I realize this is a tad bit late, but with Rubens impressive qualifying run to 10th on the grid for Sundays race, I hope my report on his laps at Texas can give some extra insight to his form and that of the new Dallaras on an oval.
On Monday morning, I drove out to Texas Motor Speedway, where IndyCar and its newest star Rubens Barrichello took a step into the future. At 8:45 in the calm Texas morning, after his team mate and best friend Tony Kanaan warmed up the number 8 KV Racing machine for him, the veteran of 322 F1 Grands Prix, got behind the wheel for an entirely new experience, his first laps of an American Speedway. For Rubens, for the paddock, and for those of us in the grandstands it was a historic moment.
There were equal parts tension and excitement in the air as he strapped in, but Barrichello put any fears to rest as he methodically drove the track, learning the lines as he lapped with the calm experience of a veteran who showed little sign of being an oval rookie. Immediately apparent was the ferocity of the new 2.2 litre turbocharged V6 engine just over his shoulder, as it instantly propelled the new, low slung DW12 to competitive lap times. The Dallara didn’t have the high tenor shriek of an F1 car, but rather its baritone counterpart, shouting in pitlane and roaring its way around the track. Just the sound of Rubens’ car alone was so intense that it caught me off guard. Having been to many races with the old cars, this left me smiling. The new cars, the new engines, are a definite improvement. At the end of his oval rookie test, he pulled into pitlane, engine popping upon hitting the speed limiter before coasting to a stop. When his Firestone tyres came to a halt, the crew went straight to work. When they removed his engine cover, I could see heat visibly pouring off the engine, as technicians took tyre temperatures and inspected for degradation. Rubens had taken one more step to becoming a true IndyCar driver.
After Barrichello’s oval rookie test, the other 10 Izod IndyCar Series drivers present were cleared to join the Brazilian on track for the first true oval experience of the 2012 IndyCar season. Lots of questions marks hung in the air as the new Dallara machines prepared to take on a 1.5 mile oval for the first time en masse since the fateful and tragic season ending race In Las Vegas. While the eyes of the fans and the media were still fixated on Barrichello, there was plenty else to see up and down the pit lane.
Helio Castroneves, a three time winner at Texas, helped his crew move tyres and did some last minute stretching before getting in the car. Ed Carpenter’s crew worked on rear suspension settings, while I admired the livery of his beautiful Fuzzy’s Vodka sponsored car. Dario Franchitti leaned cooly and calmly against a pole down at the Target Chip Ganassi team’s end of the pit lane. He hasn’t had a great start to the season, but as a four time IndyCar Champion, two time Indy 500 winner and husband to the beautiful actress Ashley Judd, he appeared to have all the confidence he needs to bounce back. At the other end of the pit lane Rubens appeared both giddy and focused, while not driving or being photographed, he was in constant, animated discussion with his crew and race engineer. On television race coverage we often just get a P.R. friendly and brief view of the drivers, so this rare, unedited glimpse at the racing driver in his natural environment proved one of the highlights of the day.
The morning session moved slowly, with only one or two cars on track at a time until the final 15 minutes, when Castroneves, Dixon, Kimball, Power, Conway and Barrichello all went out on track. The multiple car action was fantastic, and it was fascinating watching the drivers experiment with different lines and to see how they reacted to running in clean air or when behind another competitor. One by one they pulled off onto the pit lane in advance of the hour long lunch break, but the two Brazilians stayed out on track till 12:30 p.m. putting on a great show for the crowd, running close together at consistently high speeds.
The afternoon session saw far more activity than the morning, with all the teams running their differing programs and testing regimens. Such test days give the teams a valuable opportunity to compile data, especially with a new car, and especially on an oval, where even a quarter pound of tire pressure can make a notable difference to a car’s handling. It can be a lot to ask an oval first timer but Barrichello handled it all in stride. The man who helped develop the seemingly invincible Ferrari grand prix cars of a decade ago, has clearly not lost an ounce of his dedication or enthusiasm. Up and down the pit lane there were multiple variations of the same theme; team after team trying and then changing set ups as the drivers went out for stints usually ranging from 5 to 15 laps to analyze the changes.
The action followed this common pattern until the last hour or so, when wanting to maximize available time left, everyone took on fresh tyres and fuel for multiple stints before the session’s end, much to the remaining crowds delight. Just before 5:00 p.m. Dixon and Franchitti went out on track together, running nose to stern they demonstrated not only their incredible skill, but the incredible trust they have in one another as team mates. Before long they were joined by both Will Power and Barrichello, as the Brazilian followed in the, educational wheel tracks of arguably the three top drivers of the series. In the final minutes, the three Penske drivers along with Kimball and Rahal did the session’s last runs. Briscoe, Kimball and Rahal returned to the pit lane with five minutes to go, leaving just Championship leader Power and runner up Castroneves to put on a series of thrilling side by side laps until the checkered flag waved, signaling an end to the test.
There seemed to be relatively few problems throughout the test, the only noticeable issue I saw for the teams was adapting to the new hand clutch. Barrichello having hand clutch experience from F1 made great starts all day, but several of the other drivers stalled on pit row. Castroneves in particular stalled twice in a row, before the team fired his car once more. The third time proved to be the charm and soon he was off and running again. The problem seemed to effect the Chevrolet powered cars more than the Hondas, but it all could have been part of their testing program, stalling on purpose to get data and understand the car’s behavior just that little bit more.
The best news to come from the test is that the new car appears to be not only safer, but faster, and more difficult to drive than the old car. A fitting tribute to Dan Wheldon, the DW12 is proving to be a bright new dawn for the sport of IndyCar. The drivers sang its praises all day and lapped at consistently high speeds, Barrichello included, who now looks more at home than ever in his new career. For me, it was a truly wonderful day, I had never been to, let alone written on a test day for any motorsport, but to witness Barrichello’s historic first laps on an oval was something special and I shall never forget it.