IndyCar fans, welcome to the post-Danica years.
The 2012 IndyCar season may be getting under way this Sunday (TSN 12:30 p.m. ET) on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. without its perennial most popular driver, Danica Patrick, but a field deep in talent, engine competition and a new car should be enough to keep fans interested.
Patrick departed to race stock cars in the Nationwide Series, where she's already been proclaimed by some to be "The Face of NASCAR."
The biggest change fans will see is the new Dallara car, which replaces a decade-old chassis that was well past its due date. The series also added engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Lotus, joining Honda in providing powerplants for the car.
Although there have been several pre-season tests, few in the paddock really know how they compare to the competition. And that kind of mystery is good for a series where two squads, Ganassi and Penske, have won 75 per cent of all the races since the old Dallara-Honda car became the only option for the teams in 2006.
The pecking order should become more clear when the cars hit the track in St. Petersburg for training this Friday.
"I think it's going to be pretty interesting for everyone, just to see where the engine manufacturers actually stack up, where everyone stacks up," said Penske driver Will Power.
"It was very difficult to tell during testing if anyone had a clear advantage. So really, for me, I'm actually excited to see which engine manufacturer is the quickest, and I'm hoping it's us because I think [Penske engine supplier]Chevy has done a really good job of development and they continue to do so.
"We'll see this weekend. Just try to maximize whatever happens, get the most out of the weekend."
Although there are many unanswered questions going into the 2012 season, it wouldn't be a bad idea to bet on Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti, who has won four of the past five championships, including three consecutive crowns beginning in 2009. His team will have Honda power.
Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins a 16-race schedule that ends at Fontana's California Speedway on Sept. 15. The series has its usual two stops in Canada, with the Honda Indy Toronto on July 8 and the Edmonton Indy two weeks later on July 22. The Series' biggest race is the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27. All 16 events will be shown on TSN or TSN2, although four races — Alabama, Baltimore, Mid-Ohio, and Milwaukee — will be tape delayed.
Races added for 2012 are the oval at Fontana and street races in Qingdao, China, and Detroit, which returns after a three-year hiatus. Gone are races at oval venues in Sparta, Ky., Loudon, N.H., Las Vegas, and Motegi, Japan. Only four of the 16 stops in 2012 are ovals.
One thing that may be a key factor in races, especially early in the season, is reliability. All three engine manufacturers have had issues in pre-season testing and are trying to squeeze as much power out of the new 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged V6 motors that replace the 3.5-litre normally aspirated V-8s this year. While Honda and Chevy seem to be sorting things out, the Lotus-powered teams may have more trouble than their rivals due to a late start on the program by their engine maker.
IndyCar countered the loss of Danica Patrick by welcoming Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello, who joined KV Racing after 19 grand prix seasons.
The 39-year-old from São Paulo started a record 322 races, scoring 11 wins and 68 podiums. He also finished second in the world championship twice. Last season, Barrichello drove for the lowly Williams team and finished 17th overall in points, with only four markers. His best finish last year was a pair of sevenths.
Another new face in the paddock is race director Beaux Barfield, the former chief steward in the American Le Mans Series, who replaced Brian Barnhart in a move that can only be seen as fantastic for IndyCar. Barnhart's special ability in race control seemed to be creating controversy through inconsistency and questionable rulings. Barfield has already rewritten the Series' rulebook to make it more straightforward and easy to interpret — something completely lacking in the Barnhart era — and has established a positive relationship with the drivers. One big change that Barfield may implement is standing starts on some road and street courses.
There will be two Canadians in the field this season, with veteran Alex Tagliani coming off a year that saw him start on pole at the 100th anniversary Indy 500 for the underdog Sam Schmidt team. The 39-year-old from Lachenaie, Que., joined Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA), a Lotus engine team, over the winter, the squad that won last year's Indianapolis 500 as a one-off with the late Dan Wheldon at the wheel. Wheldon died in a 15-car pile-up in last season's finale in Las Vegas.
The second Canadian is sophomore James Hinchcliffe, who moved from the now defunct Newman/Haas team to Andretti Autosport, which has Chevrolet engines. The 2011 IndyCar rookie of the year will be looking to build on a hugely successful maiden season as he works with his new teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"Andretti Autosport is obviously a fantastic team — they've won a lot of races, they've won multiple championships, multiple 500s — these guys know how to get it done," Hinchcliffe said.
"I'm confident working with this team, the experience they have, what I can draw off my two teammates now, put it together with just a good weekend, a little bit of luck, I think we'll end up on that podium, for sure."
The 25-year-old from Oakville, Ont., took over the car that Patrick drove last season.
If all the change doesn't get fans watching and IndyCar really needs someone to step it up in the sex appeal area, Penske's Ryan Briscoe suggested the Andretti driver as the obvious candidate to replace Patrick there too.
"I think if Hinchcliffe would grow his hair long and straight, shave that beard, maybe he could," Briscoe said.
2012 IndyCar Schedule with Canadian TV coverage
1. Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (TSN, Sunday, March 25 at 12:30 p.m. ET
2. Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (TSN2, Sunday, April 1 at 5 p.m. ET)
3. Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (TSN2, Sunday, Apr. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET)
4. Sao Paulo Indy 300 (TSN, Sunday, April 29 at 12 p.m. ET)
5. Indianapolis 500 (TSN, Sunday, May 27 at 11 a.m. ET)
6. Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix (TSN2, Sunday, June 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET)
7. Firestone 550 (TSN2, Saturday, June 9 at 8 p.m. ET)
8. Milwaukee IndyFest (TSN2, Saturday, June 16 at 5 p.m. ET)
9. Iowa Corn Indy 250 (TSN2, Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m. ET)
10. Honda Indy Toronto (TSN2, Sunday, July 8 at 12:30 p.m. ET)
11. Edmonton Indy (TSN, Sunday, July 22 at 2 p.m. ET)
12. Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (TSN2, Sunday, Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m. ET)
13. Streets of Qingdao (TSN, Saturday, Aug. 18 at 12 midnight ET)
14. Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma (TSN2, Sunday, Aug. 26 at 4 p.m. ET)
15. Baltimore Grand Prix (TSN2, Sunday, Sept. 2 at 11 p.m. ET)
16. Auto Club Speedway (TSN2, Saturday, Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. ET)