Sebring shows new Dallara improving
SEBRING, Fla. -- Three months to the day after Dan Wheldon died, the car named after him brought the Izod IndyCar Series back to life.
After an offseason dominated by mourning, uncertainty and unrest, the new Dallara DW12 Indy car was turned loose in the hands of race teams for the first time Monday on the Sebring International Raceway short course.
And the unanimous reaction from everyone present was of positive relief.
"I admit there were times that I got discouraged over the winter," KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser said. "You kept getting bad reports about the car -- at least from the oval testing -- and how everything was doom and gloom.
"But now that I've had a chance to see and hear the car going around the track, I'm pumped," he added. "I'm excited to go racing with these things."
Wheldon was the initial development driver for the 2012 Dallara Indy car, the first new chassis to enter the IndyCar Series since the Dallara that debuted in 2003 and has served as the series' spec chassis for the past six years.
The new chassis was renamed DW12 in honor of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner after he was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011, while driving a Dallara IR03.
The development phase of the DW12 has been difficult, complicated by the fact the IndyCar Series will feature engine manufacturer competition for the first time since 2005. When testing moved on to the manufacturer phase with Honda and Chevrolet, drivers confirmed what Wheldon already knew: the DW12 was a scary proposition on high-speed ovals, but showed promise in road-course trim.
That was the theme that emerged from Sebring, where eight DW12s hit the track in the hands of 10 drivers. No official timing and scoring was in operation, but Scott Dixon's best lap of roughly 53.0 seconds in the Honda-powered Target Ganassi Racing car on the first day was already quicker than a good time around Sebring for the outgoing car.
Observers caught Tony Kanaan in the high 53s in his Chevrolet-powered entry out of the KV stable as the next quickest entry on the first day.
"It's coming along, especially the engines," said 2008 IndyCar Series champion Dixon. "Almost everything I've done so far has been manufacturer testing, and I'm looking forward to getting out there in 'team' mode to see what effect putting our little touches on the car will have."
The other drivers and teams present included: Marco Andretti in an Andretti Autosport car; JR Hildebrand running Panther Racing's car; Simon Pagenaud for Sam Schmidt Racing; Simona De Silvestro for HVM Racing and Lotus; and Ryan Briscoe for Team Penske.
Will Power ran a few laps at the end of the second day in the Verizon-liveried car Briscoe had been driving. Penske also ran Helio Castroneves in the Chevrolet test car, while Graham Rahal drove the Ganassi car on the second day.
Rahal was enthusiastic about the car after his first road-course laps.
"I think the V-6 turbos sound great and you can see that paint schemes really help the looks of the car," he said. "It's got good brakes and you can hustle it."
Castroneves, who ran both days in the blue-and-white car Chevrolet used for manufacturer testing, was also eager to come to grips with the new machine -- even if it meant breaking some old habits.
"I'm learning the new systems," said the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. "Now the clutch is on the steering wheel, so I'm using my left foot to brake after braking with my right foot for my entire career.
"It's interesting to adapt, but that's why we're testing. It's kind of fun, like a go-kart. Everything that is new always goes through a change. You have to work to find the best balance. That's what makes teams have a good connection -- the engineers, the drivers -- because you're developing something together."
Castroneves is particularly excited about the return of engine manufacturer competition in 2012 after six years of sole Honda engine supply.
"I'm excited by the opportunity to help develop an engine," he said. "It seems like old times, talking to the engineers, and trying to help with whatever they want to develop, whether it's power or electronics. I feel that's what it's all about. You have to be in tune with every little bit.
"I'm really happy that we're going to be able to do quite a lot of testing before the first race -- a lot more than in recent years," he continued. "The series is moving in the right direction. Sometimes one team is going to be fastest or one manufacturer pushes another. That's what's going to create competition."
Another positive that came from the Sebring test was the debut of the Lotus engine. De Silvestro relentlessly pounded around Sebring, cranking out hundreds of consistent (if not particularly fast) laps as Lotus attempted to put 1,000 miles on an engine right off the bat.
Although the Lotus hit the track several months after its competition from Honda and Chevrolet, the manufacturer is building a solid driver lineup, bolstered by recent signings Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing) and Oriol Servia (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing).
While the focus at Sebring was on the DW12's road-course characteristics, INDYCAR released a statement claiming that the relatively slow speeds the car has shown so far at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other high-speed ovals were not as disappointing as originally thought.
A Dallara DW12 set up like the one that achieved a top lap speed of 215.6 mph in November testing was compared in the full-scale Windshear wind tunnel with a Ganassi Racing Dallara IR03 set up in qualifying trim for Indianapolis, where it achieved more than 227 mph.
"We showed that aerodynamically the [DW12] was limited to 218.4 mph, so they did a good job of reaching its potential," said INDYCAR vice president of technology Will Phillips. "By optimizing the aero set-up, re-balancing the car and then putting on some aero development parts, it showed that using a nominal assumed horsepower of 575 the car is easily capable of 225 mph."
The car still suffers from an extreme rear weight bias and is reportedly tricky to drive on high-speed ovals. But, as Indy car legend Rick Mears wondered, what's wrong with that?
"So it's not planted and completely stable," Mears said. "Haven't we been complaining that the outgoing car was too planted and stable? That my ex-wife's mother-in-law could jump in one and keep up with the pack?
"The new car really brings the teams back into the equation in a big way," Mears continued. "Some of these teams have never gone through the hard work of developing a new car. You can call it teething troubles or new car blues or whatever. We used to experience it all the time when we brought out a new car every year. The biggest teams aren't always going to be the ones that get it right and there could be some surprising results.
"It's going to shake things up and make IndyCar a lot more interesting."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.