As the IndyCar Series prepares for its annual trek across the border to Canada for the pair of races in Toronto and Edmonton, the unified open-wheel series continues to be a work in progress four years after it swallowed its rival Champ Car series.
While it’s far from perfect, there are more than a few things that should make fans feel positive about open-wheel racing again.
First of all, the championship battle is closer than it has been in years. There are six drivers with less than a win’s worth of points between them at the top of the standings, and a seventh is one outside that 50-point margin.
Part of the reason for the tight battle is the fact that six different drivers took wins in the first eight races this season, something that also highlights the competitiveness of this year’s racing.
A huge part of the story has been the introduction of the new DW12 chassis, which has lived up to expectations despite some early problems. The return of engine competition has also made things much more interesting, with Chevrolet and Honda neck and neck.
Now, no slight to Honda for building bulletproof-spec engines for the past few years, but having some reliability issues does add some much-needed spice into the mix. That said, it should be noted that Lotus’ engines so far can only be described as a disaster.
The emergence of James Hinchcliffe as a championship contender has also been a revelation for the series, with the likeable Canadian doing wonders for the sport off track and on. His personality has gone a long way towards helping the series mitigate the departure of fan favourite Danica Patrick to NASCAR this year.
And while it hasn’t been the best year for him so far, four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti also captured his third Indianapolis 500 title in May, putting him in some elite company and getting the series some positive press.
The series’ TV numbers are better, but it still does not have a full-time network deal in the U.S. IndyCar will never be more than an afterthought if it cannot get its product on a TV channel that is broadcast in every U.S. home.
That’s the good news.
On the other hand, IndyCar has suffered through several embarrassments this year that it could not afford, including an alleged attempted coup d’état against the series chief executive Randy Bernard, a cancelled race in China, and several on-track troubles that made it look amateurish.
Like it or not, Bernard did lead by example when it came to being amateurish. The only reason anyone knows that a group of unnamed owners allegedly began a campaign to oust the series boss is because he announced it on Twitter. Seriously, rather than get the owners together and work it out in private, IndyCar’s chief executive thought it was a better idea to air the series’ dirty laundry in public. And with it happening just after Franchitti’s Indy 500 triumph in May, the attempted coup story quickly overshadowed the positive news coverage of the three-time winner.
Now, Bernard is one of the most open and easy-to-talk-to people in racing, and maybe he simply thought he was being transparent. Unfortunately, it made him look weak and desperate, something that will only bring grief when you’re dealing with shrewd IndyCar owners like Roger Penske.
Right after the coup story subsided, the debacle that was early June’s Belle Isle Grand Prix in Detroit happened. That race saw chunks of synthetic rubber patches used to seal cracks in the track surface pull up and create a dangerous situation that seemed to go completely unnoticed by series officials. Indeed, there are several lovely photos of cars passing inches away from large chunks of the rubber sealer sitting perilously on the track. The series only acted after Hinchcliffe got one of the rubber chunks lodged under his car on Lap 39, which took him on a ride straight into a concrete wall. A red flag was thrown six laps later.
When the cars stopped in the pitlane to wait for the race to restart, they had so many holes and broken carbon fibre bits from the rocks and debris being thrown up by the tires that they looked like they had been on a combat mission in Afghanistan.
After plenty of debate and a two-hour delay to pull up the rest of the offending rubber and put some temporary fast-drying cement into the cracks, the race was restarted, but shortened to 60 laps from the scheduled 90. Ganassi’s Scott Dixon took the chequered flag but it really didn’t matter who won. IndyCar lost big time on that day.
A week later, Justin Wilson took the victory in Texas in an illegal car that passed pre-race inspection but then failed after the event when the scrutineers discovered the illegal parts that were there the whole time. To make matters worse, IndyCar fined Wilson’s team $7,500 and docked it five points rather than disqualify the car and hand the win to second-place man Graham Rahal.
Then there was the gargantuan blunder from race control at the next race in Milwaukee, when Dixon was mistakenly penalized for jumping a restart and robbed of a possible win because the stewards watched the wrong replay. And yes, you read that correctly.
The bad call cost Dixon what was likely a top-3 finish – he ended the day 11th – and probably somewhere between 16 and 31 points. Considering the fact that he’s 15 points behind championship leader Will Power, the race control gaff could easy cost Dixon the 2012 title.
The only good thing to emerge from race control in Milwaukee was the fact that IndyCar chief steward Beaux Barfield immediately threw up his hands and admitted his error.
This week, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports was caught with an illegal fuel cell in the race at Iowa Speedway and was only fined $5,000. The series said that the too-large cell didn’t influence the car’s race result. Unfortunately, that isn’t the point; it’s actually about fair competition, and the bigger fuel cell could have influenced the result. While it’s standard procedure in NASCAR to allow cheaters to keep wins and finishes, IndyCar should stop going down that road and should instead disqualify any car caught with illegal parts.
Finally, IndyCar also announced this week that it would not replace the cancelled Chinese event slated for late August, after making a big deal about having a Plan B in place. Apparently the alternate plan was simply adding 100 miles to the season finale at the California Speedway. That kind of thing simply makes it seem like the series is making it up as it goes along and does not inspire confidence.
Let’s hope the series gets things back on track on and off the asphalt, and doesn’t serve up any more groaners for the rest of the year. The bottom line here is that IndyCar’s exceedingly loyal fans deserve better. And IndyCar needs it.
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