INDIANAPOLIS -- The Izod IndyCar Series' Dallara DW12 spec chassis ran its first test laps using a revised superspeedway aerodynamic package Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Nine drivers using Chevrolet and Honda engines logged 495 laps, with Marco Andretti setting the pace with a 218.645 mph lap in his Andretti Autosport DW12-Chevrolet.
The speeds achieved weren't especially impressive; three drivers topped 218 mph, just a couple of mph faster than the DW12 went in its initial testing at IMS this past fall. But drivers reported that the balance of the speedway-spec car is much better than it was during early development runs in October.
"I went out of the pits and went flat-out right away, so I have to say that the aero kit is definitely a little bit better," said Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology, who was one of three drivers to sample the DW12 at Indianapolis in its initial derivation. "I was struggling at the end of last year here, and, in one day, I don't think we'll be able to do it all, but it felt good today. It felt faster than the last test that we did."
The problems drivers encountered in early testing of the DW12 were difficult to overcome. For a variety of reasons, the new car arrived weighing at least 100 pounds more than anticipated, with most of the extra weight over the rear wheels. That created an extremely tail-heavy car that exhibited severe understeer and oversteer characteristics -- often in the same corner.
Dallara encouraged suppliers to lighten a few key parts, and new suspension arms were designed that helped shift a small portion of the car's weight forward. Those changes helped improve the basic handling balance of the car.
In addition, Dallara developed new rear bodywork for the DW12 intended to reduce drag and increase speed. The safety-minded "bumpers" behind the rear wheels have grown to double as rear wing endplates -- except the main plane of the rear wing doesn't actually connect to the endplates in a traditional fashion.
The DW12 has polarized Indy car fans with its unusual appearance, and the speedway aero package makes the car look even less like a traditional Indy car. That's OK with some drivers.
"It looks like the Batmobile," Kanaan remarked. "It's kind of aggressive, and I kind of like it."
"It seems like the younger generation really like it, though I'm still getting used to it a bit," added Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon. "It definitely looks really low and kind of streamlined in some ways, but I think when you actually see the car compared to the cars from last year, they physically look quite a bit bigger."
One thing apparent is that, after a couple of years of talk about higher speeds and new track records, it's definitely not going to happen in 2012. In fact, some observers are wondering whether the DW12 will even top 220 mph in the month of May.
Last year's pole speed (four-lap average) was 227.472 mph by Alex Tagliani. The top pole speed recorded by the old car during the normally aspirated engine formula from 1997 to 2011 was 231.725 mph by Helio Castroneves in 2003.
The outright IMS records were set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996 with the 2.65-liter turbocharged engine formula used from 1969 to '96, including official one lap (237.498 mph) and four-lap (236.986 mph) times and an unofficial practice lap (239.025 mph).
Do record speeds really matter? They do to some more than others.
"Everybody loves hearing 'It's a new track record!'" Kanaan observed. "But that doesn't happen very often anymore. In some ways, that's important, but in many others, it's irrelevant. As long as the cars race well together, they put on a good show, they're difficult to drive, that's what's important. The fans can't tell a 230 mile-per-hour lap from a 220 from the stands."
"I don't think anybody that's in the stands, unless they're looking at the number up on the scoreboard, knows how fast the cars are going," added team owner Roger Penske. "If you can race, and race side by side through the corners and draft and go by, that's what you want to see. If you practice or qualify at 233 and then turn around and go 216 in the race, it doesn't make that much difference to me."
JR Hildebrand, who finished second at Indianapolis as a rookie in 2011, believes the number on the scoreboard does matter.
"It's a big deal for me," he said. "I grew up wanting to drive Indy cars because they were the fastest cars in the world. I don't know if we need to be going 240, but the tracks and the cars have gotten a lot safer over the years, so I don't see why the speeds need to be coming down."
Regardless, the message is clear: Don't expect record speeds at Indianapolis this year -- or in the near future. What remains to be seen is whether the DW12 races as well in speedway oval trim as it did on the Barber Motorsports Park road course.
Given the constraints on testing these days, the DW12 is going to arrive at Indianapolis substantially less developed than Indy cars of the past. There's a strong likelihood that some teams will solve the car's speed secrets better than others, adding a level of unpredictability to this year's Indy 500 that hasn't been seen for a while.
For example, almost nobody knows how the DW12 will react in traffic. Andretti was the only driver of the nine who ran at IMS on April 4 who tried to replicate race conditions.
Andretti said his 218.6 mph lap was achieved with the benefit of a big tow.
"We've got to make them better in traffic; we're losing a lot of downforce," Andretti said. "The rear pokes a big hole, and it creates a big tow, which drivers like. But when you get somewhat close, you lose a lot of aerodynamic grip and downforce and it gets really turbulent and difficult to drive."
Added Hildebrand: "With the previous car, you'd take a degree of wing out of the thing and you could go a mile an hour faster right away, as long as the rest of your settings were sort of on par. With this car, it's yet to be seen whether it's that sensitive, and we've just got to kind of figure that out. We feel all right about the stability and all of that kind of stuff with the car. It's just a matter of seeing where the speed ends up once we get going."
There remains some concern about the fact that Lotus did not participate in the Indianapolis test because it simply does not have enough engines.
Lotus supplied engines to five of the 26 entries in the first two races of the season, and it is expected to add a couple of additional entries at Indianapolis.
Group Lotus was recently sold by Proton to fellow Malaysian conglomerate DRB-Hicom, and all Lotus motorsports programs are reportedly in jeopardy. Accounts were frozen for nearly two months during the sale process, which contributed to Lotus' Indy car engine supply problems.
"I think it's pretty apparent that, if Lotus can't meet their commitments to the teams, Chevrolet and Honda would pick those teams up as we go forward," Penske said. "Hopefully, that will be sorted out before we get to Indy because it's a real disadvantage for 20 percent of the field not being able to run because they have an engine supply problem."
As a 15-time Indianapolis winner, Penske knows more than anyone about the need for testing and development at IMS. With new cars, an unproven aero package and new turbocharged engines, he's worried that his team and the rest of the field won't have enough time heading into this year's race.
The shortened month of May format that features only seven days of practice plus the final Carb Day tuneup is another hurdle to overcome, especially if track time is lost to inclement weather. Practice begins May 12 for the May 27 race.
"We've got to have some testing by all the teams, not just one or two people, to understand the package that we have," Penske said. "Indy is the biggest race, and when we get there, we don't want to be chopping our cars up and changing rules the week before the race."