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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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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 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 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

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