Last week, members of the INDYCAR fraternity, led by CEO Randy Bernard, gathered in Indianapolis for a State of the Union address.
The meeting was called to announce future changes to the IndyCar Series and its respective feeder formulae. Among the topics on hand were changes to race direction rules for the 2011 season, as well as updates regarding the IndyCar Series in 2012. There were also announcements regarding how the IndyCar Series is to be marketed and promoted. Potential changes to the TV situation have also just emerged as of late.
Altering the Now
For the events themselves, some rules have really been tightened up. For example, the 107% rule of road and street courses has been reduced to 105% – if a driver does not qualify within those boundaries of pole, then he or she will not race (unless there are outside circumstances (mechanical failure or disruptive weather for example). This is very solid rule, originally introduced to Formula 1 in 1996 to combat the number of poor drivers that were occasionally up to ten seconds off the pace on laps where pole came to only 90 seconds. That is one thing in a series where cars varied in design; however in a Championship such as IndyCar, where all cars are virtually identical, having a driver eights seconds off the pace on 68-second lap is simply not acceptable.
Apart from being a potential on track hazard, a super-slow competitor also harms the image of a series. When trying to promote a Championship on the basis of the quality of its drivers, it does not help to have one car lapped before one-tenth distance.
The practice sessions were also reconfigured to give rookies an opportunity to bed themselves in. Instead the opening session being a sixty-minute run, first practice has now been lengthened to 75 minutes, with rookies and drivers outside the top-10 in the Championship availing of the first three-quarters of-an-hour. The final 30 minutes will be open for all drivers. Following this first session, those that ran the entire session will have to return two sets of tyres, while drivers that ran for a half-hour must return only one set.
How tyres are allocated through qualifying on road and street courses has also been altered, with only one set being made available to each entry per qualifying segment. The one-at-a-time nature of qualifying on a oval remains unchanged.
Drivers will also benefit from a day’s extra running prior to the races at New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Iowa and Milwaukee – which is interesting, because Las Vegas has technically not actually been confirmed yet…
Something that will be changing on ovals are the post-caution restarts. Double-file restarts are to be introduced on ovals, having been in CART in the late-90’s, while also being a current component of NASCAR races. While this is a move that may make racing extra competitive for a turn or two, it is hard to see a large benefit to the racing itself, especially should the high groove be layered with tyre marbles. Several drivers expressed misgivings about this ruling, impressing that it may cause several accidents, others such as Danica Patrick and Scott Dixon seemed cautiously optimistic. Until we see it in action (at either Indianapolis or Texas), it will be difficult to judge.
More significantly, restarts are to begin on the start / finish straight, as opposed to in between the 3rd and 4th turns, thereby bringing the pack closer together as they tear into the opening corner. A definite improvement on the previous restart strategy that often saw the field strung out as the pounded into turn one on some ovals.
One element that will effect both road/street courses and ovals is the change of pitbox positioning – previous seasons had seen the points table determine how far down the pitlane an entrant would be. Up until now, whomever led the Series possessed the final pitbox, leaving that driver with an unblocked exit back onto circuit – and with it, a vital advantage.
The rewritten rule will now see pit box selection based on the qualifying positions based on a similar-like event. For example, if a driver secures pole in Sao Paulo at the beginning of May, they will not get the first pitbox until the following road/street course. It is an odd rule and will probably make little difference to the actual racing and is – as you see above – rather difficult to explain on screen.
Like many forms of motorsport across the world, there will be very limited testing this season, with the first test taking place at Barber Motorsports Park from 14th-16th of March, while an oval test will run at Kentucky Speedway from May 9th-10th.
As for 2012, the technical specifications for the engine manufacturers have yet to be released to the public; however it is known that engine capacity is to be reduced from 2.4-litre to 2.2-litres. This change will make little difference to the pace of the cars and am surprised that the capacity was not cut further in order reflect wider moves by the larger car manufacturers. The fuel cell will also reduce by approximately six gallons.
There will also be an expansion of boost output (also known as “push-to-pass”). Previously, there were two setting – one for ovals and another for road and street courses; however a third boost level has been added to account for the short ovals which have come back onto the calendar.
Currently three aero-kit manufacturers confirmed for 2012; Dallara, Lotus and Chevrolet, yet according to IndyCar project manager, Tony Cotman, a fourth is expected to join the field. Interestingly, it is thought not to be a car manufacturer, but a company from outside the motor racing sphere.
Another potential game changer is the newly announced merger between NBC and Comcast. Versus, which is carried by Comcast has been airing IndyCar since the 2009 and has a further eight years left on that particular contract; however the station has received criticism for being lost in a sea of minor sports channels. Being part of NBC also exposes IndyCar to around an extra 50 million homes in the US, expanding it a long way beyond its current reach with Versus. At a time when advertising and sponsorship dollars mean so much, this is a big win for the series.
New offices will also be opened in Hollywood as IndyCar attempts to rebuild its media and entertainment credentials. Heading this new office will be Sarah Nettinga, who performed a similar role in NASCAR for the past several years. Having been starved of media attention for many years, something not helped by the truly dire Champ Car-related film Driven, the California-based team will be looking bring the series to the wider public, through various projects in television, film and gaming. The attention is sorely needed and when it is fully up-and-running, it may find itself focussing on some of the exports from categories below.
Driving the Next Generation
IndyCar’s feeder formulae have also been on the receiving end of some good news – and about time too. Since the dissolution of the Atlantic Series at the end of 2009, a clear road from US F2000 to IndyCar has been carved out (via the Star Mazda Series and Indy Lights); however making the jump to US F2000 has been something of a stumbling block for a number years.
With this in mind, a scholarship system has been put in place to promote the winner of the Skip Barber Nationals to US F2000, along with a $200,000 fund to take to the Series. The US F2000 Champion will receive $350,000 to move up to Star Mazda and the winner of that championship will take $500,000 to secure an Indy Lights programme. Which ever driver wins the Indy Lights Series will have the option of taking up to $1 million to an IndyCar team.
The Road to Indy also an additional branch as it attempts to reconnect with USAC roots. The USAC National Championship contest high-powered midget cars mainly on short ovals, as well as on some dirt tracks; however the title winner will be offered the opportunity to run an oval program in the Indy Lights Series, in order to help grow a larger local fanbase. Thankfully, Indy Lights returns to television this year as part of a highlights package to be aired the Wednesday following a race, after one year being confined to indycar.com.
These initiatives are fantastic for several reasons. The IndyCar Series has lost many a driver over the years, due to either an inability to raise funds to reach a competitive level, or they were lost to the NASCAR ladder. This will – hopefully – see talented drivers up through the ranks and eventually make it to the main series.
The first of these USAC graduates, Brian Clausen, will be competing for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in this year’s Indy Lights campaign and all eyes will be on the California native to see if he can contest for race wins in the series.
These drivers, along with fellow young racing pilots Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe and martin Plowman may be the drivers that carry IndyCar Series through not only the next five years, but potentially the next two decades.
For far too long IndyCar has attempted to make heroes of those with familiar surnames whose talents have fallen blatantly short of their forebearers. Names such as Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Rahal and Fittipaldi will always be legendary, but for IndyCar to succeed, the aforementioned youngsters need to become legends in their own right.
The Immediate Road Ahead
As reviewed, there are many changes on the cards for this year and many years to come and it will most likely not end here. With less than two months to opening race in St Petersburg, eighteen drivers are already confirmed with a further six or seven full-time drivers still to be announced. The next several weeks will also see a number of partial schedules announced too.
Many claimed that 2011 had the potential to be a lame duck season, but right now, it is lining up to be anything but.