Elephants in the room: the two great unknowns for INDYCAR in 2012

The #22 Lotus-Dallara of Oriol Servia and Lotus Dreyer & Reinbold Racing turns laps at Sebring International Raceway during IZOD IndyCar Series Spring Training earlier this week. Uncertainty has dogged Lotus-powered teams as the 2012 season approaches. (Photo: Michael Leavitt/LAT for IndyCar)

At the beginning of a new racing season, there is much that remains unknown. This uncertainty in large part accounts for the excitement and anticipation that everyone involved, from the highest-level boardrooms to the most modest U-Haul-camping fan, feels when the green flag flies.

But there are certain unknowns that loom larger than the rest, and the accompanying uncertainty tends to inspire less thrilling emotions - particularly when so much rides on their outcomes.

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season represents a new beginning in many ways for the sanction and its competitors. With new cars, new engines, new faces in new places, and revamped technical and competition regulations, it can accurately be termed a renaissance for the sport.

There remain, however, a couple of significant elephants in the room which will have to be confronted, one way or another, as INDYCAR soldiers into the competitive year.

The "pack racing" dilemma

No subject has dominated the off-season more than that of "pack racing." It has been handled with all of the delicacy and subtlety of a presidential primary race, with a great many people on both sides entrenching themselves into rigid frameworks of hysteria, hyperbole, and invective. And, like politics, the truth has been shaded in some places so drastically that it is virtually impossible to know what is real and what is simply histrionics.

The title bout in this ongoing battle is between Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage and the drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Both camps are currently walled in behind defensive sandbags, pointing at the other and claiming slander - Gossage, because he heard from somewhere that the IndyCar drivers were going to boycott his track because of safety concerns, and the drivers themselves because of Gossage's furious rebuttals and contemptuous public statements about their low standing on the food chain.

If that were not enough, the undercard features fans and pundits at each other's throats - one side ready to ditch all non-Indy high-speed banked oval tracks, and the other claiming that such tracks are no more dangerous (some even arguing that they are safer) than shorter, flatter ovals and road/street courses.

Enough strawmen have been built that there must be starving livestock somewhere, and there has been enough ad hominem to give Ann Coulter or Keith Olbermann a run for their money. The "dialogue" - if there ever has been one to begin with - has spiraled out of control until it has become a pathetic mudslinging match. Some of it can be attributed to the still-raw emotions from the tragic events from Las Vegas last fall, but most of the credit goes to a persistent lack of common sense, context, and courtesy.

Here is what is known - IndyCars racing lap after lap in big packs, without the power or handling ability to break free and maneuver, is a recipe for total disaster, and the proof of it sadly lies in the wreckage created at LVMS. What is not known, however, is how the new DW12s and the powerplants that propel them will behave on the large, banked oval tracks.

In the interests of clarification, the moderate majority have no interest in getting rid of oval racing completely (accusations from the tinfoil hat wearers notwithstanding), and in fact they appreciate the kind of close racing generated at tracks like Kentucky, Chicagoland, and - yes - even Texas. The worry is that the tightly-grouped, inches-apart situations that occur on those tracks - palatable and thrilling in smaller doses - could (and did) become deadly when they continued for long intervals.

If pack racing is the elephant in the room, the DW12 is the question of what color it is. There simply is no benchmark for what will happen when the new cars and engines pile onto the high banks. Since there are three engine manufacturers, the difference in powerplant performance may be enough to break the pack apart. But the lack of disparate aero kits (which won't be available until next season) will still act to equalize the cars' performance on the big aero-dependent tracks, and the lower power numbers on the new engines - combined with the lack of push-to-pass - could negate the performance differences between motors.

Questions also linger about whether the DW12's anti-wheel-lock measures - the undertray measures and the controversial rear "bumpers" - will act as they are supposed to when cars are packed together at high speeds on the ovals. Of course, the only way to know for sure is for those situations to happen in real life - a sobering prospect that does nothing to soothe jangled nerves among the hoi polloi.

The Lotus enigma

To say that Group Lotus have had a turbulent winter would be a vast understatement. Parent company Proton was sold by Malaysia's state-owned investment firm to DRB-Hicom in January. At the time, rumors were rampant that Proton would offload Lotus to other investors, and while that has not happened, DRB-Hicom is still undergoing an internal feasibility study into whether they should retain the poorly-performing marque.

Lotus, for their part, have repeatedly and vociferously assured anyone who will listen that the ongoing corporate upheaval will not affect their participation in motorsports. To put it politely, that position has been met with a bit of skepticism.

Though Chevrolet and Honda, the other two manufacturers in the 2012 engine triumvirate, have had their teething problems, they pale in comparison to the struggle Lotus have faced in simply getting their engines into their teams' Dallaras. The Judd-built powerplants are as rare as Faberge eggs, and questions remain about whether they are any more durable. Certainly, they are currently nowhere near their counterparts' offerings in terms of power output, with all of the Lotus teams mired at the bottom of the testing charts from Sebring.

The official word is that Lotus will meet the bell when the season starts, with two engines per Lotus-powered entry. Privately, though, there are many who not only doubt Lotus' ability to deliver on their season-opening promises, but who actually wonder whether Lotus will be able to sustain its position and fill its role past the Indianapolis 500.

If there is a bright spot for Lotus, it is in the undeniable talent the marque boasts behind the wheel - Sebastian Bourdais, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, Katherine Legge, and Simona de Silvestro - as well as the caliber of their teams, which include the 2011 Indianapolis 500-winning Team Barracuda-BHA and IndyCar stalwart Lotus Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

The one glaring exception among the Lotus teams is Dragon Racing, which remains a giant question-mark after Sebring. Dragon only barely got a Lotus engine in time for Bourdais and Legge to share in testing, and the team which earned one of Newman-Haas Racing's Leaders Circle financial bonuses on the strength of their promises to exploit the Web to promote INDYCAR still only has a placeholder site to show for it.

To say the road ahead for Lotus is daunting strains at the limits of understatement. That is not to say a Cinderella story is not in the cards, but the deck remains stacked against Lotus at this early stage of the season.

The inevitability of resolution

Sooner or later, the questions of both pack racing and Lotus' future will be answered, as will most of the other unknowns that face INDYCAR as the seconds tick away towards the season opener in St. Petersburg. How they will be resolved is anyone's guess; that they will be resolved is not in question.

To paraphrase a line from Apollo 13, the best approach to these issues is to work the problem and not make things worse by guessing. But after a brittle and over-long off-season, it is natural that guessing and speculation will continue to dog the series until laps are finally turned in anger.

It is a situation where there is really nothing to be done except to go do it and find out what will happen... and hope for the best.

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