With new Honda engines behind him and presumably better results ahead, Alex Tagliani's 2012 IndyCar season essentially began with Sunday's Indianapolis 500.
After opting to skip the street race in São Paulo late last month, rather than run with underpowered and unreliable Lotus motors, the Bryan Herta Autosport driver delivered his best performance of the year at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He even led a couple of laps, and overcame adversity to finish near the front of the 33-car field in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
His 12th place finish came despite a drive-thru penalty for speeding in the pitlane, caused by an electronic problem that also prevented him from fine-tuning his car's balance during the race.
"It was unfortunate, because I think we had a car to win," Tagliani said. "Without being able to balance the car in traffic, out of traffic, on your own, with the turbulence and the track changing, it was pretty hard."
"For one race with Honda, I think we proved to everyone we belong with Honda and there's more to come with this team."
Although disappointed with the result, it could have been much worse for the driver known as Tag. While he contended for a top finish with his new Honda motor, the only two Lotus-powered cars in the field were called off the track early in the race after they were deemed hazardous to the other cars because of their slow speeds.
Tagliani that feel all too well. In his three starts under Lotus power, the best he could do was a 15th in the season opener in Florida. And that was only because eight of 26 cars retired.
In that race, the Lachenaie, Que. native only managed to cross the line ahead of three drivers: the Lotus-powered Dallara of Oriol Servià, rookie Rubens Barrichello, who ran out of gas on the last lap, and Ed Carpenter, who does his best impression of a moving chicane in every non-oval race.
Otherwise, the Lotus engine was a disappointment. Tagliani hardly got off the starting grid in the second race at Alabama's Barber Motorsport Park before his motor conked out, and he only got almost halfway through the race in Long Beach before retiring.
"You just have to just forget everything that happened in the first four races and start your own championship from here and move on," Tagliani said.
"I don't think we could have done anything where we were before. Being conservative, we thought we were 60 horsepower down [on the Chevy and Honda drivers]but from what we saw at the Speedway with the Lotus guys, we realized that we probably did the first three races with a 100-horsepower handicap, and that's massive."
The two Lotus entries in the Indy 500 were about 12 miles per hour slower than the Honda and Chevrolet-powered cars. The best speed a Lotus-powered car could muster in qualifying was Simona di Silvestro's 214.393 mph, compared to pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe's 226.484 mph.
The Herta team and Tagliani aren't the only ones looking forward to the rest of the year. Sébastien Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion, switched to Chevrolet at Indianapolis.
Bourdais didn't fare as well as Tagliani, crossing the line one lap down in 20th. His Dragon Racing team didn't get its new Chevy engine until May 16, just three days before qualifying for the 500.
"The lack of running meant that everything had to be done in a big rush," Bourdais said. "At the same time, I think everybody is pretty excited about what's coming up. It changes our prospects – we now feel like we can do a good job."
Not everyone is pleased with the new landscape in IndyCar, as former Lotus teams get more powerful engines that should tighten up the field and help more drivers step into the mix at the front.
"Unfortunately, Tag has more power now so he's going to be quick," joked Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing. "I think it's good for him. The Lotus teams did what they needed to do, but it's going to make it tougher for the rest of us."
While the more powerful and reliable engine is a welcome change, Tagliani also feels that the never-say-die attitude the team had while using the Lotus engine will help it excel in its second season.
"What I liked is that if there was one-tenth that we needed to get, we worked hard to get it, and because of that we deserved to have a good engine," he said.
"The way the guys worked, you wouldn't have thought we were going to races with no chance of getting into the top 10. I was amazed how these guys were working."
The team received their first Honda engine the afternoon before opening day for the Indy 500, and worked all night to get the motor installed in the car to ensure Tagliani would get into first practice on May 12.
Even though the first quarter of his season was a bust because of Lotus, Tagliani doesn't feel any animosity toward the engine maker.
"I feel for Lotus because they started with a huge disadvantage," he said. "They didn't have what they needed to run competitively from the get-go, but I am sure they will catch up at some point."
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