The 2011 IZOD IndyCar season officially commenced in mid-January, when series officials took what had been a private annual update for series participants, outlining rule and procedure changes for the new year, and turned it into a high-profile, webcast stage show called the “State of INDYCAR” at a downtown Indianapolis hotel.
The goal was to give the series a little off-season buzz and in that, they succeeded, with all six local television affiliates and most of the specialist racing press in attendance. Behind all the sparkle & glitter (the smoke bombs, music and spotlights were all fine, but I mean, really, bringing out defending series champion Dario Franchitti with the Gordon Pipers?!?), here are the major items announced – and what they might mean for drivers and fans alike:
1. Double-wide restarts after cautions. This is the change that has gotten the most attention, and it will be the most visible to the fans. It means that, following a yellow, race restarts will now take place with the cars in two-by-two formation, just as on the pace lap prior to the green.
As originally announced, the two-wide restarts would be used only on ovals. But it appears they now will be used at ALL races in ’11, which should spice things up on road and street courses, too. In addition, lapped cars will be moved to the rear of the field, and that also should help enhance the battles for the leading positions on restarts.
2. A change that hasn’t gotten much attention (yet), but one which I believe will have great impact on the road racing this year, is a new limit of just one set of tires for each (of three) qualifying segments. Previously, teams could run a couple of sets per session, so a driver might chose to “bank” a time on a used set of the soft compound “reds” for example, before switching to a fresh set for the all-important final minutes of qualifying.
Now all this has gone out the window, and I think it’s going to take the teams a little while to get their heads around this. Do you want to go out right at the start of a session and put down a time while the tires are at their best – but the track may not be – or wait until the very end of the session, when the track is quickest, but also the busiest with other cars?
Since qualifying up front is critical to success at road races, I think this is going to be very interesting rule, from a strategic point of view, in 2011.
3. Another change with strategic implications will have pit-stall selection based on qualifying from the previous race (of the same type). Previously, pit stall placement was based on championship position, leading to a “rich-get-richer” scenario in which a team leading the championship had the first choice in pit selection, nearly always taking the stall closest to pit exit. This allowed a driver a clear shot out of pit lane, without having to use the pit-lane speed limiter – an obvious advantage that now will be more fairly distributed.
4. Finally, the “pit commit” point will be moved closer to Pit In, giving a driver and team a bit more time to make the decision to pit, and make for quicker “in” laps. NOT specifically announced, but even more important, is word that the start and restart point will be moved much closer to the start/finish line. Again, this should help make the starts as spectacular as they should be.
With just under two months until the start of “Spring Training” at Barber Motorsports Park, the 2011 IZOD IndyCar starting field is starting to take shape. Ganassi, Penske, Panther, Foyt, de Ferran, Sarah Fisher and HVM all have their lineups settled. In addition, Newman Haas knows who they WANT to drive their car(s), Andretti also is close to finalizing its planned four-car lineup, and FAZZT is also very close to a decision to expand from one to two cars.
That really just leaves three teams still to announce their lineups: Conquest and Coyne (both habitually late announcers), and KV Racing Technology, where big changes appear to be taking place.
Lotus Cars appears poised to buy into KV this year, taking an ownership stake in the team it partially sponsored last year. Expect a large influx of Group Lotus personnel behind the pit wall in 2011, and (at least) two green-and-yellow – or perhaps black-and-gold – cars this season.
Here’s how I see the 2011 lineup as of mid-January, starting with the teams that are “locked & loaded”, followed by the question marks:
Ganassi: Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon both continue for the varsity; newbies Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball for the (separate-but-equal) “B” team.
Team Penske: Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe all return.
Panther: JR Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion, gets his first full-season shot with the National Guard-backed team.
A.J. Foyt: As unlikely a pairing as you’ll ever find, but Vitor Meira appears to have found a home with the legendary Texan’s team, and they start their third year together in ’11.
de Ferran/Dragon: Tony Kanaan is in, while Raphael Matos is apparently headed back to Brazil. Can TK raise the level of this team to finally contend for race wins, and perhaps a championship? This will be one to watch this year.
HVM: Very popular 2010 rookie Simona de Silvestro will be back with HVM, and with proper funding for the first time. Now it’s up to her and the team to build on the flashes of promise shown last year.
Sarah Fisher: Ed Carpenter will do at least 9 of the 17 races, and possibly more, depending on funding.
Andretti Autosport: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick are all confirmed. Dan Wheldon hopes to land the fourth seat, but a more likely candidate is former F2 champion Andy Soucek, who may bring the funding AA needs for the fourth car.
Newman Haas: Knows who they want: veteran Oriol Servia and promising Indy Lights graduate James Hinchcliffe. All parties involved are working hard to make it happen, but it’s not yet a done deal. Keep your fingers crossed, as Oriol certainly deserves another shot, and “Hinchtown” is very, very quick – as well as entertaining outside the cockpit.
Dreyer & Reinbold: Justin “Too Tall” Wilson is locked in for a second season, but second – or third – seats are open. Wheldon (again), Mike Conway, Ana Beatriz and Tomas Scheckter have all been mentioned here.
FAZZT: Again, Alex Tagliani is locked in place as the lead driver. After all, he was the guiding force in the creation of the team. The only question is whether Dutch/Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung can raise the necessary sponsorship for the team to field a second car.
KV: As of this writing, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso are expected back, but that could change (along with the team’s name) as Lotus takes an ownership stake. Mario Moraes is apparently headed home to Brazil, so the third seat could go to Wheldon, but nothing is decided – yet.
Conquest: Has (at least) three possible drivers for two cars. Bertrand Baguette started off a bit shaky as a rookie last year, but improved both his speed and confidence as the ’10 season progressed. After doing a decent job as a rookie at the Speedway, Sebastian Saavedra bolted from Bryan Herta’s team at the end of the year (earning him few friends in the paddock), and ran the Homestead finale with Conquest. Paul Tracy has at least partial sponsorship, and would be a huge shot in the arm for this small team – arguably, the best driver they’ve ever run.
Dale Coyne: Very quiet, as always, at this time of the year. Dale certainly keeps his cards close to his chest. Still, ’10 Rookie of the Year Alex Lloyd is expected back in the “Boy Scout” car; while Lights champion J.K. Vernay has some funding, and in reality few alternatives, to running at least a partial season with the South Side Chicago team.