to address some of the biggest stories coming into the season.

10. Engine shortages will be a serious problem in 2012, and may even impact the Indianapolis 500.

FICTION: Lotus’ production struggles aside, Chevrolet and Honda have stepped up to fill the void at the start of the season, and we should see 26 cars on the grid at St. Petersburg. That means we only need seven more cars to fill out the Indy field. Andretti Autosport, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises should all be good for at least one more car, while Michael Shank Racing hopes to be up and running by the 500. If guaranteed rides for Jean Alesi (with Lotus money) and Bryan Clauson (through the Road to Indy scholarship) don’t come with any of those teams, that’s 33 cars right there. And if the money is there, the engines will be there.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

9. Will Power’s team will learn to stop beating itself this year.

FACT: With an owner like Roger Penske, this team no longer has a choice but to get it together. Two great seasons have ended in disappointment because of late-season chokes, both by Power and his pit crew; you can’t imagine that Penske will tolerate that much longer, as he hasn’t won a championship since Sam Hornish Jr. took home the title in 2006. As long as Power doesn’t check his reflexes after the Las Vegas incident – though, keep in mind, he’s injured his back before – he’ll have everything he needs to win at his disposal.

8. Because oval races are outnumbered more than 2-1 on this year’s schedule, most of the top 10 in points will be skilled road racers.

FACT: Assume that the Penske and primary Ganassi teams will all take top 10 spots. That leaves five spots open for drivers like Rubens Barrichello, Mike Conway, and Justin Wilson, all of whom spent much of their early careers racing junior formulae in Europe. Add Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan, two well-rounded IndyCar veterans, to the mix, and you have your probable top 10.

7. The winners of this year’s races at Long Beach and Indianapolis will once again be surprises.

FICTION: Just because flukey winners were the norm in most major American races last year, doesn’t mean they’ll happen again this year. Last year, Mike Conway took his first win at Long Beach, while Dan Wheldon led only the most important lap in what had been his only planned start of the season. But more often than not, the drivers who have won those races have been serious championship contenders; since 2003, the Long Beach winner has taken the Champ Car or IndyCar title five times, while the Indianapolis 500 winner has also taken the title five times since 2005. Besides that, from 2003 to 2010, no Indy 500 winner had finished worse than fourth in points in the season in which they won the race. Last year’s victories, while popular, scream “outlier.”

6. The Dallara DW12 will be significantly faster on ovals than the old car by the time the series makes it to Indianapolis in May.

FICTION: With a smaller engine that’s due to produce less horsepower (at least for the moment), don’t expect any new track records to be set at Indianapolis this year. The new car could only reach 215.6 miles per hour in testing in November, while aerodynamic testing in January showed that the body work is limited to a top speed of 218.4 miles per hour. The lap that IndyCar’s aerodynamic team used as a baseline for Indianapolis was a lap of 227.3 miles per hour from last year’s qualifying. If the new cars are more challenging to drive and produce more entertaining racing, this may not matter as much, but the lack of new track records at Indianapolis since “The Split” of 1996 have seriously held the sport back.

– 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

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

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 1

This is the first post of a five-part series predicting the 25 biggest storylines of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. We’ll be addressing some of the top assumptions coming into the year, and either reaffirming them as fact or dismissing them as fiction. Today, we’ll count down stories 25-21. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Ned Leone

25. Ed Carpenter Racing is simply the second coming of Vision Racing.

FACT: This time around, Tony George didn’t simply buy the assets of a folded team like Kelley Racing and turn it into an outfit to keep Carpenter in the series. This is Carpenter’s team, and he hired the perfect person to run it: Derrick Walker, the longtime CART owner, who was responsible for launching Will Power’s career and turning Gil de Ferran into a contender. While Carpenter is still lacking in speed on road and street courses, he’s surrounded himself with the right people to make him faster.

24. Taking a few seasons off won’t impact Bobby Rahal’s team as it returns to full-time competition.

FACT: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing usually put up solid performances in its limited IndyCar appearances over the past few years, nearly stealing last year’s Indianapolis 500 win with Bertrand Baguette, so returning to two full-time cars should be a cinch. Because they’ve moved back up to full-time competition, they were able to select from a better (and better-funded) pool of drivers. Lead driver Takuma Sato showed his typical speed and improved consistency last year, while Luca Filippi will be an intriguing young prospect once he starts his season at Indianapolis.

23. The NBC Sports Network will be a major step up from Versus, its predecessor.

FACT: If you’ve watched any of NBCSN’s coverage of any sport since the rebranding, you can tell that the broadcasts are going to look and feel professional. Everything from NHL hockey, its lead property, to niche sports like the Dakar Rally and Red Bull Crashed Ice have been covered with skill and care. With NBCSN also committing to air all Indy Lights races this year, expect an extra level of attention to detail in 2012.

22. Simona de Silvestro will finally have a breakout year in 2012.

FICTION: Despite de Silvestro’s HVM Racing employers being the lead Lotus team this year, Sebring testing may have been an indicator of where they’re going to be in the points. There’s simply so much talent in the series right now that the top of the standings is going to be crowded, and breaking out may take an other-worldly performance. While de Silvestro has the raw talent, she hasn’t had the luck in her IndyCar career. If Lotus is as far behind as some think they are, that might not change.

