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VIEWS FROM THE GRANDSTANDS
What to look for other than NASCAR
The NASCAR season has been running around in circles for a few weeks, but most of the other major racing series crank up the engines for the first time this month. Let’s take a quick spin through the paddocks, shall we?
Nobody in racing had a worse winter than the folks who run the IndyCar Series. Their 2011 campaign ended suddenly and shockingly with the death of Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon early in the year’s final race in Las Vegas. The tragic loss of one of the sport’s most popular and accomplished drivers threw the series into chaos, ruined its season-ending celebration and sparked calls for IndyCar officials to re-evaluate everything from where they race to what kind of cars they use.
The 2012 schedule, which begins March 25 in St. Petersburg, Fla., drops Las Vegas and includes only a handful of ovals overall — and almost none after a monthlong, midseason stretch that includes Indianapolis, Texas and Iowa. Truth is, though, this might be a positive because both in-person attendance and TV viewership were down overall for oval races in 2011. Both were up for street and road races.
In a sad twist of fate, the disaster at Las Vegas was the last race for the old cars, which dated back to 2003. For 2012, the open-wheelers will run a brand new Dallara chassis that is lighter, less expensive and, in testing, has proven faster than the old car on both street and road courses. And unlike in recent years, the teams will be able to choose from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus for their new 2.2-liter turbo-charged V-6 engines.
Among the biggest winter headlines was Newman/Haas Racing’s closure. The team had won 109 races since opening in 1983 and had captured the series championship eight different times. On the good news front, Ganassi Racing (with Honda engines) and Penske Racing (Chevrolet) should be back in full force to battle for the championship.
Elsewhere on the grid, Alex Tagliani will take over Wheldon’s seat at Bryan Herta Autosport, while James Hinchcliffe will assume the departed Danica Patrick’s ride at Andretti Autosport. Wheldon had been ticketed for Patrick’s job until his death.
After enjoying one of its most compelling championship chases ever in 2010, Formula 1 witnessed a 2011 romp by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who dominated so thoroughly that the only end-of-season drama was how many records he would smash.
Vettel and Red Bull return seemingly as strong as ever for the 2012 campaign, which begins March 18 in Australia, so the big question is whether anyone has a chance to derail their runaway train.
Rules changes for 2012 are minor, mostly focused on exhaust restrictions, so the pursuers can’t count on much help there. That leaves challengers like Ferrari and McLaren with no choice but to tighten up their in-race strategy (especially Ferrari), improve their reliability and hope their top drivers (Fernando Alonso for Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton for McLaren, both of whom are past champions) can step up.
Further down the grid, all eyes will be on 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, who is returning to F1 after two years away to drive for the mid-pack Lotus team. Raikkonen is known for his daredevil driving, and he is famous for tolerating no nonsense. How he adjusts to life on a less-than-stellar squad will be very interesting to see.