By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor - Archive - Email
New car, engines and names for 2012 IndyCar season
"We're trying to learn these new cars," says Dario Franchitti.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Five months after Dan Wheldon's fatal crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the IZOD IndyCar Series looks to move forward with a new season on the horizon.

IndyCar endured its darkest moment when Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion, suffered a non-survivable head injury during a horrifying 15-car crash that occurred in the early going of the October 16 season-finale at Las Vegas.

Since then, IndyCar has feverishly worked on safety improvements for its new car and its sanctioned racetracks, particularly the ovals -- Indianapolis, Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa and California. IndyCar has scheduled May 7 for an open test session at Texas Motor Speedway, a track similar to Las Vegas in length and banking.

A host of other safety changes will be revealed throughout the 2012 season.

The new car will make its competition debut this weekend season-opener in St. Petersburg, FL, where Wheldon had resided. The 2012 Dallara chassis has been named the "DW12" in honor of Wheldon, who served as test driver of the car during its development stages last summer.

"We ended 2011 with the heartbreaking loss of our friend Dan Wheldon," IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard said during his recent state of the sport address. "His absence hangs over us still. It's imperative we commemorate Dan's life by continuing to make great strides in our sport, from safety to the competition to the overall health and growth of the series. We must communicate better. We must work together. We must grow the sport together."

IndyCar drivers and teams got familiar with the car during a four-day open test session earlier this month at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, FL.

"It's actually not that different from the old car," said Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti, who's 100th career start in the series will come at St. Petersburg. "A lot of the things that worked on the old car are working now. It actually has more grit and more down force and stuff like that, so that's always fun for a driver. It's been great working with Chevy and stuff like that. You can personally work with their engineers on boost maps and certain things to tend to their driving stuff."

Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Dario Franchitti, the three-time defending series champion, and Scott Dixon were among the quickest in the Sebring test.

"We're trying to learn these new cars," Franchitti said. "We're trying to learn the new car, what might break on them, where the weak spots are, how to make them go fast. Honda is learning very quickly too, so we're just trying to get through all of this stuff just now. I'm very happy with the two days [of testing at Sebring] we've had...We had a lot of questions coming in to this test, and we got answers to most of them, so hopefully we can put the pieces together for St. Pete and onwards."

In addition, IndyCar has two new engine suppliers -- Chevrolet and Lotus -- for this season. Honda remains in IndyCar after being the only engine manufacturer in the sport since 2006.

Ganassi will continue to use Honda, while its toughest competition, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport, will utilize Chevrolet. Dragon Racing and Dreyer and Reinbold Racing are among those teams using Lotus.

With the new car and increased engine suppliers, the 2012 IndyCar season is figured to be one of the most competitive ever for the driver's championship. Franchitti will attempt to win his record-extending fourth consecutive and fifth overall series title. Dixon, along with Penske drivers Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, will once again be Franchitti's biggest challengers.

"It's great to look back and look at those four championships, the three in a row that Chip and the Target team and I have managed to put together," Franchitti said. "As far as looking forward, that's tough. I don't think you can do that. The only thing I can look forward to is giving maximum effort to try to be successful again [this] year.

"Do I want to win another championship? Absolutely. I'm more interested in thinking about the execution of that, how we're going to make that happen right now, what it would mean."

Franchitti won last year's championship by 18 points over Power and 55 points ahead of Dixon.

One other driver to add in the championship equation this year is Rubens Barrichello, who joins IndyCar after a 19-year tenure in Formula One. The 39- year-old Brazilian will team with fellow compatriot Tony Kanaan and Venezuelan E.J. Viso at KV Racing Technology. Barrichello earned 11 victories and 68 podium appearances in 322 F1 grand prix races.

"I think it's the right time for me to come in, a new car, carbon brakes, which I've been using for my past 19 years, so I think everybody is going to be learning there with the new car all through the season, so it's a good time," Barrichello said.

Barrichello's arrival to IndyCar comes after the departure of the sport's most popular star, Danica Patrick, who now has a full-time gig in NASCAR. James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 IndyCar rookie of the year, is replacing Patrick in the car at Michael Andretti's organization.

Other newcomers to IndyCar include 2011 Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden, who will drive an entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, and England's Katherine Legge, who will be behind the wheel of a Lotus-Dragon Racing car.

The sanctioning body has a new face in race control as well. At the beginning of the year, Beaux Barfield was named as the series' new race director. Barfield most recently served as race director for the American Le Mans Series. He will replace Brian Barnhart, who had been under immense criticism by competitors for some of his officiating calls during the 2011 IndyCar season.

One of Barfield's early objectives was to make pertinent revisions to the rule book.

"Obviously the attraction for me coming into this is taking something that obviously requires some fix and some change," he said. "To be able to come in with the ability to write rules and really start off from the ground up is a great opportunity."

Barnhart remains head of operations, overseeing the operational and logistical areas of the series.

The season schedule this year includes 16 races. The series will compete in China for the first time on the third weekend of August. Detroit's Belle Isle returns to the schedule after a three-year absence, and Auto Club Speedway is back on the calendar, as the two-mile racetrack in Southern California will host the season-finale on September 5.

Off the schedule this season are: Kentucky, New Hampshire and Japan. Las Vegas was removed from the calendar in wake of Wheldon's death.

IndyCar will perhaps face its most challenging year ever. During his speech, Bernard took aim at those critics who think the end of IndyCar is forthcoming.

"No one could deny or claim we haven't made mistakes along the way. We have," he said. "But our only goal every single day with IndyCar is to better it and make it stronger. We have fantastic drivers, outstanding teams and partners willing to invest millions into the series in an effort to help this series thrive and ensure IndyCar will be here for another century.

"It's time for everyone to put its faith back in IndyCar."

Let's see if Bernard can back up his words this season.

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