21. Chevrolet will outperform Honda consistently in its return to the sport.

FACT: Honda has Chip Ganassi, but Chevrolet has two advantages on its side: a more experienced engine builder and a deeper lineup. Chevrolet once worked with engine builder Ilmor to create the Chevy Indy V8, which won 64 of 78 CART races from 1987 to 1991; after years of building the old Honda engines, the two companies have reunited to produce the new turbocharged V6s. And while Honda has secured the always strong Ganassi squad, Chevrolet has more teams in winning contention under its belt, with Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, and John Barnes among the owners who will sport the bowtie this year.

– Chris Leone

Public Perception Versus Lotus’ IndyCar Reality

Photo credit: Ned Leone

There are instances in all sports, including motor racing, when inaccurate perception drives a story more than the actual facts do. The public formulates an opinion based on a limited set of data, everybody jumps on it, and suddenly the story is as good as absolute fact.

The jury is still out on whether Lotus’ IndyCar program will be one of those stories.

Everything about the British marque’s entry into the series as an engine manufacturer, rather than simply a sponsor, appears to be comprised of hasty last-minute decisions. Ever since they made their initial announcement – even then, at the 11th hour, just as the sanctioning body was about to freeze new entries – the thought has always been that Lotus would be far behind Honda and Chevrolet.

After all, Honda has been the only engine provider in the series since 2005, and General Motors (mostly through Chevrolet, but also through Oldsmobile in the early days of the Indy Racing League and through John Menard’s Buick V6s) has had a strong open-wheel presence for the past 30 years as well. Lotus, meanwhile, attempted a factory IndyCar project in 1984 (the 96T) that was effectively quashed by CART’s uneasiness about having a “works” team. While elements of that car helped Lotus’ 97T win three Formula 1 races in 1985, the brand dropped out of that sport as a factory entry in the mid-1990s and is only just returning.

In fact, a lot of Lotus’ newest racing projects have only popped up within the past few years. Credit Dany Bahar, Lotus’ CEO since September 2009, with wanting to revitalize both Lotus’ road division (announcing many new models) and its racing division. If anybody has the managerial experience to do it, it’s Bahar; from 2003 to 2007, he was the chief operating officer at Red Bull, and before taking the Lotus job, he held a major position at Ferrari.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

But Bahar inherited, simply put, what became a disaster of a brand. The Team Lotus trademark battle between the brand and trademark holder Tony Fernandes has been well-documented, and that level of bad press affects perception greatly. Instead of the brand working towards a renaissance, it appears to be destined for overexpansion. Instead of reclaiming its racing heritage, it’s only frustrating people.

Perhaps that external perception of managerial incompetence, most of which has nothing to do with Bahar, has influenced the perception of the brand’s foray into IndyCar. Yes, Lotus has taken its program slowly thus far. Its test car did not debut with Honda’s or Chevrolet’s, waiting a couple of months before making its first laps. It waited longer than other brands to announce most of its teams, leaving slim pickings and forcing marriages with reluctant team owners.

Things haven’t improved much since the cars have begun spring training. Right now, the brand can’t field more than five cars, due to a lack of engines. There have been rumors of bounced checks along the whole process, from Lotus struggling to pay Judd to build its engines to Dragon Racing not having an engine to take part in Monday and Tuesday’s tests. Only one Lotus tested in that session, and it brought up the rear, more than a second off the pace of the fastest cars.

But Lotus does have one advantage on its side: per capita, perhaps the most driving talent in the garage. Sebastien Bourdais, four-time Champ Car champion, will run the full season (save Milwaukee, when he will race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans instead), and the greater ratio of road and street courses to ovals should give him ample opportunity to showcase his talent. Oriol Servia was one of the series’ top drivers last season in his return to full-time competition. Alex Tagliani won the pole for the Indianapolis 500. Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge have strong pedigrees in junior formulas and are no pushovers.

That alone may allow Lotus to be stronger than people think they’ll be this season.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

In fact, while Lotus has had to scramble to an extent to get their program together, it really appears that the forces at play have simply established a timeline that runs on the brand’s own terms. They appear to be on pace with where Honda and Chevrolet were two months prior in terms of speed and reliability. Add one of the smartest groups of drivers in the paddock to the mix, and you have a program that shouldn’t be underestimated, no matter the timeline.

Remember that road and street course races aren’t necessarily just about being fast. They’re about being patient. Lotus may very well be taking that thought process to heart here, as Honda and Chevrolet push each other to the limit. With the rev limiters of the spec era gone, and a major engine rivalry about the resume, chances are that plenty of turbo V6s are going to blow this season. When they do, Lotus could be in the perfect position to capitalize, simply by keeping its drivers on track and out of trouble.

It may be inevitable that Lotus will be the third-best manufacturer in IndyCar in 2012. If people’s perceptions of their equipment and the quality of their teams are accurate, it may stay that way for the next few seasons. But they’ve assembled a decent driver lineup, gotten their cars to the grid, and will learn quickly over the course of the season. And in that case, suggestions of Lotus’ so-called inevitable flop may, in fact, be greatly premature.

– Chris Leone