With their first tests out of the way at new teams, Canada’s two IndyCar drivers have a bit of a different view from the cockpit.
Sophomore driver James Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont., came away from his maiden test with Andretti Autosport excited by his first crack at the new Dallara chassis being used by IndyCar this season.
“It's a cool experience because coming up through the junior ranks you always end up stepping into a car that is relatively sorted and has been developed by somebody else,” he said from Florida’s Sebring International Raceway last month.
“Now I am at the point in my career where I am actually being part of the development of a race car. It’s something that I have always wanted to be involved in and I am happy to be in that position.”
Hinchcliffe ran with the Newman/Haas team last season, taking top rookie honours despite missing the first race of the year. When Newman/Haas announced it would be leaving IndyCar racing late last year, Hinchcliffe signed with Andretti.
Hinchcliffe's car will have a Chevy motor mounted in the back as IndyCar rekindles manufacturer involvement with a new engine formula that also attracted Lotus to join Honda as powerplant suppliers in the series. The new engine is a 2.2-litre, twin-turbocharged V-6.
Like Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani is excited about also joining a new team in 2012, but he also knows that he might be at a bit of a disadvantage when the season starts due to his Lotus engine supplier’s late start to its program. Although Honda and Chevy have been running several different engines so far in pre-season testing to assess configurations, Lotus has had only one engine available for all its teams.
So, rather than getting into his Brian Herta Autosport car to test the new motor, Tagliani went to Miami-Homestead Speedway to run an engine-chassis combination that has been shared between three teams.
“It went well and it was just good to be back in the car,” said Tagliani, who raced with Sam Schmidt Motorsport last year.
“The team on our side is also working on car development. Overall we are anxious to see where we are, but we have to be patient and go through the development process bit by bit.”
On the other hand, Hinchcliffe drove his own car and worked through a rigorous program to try to get a better handle on the new DW12 chassis. His team has already started testing developments to squeeze the most speed from Andretti's package.
“Basically, it's like being on a first date: You have to find out what kind of movies she likes, what's her favourite kind of food, her favourite colour and that’s what we are doing,” he said.
“There are a lot of things we take from the old car and start with that and say this is what used to work and then work on the aero balance the car likes and how sensitive it is to changes. It really is just running a checklist of all the things you have to try and systematically knocking them off one by one.”
The end result is that Hinchcliffe will go into the official IndyCar open tests at Sebring and Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park in March looking to see how his car and engine stack up against the rest, while 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Tagliani already knows he’ll likely be playing catch up.
“It’s fair to say that Lotus is late and we don’t know when we will have an engine for our own car, so the biggest thing right now is how many days I will be able to drive the BHA car with the parts we have developed,” said the Lachenaie, Que., native who will be in the car for two days beginning Mar. 8.
“I don’t think we will be where we need to be when we go to the first open test in early March but, at that test, we will get a good idea of who has an advantage. We are a little bit behind, so we are not going to be making comparisons in early March.”
While the IndyCar season gets under way on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on Mar. 25, the engine makers have to submit their final specifications to the series on Feb. 24. This will likely mean the Lotus-powered teams will struggle to keep pace with their rivals who have had many more testing miles to work out the bugs and optimise their engines.
There also remain questions on how the car will run on ovals, especially after drivers in tests late last year found it more than a handful.
That said, one thing Hinchcliffe knows is that the new car is fast on a road course.
“It definitely has a lot of potential and it's definitely quicker and we are just scratching the surface,” he said.
“As we work closer with Chevy and get the most out of the engine and work with the engineers to check off all the things we need to do, we are going to get this car going really well.”
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