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The Best That Never Ran: Part 3 – Epilogue

Photo credit: Don France (CC BY-NC-ND)

The drivers that may have competed for Lotus and Ferrari, depending upon the manufacturers’ motives, could have been some of the best CART drivers of all time. Lotus likely would have brought its Formula 1 drivers to Indianapolis, as the team did in its 1960s heyday, which would have seen Ayrton Senna, and eventually Nelson Piquet, try their hand at the Indianapolis 500. Senna would have flirtations with CART anyway, testing Emerson Fittipaldi’s Penske Racing challenger at Phoenix in December 1992, while Piquet attempted to qualify at Indy twice after his F1 career, suffering serious injuries in practice in 1992 and finishing 32nd in 1993.

Lotus’ CART ride could have also served as a stopover for the team’s test drivers, allowing them to race a full year in competitive equipment instead of spending time with mediocre F1 equipment. One driver who could have benefitted was Derek Warwick, who nearly drove for the team in 1986, only to have his signing vetoed by Senna. A full year in a competitive CART drive could have established Warwick as a consistent, winning driver, opening up better rides for him, instead of leaving him one of the most talented drivers to never win an F1 race.

Photo credit: Paul Lannuier (CC BY-SA)

As for Ferrari, they could have fielded three ultra-competitive CART entries in 1987 had they followed through on some of Enzo Ferrari’s threats to leave F1 entirely. The Rahal-Truesports combination would have been strong as it was, but had the political posturing led to serious action (and calling Ferrari’s bluff, historically, leads them to follow through), the team feasibly could have brought over Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson, its 1986 driver pairing, to the series as well. Both would make their way to Indianapolis in the mid-1990s anyway; Alboreto joined the Indy Racing League in 1996, finishing in the top eight in all of his races but that year’s 500, while Johansson may best be known for bumping Penske Racing out of the 1995 race entirely.

Instead, neither program was meant to be. Ferrari engine technology used on the 637 was eventually passed on to Alfa Romeo, which had been looking to improve market share in the United States, but the car debuted with a purpose-developed March chassis.  In three years of competition, Roberto Guerrero and Danny Sullivan failed to score a single race win, podium, or pole position, and eventually Alfa backed out. Of course, that’s better than Lotus’ debut year as an engine supplier has been this year; left with two cars at Indy due to a series of defections and a lawsuit from Dragon Racing, there are serious doubts as to how long their IndyCar program will last.

If only both companies had entered CART in the 1980s. Who knows what we’d see at Indy this year.

– Chris Leone

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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.

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

IndyCar Season Preview: Will Power

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#12 Verizon Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: March 1, 1981

Home: Toowoomba, Australia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Power led the series with six wins, finally conquering an oval after winning half of the Texas doubleheader. He led in 13 of 17 races and led the points for about half the season, including after the 16th round at Motegi. He also took eight poles to post an average start of 3.6.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Power crashed in consecutive races at Iowa and Toronto to lose the championship lead for much of the second half of the season. After crashing in the aborted rain restart at Loudon, he also flipped off race control for putting the drivers in danger. Power’s car also launched in the air at Las Vegas, injuring his back for the second time in three years and leading him to briefly question his IndyCar career.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Power has been Dario Franchitti’s top championship challenger for the past two seasons, and that won’t change as long as the Champ Car alumnus outclasses everybody on the road and street courses. He’s also got Roger Penske’s team behind him, although their pit crew left a lot to be desired last season.

The new Chevrolet engine shouldn’t be much of a problem, since Ilmor (a company partially owned by Penske) helped produce the Honda engines of the past half-decade or so. With Power, the only concerns are mental. Can he finally get past the roadblock that is Franchitti’s dominance? Can he pick up his performance on the ovals, or will his serious crash at Vegas hinder some of his driving instincts? And, after two straight years of chokes at the very end of the season, can he stop beating himself?

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

IndyCar Season Preview: Ryan Briscoe

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#2 Izod Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: September 24, 1981

Home: Sydney, Australia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After spending much of 2010 unsponsored and worrying in the offseason about his job security, Briscoe became the new face of the Izod brand in IndyCar. He led 35 of 85 laps at Long Beach to finish second and scored four podium finishes. He finished a respectable sixth in points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: For the first time in four years as a Penske driver, Briscoe failed to win a race, and that sixth place points finish was actually his worst with the team. His month of May was also disastrous, as he only qualified 26th at Indianapolis and crashed out to finish 27th.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Once again, Briscoe went into the offseason unsure of his return to Penske (especially since he spent seven races with Penske Trucking backing his car), but his contract was eventually picked up for a fifth season. He will, however, be working with a new engineer, the only one of three Penske drivers who will be at that disadvantage to start the season. The good news is that aforementioned engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, has been with Penske since 2005 and worked on Briscoe’s team last year.

Briscoe still has plenty of potential, though, and anybody who drives for Roger Penske will always have a shot at a title. While testing the Dallara DW12 at Fontana in late November, Briscoe was decidedly more optimistic about the new car than Honda counterpart Scott Dixon. If that becomes a setup advantage that foreshadows the 2012 season, Briscoe could make up for his end of season choke in 2009.

NASCAR Season Preview: A.J. Allmendinger

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Penske Racing

Born: December 16, 1981

Home: Los Gatos, California

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Allmendinger set career bests in 2011 in his second year driving the #43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, scoring 10 top 10s, an average finish of 16.1, and a 15th place finish in points. His best finish, a fifth place, came in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Despite his improvements in consistency and competitiveness, Allmendinger still has yet to take his maiden Sprint Cup victory. Had he done so last season, he would have had a shot at being a Chase driver.

SEASON OUTLOOK: When Roger Penske finally canned Kurt Busch for a series of outbursts over the course of the 2011 season, Allmendinger had a brief moment of panic over his job security, as it appeared that Richard Petty Motorsports was going to replace him in the famous #43. But the driver market turned the other way very quickly (and very quietly), and it was Allmendinger who would inevitably replace Busch at Penske. As such, he leaves a team that was always on the cusp of a breakthrough for a team that’s always been there; remember, this was the famous Blue Deuce through 2010, until new sponsor Shell (somewhat ironically, in hindsight) requested that Busch drive for them and not Brad Keselowski.

Allmendinger gained a lot of confidence and momentum in 2011, his best season yet. But now that the Dinger is driving for Penske, he’ll have to find a way to ditch the 0-for-152 monkey on his back and win his first career stock car race. There are no excuses anymore – this is a Chase-caliber team, even without crew chief Steve Addington, who left to take over defending champion Tony Stewart’s pit box; Allmendinger will work with Todd Gordon, who has grown accustomed to winning with Keselowski in the Nationwide Series. It may take some time for this team to gel, but if they slide to the edge of the top 20, it’ll be nothing short of a disappointment. Look for Allmendinger to finally take his first win in 2012.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Brad Keselowski

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#2 Miller Lite Dodge, Penske Racing

Born: February 12, 1984

Home: Rochester Hills, Michigan

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After mounting a serious charge late in the regular season to sneak into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Keselowski ranked as high as third in points in the Chase at one point. He became Roger Penske’s de facto lead driver in the Blue Deuce, posting a season that would have made Rusty Wallace proud: three wins (Kansas in June, and Pocono and Bristol in August), a single DNF, and a fifth place finish in points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Though you wouldn’t know it by the way he finished the season, Keselowski didn’t actually crack the top 20 in points until he won at Pocono. That win, of course, came after Keselowski broke his foot in a testing accident at Road Atlanta. Keselowski also failed to finish the season strong, posting a 19.8 average finish in the final four races of the year.

SEASON OUTLOOK: If 2011 was any indication of where Keselowski is headed in the future, the outspoken, confident young driver should give Roger Penske his best chance at winning a Sprint Cup since Wallace won 10 races and finished second in points in 1993. He recovered from a mediocre start to the season to become NASCAR’s hottest driver in the summer months, and nearly played the Chase format to perfection by posting four top five finishes in its first six races.

That performance earned both Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe multi-year extensions, but don’t expect either of them to get complacent. Keselowski is still a young, hungry driver who was raised in a racing family (father Bob owned a competitive team in the then-Craftsman Truck Series for most of the early 2000s), and Wolfe is one of the smartest young crew chiefs in the garage; neither is easily satisfied. Keselowski has also cleaned up his act under Penske’s umbrella, retaining his competitiveness and gift of gab without committing some of the stupid mistakes that hurt other brash drivers (see Busch, Kyle). It’ll be hard for them to match their performance from the second half of 2011, but Penske’s flagship team should be far more consistent this season.

– Chris Leone