It wouldn't have been IndyCar without a slight tinge of hysterical pessimism coloring the beginning of the new year.
Let's face it - pessimism by now is coded into the DNA of a disturbingly large percentage of IndyCar fans, and if there wasn't something to worry or kvetch about, most of us would start wondering who had passed out the Ambien.
Where is Lotus? Why is the DW12 such a dog on ovals?? Why doesn't XX have a ride???
Chill, folks. These things are already getting worked out, and spring training in Sebring doesn't even start until March.
The fact that Chevrolet and Honda moved so quickly to announce their factory teams - and, really, the identities of those teams - shouldn't have surprised anyone. We have known that Penske would be the Chevy main effort and that Ganassi would head up Honda's battle plan for months now.
What wasn't known was where Lotus would fit into the mix - hell, a few dire-souled folks even wondered if they'd meet the opening bell at all because PESSIMISM. Now, of course, we know that Lotus not only is going to be in the mix, but that they have a few interesting aces up their sleeves.
No offense to the other Lotus teams, but the bombshell for that marque was Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's acquisition of Oriol Servia. Servia, the personable Catalan who kept a fading Newman-Haas Racing viable on the strength of his ballsy, highlight-reel-worthy drives last season, is an enormous asset for a veteran team with a new engine program.
HVM Racing and Simona de Silvestro set tongues wagging when they rolled out the classic black-and-gold Lotus paint scheme in testing over the past week. Meanwhile, Bryan Herta Autosport and Dragon Racing have also thrown their lot in with Lotus power, joining early adopter and IndyCar rookie team Michael Shank Racing. That means there are at least six Lotus-powered IndyCars for the 2012 grid, with the possibility for more with some teams still not officially reporting, as well as if some of the current Lotus teams are able to expand to two cars. Not too shabby.
As far as the DW12 goes, well... come on, folks, did you really expect that the prototype DW12 was going to be the one that turned laps in anger during the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season? "Premature" could be a pretty good adjective for the hand-wringing that has been going on over the new car. Even though Dallara cinched up their collective belts and offered to build a completely new oval aero kit for the car, some wind tunnel tweaks and development in coordination with IndyCar have rendered that offer unnecessary.
Perhaps the best news so far has concerned the roster of drivers who have found full-time rides. As of this writing, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Sebastien Bourdais, and Katherine Legge have all secured full-season rides for 2012. Mike Conway, James Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani, and Servia all found secure seats after losing their 2011 rides at the end of last season. Ed Carpenter, meanwhile, said "Screw it!" to all of the ride-searching and just started his own damn team.
The combinations of that group are intriguing. I've already mentioned Servia and DRR, of course. But then there is Josef Newgarden, last year's Indy Lights champion and a blue-chip prospect driver, who to the (delighted) surprise of many landed the anchor seat at Sarah Fisher Racing. Pagenaud, undeniably talented and a proven winner, will get a full season with Sam Schmidt Motorsports after a year of "super-subbing." Hinchcliffe, the personable Canadian sophomore, is the new GoDaddy.com Guy at Andretti Autosport - it will be interesting to see whether his sunny disposition might improve the team chemistry at that team.
Not everything can be good news, and there are several drivers deserving of a ride who don't have one yet. Chief among these is Justin Wilson, and it seems inconceivable that he will not have a chair once the music stops. The most likely destination would appear to be Michael Shank Racing, considering that he already drives for them in his occasional Grand-Am starts. He has also been rumored to be negotiating with Dale Coyne Racing - not surprising, given that Wilson gave Coyne his first-ever IndyCar victory a couple of years ago.
Other drivers are scrambling to find opportunities, including recent full-timers Vitor Meira, Alex Lloyd, James Jakes, and Ana Beatriz; part-timers and journeymen like Tomas Scheckter, Jay Howard, Bertrand Baguette, and Ho-Pin Tung; Indy Lights hopefuls Martin Plowman, Pippa Mann, Gustavo Yacaman, and Anthony Davidson.
And then, of course, there is Paul Tracy, the mercurial veteran who always seems to have money to spend but nobody willing to spend it. Hiring Tracy is a risk, to put it bluntly. There is no question he has the drive, and nobody sane would accuse him of leaving anything on the track. But does he have the speed, reflexes, and endurance left to be a championship contender? That is the question that teams are asking themselves when PT shows them the checkbook.
Still, even with these question marks still in the air, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season looks pretty healthy at this stage of the game. In just over a month and a half, teams will descend on Sebring International Raceway to wring out their new rides. That's good cause for excitement, not pessimism.
A Word About Danica
Reactions to Brant James' revelation that Danica Patrick informed Andretti Autosport that she was leaving for NASCAR last January were a mix of surprise, outrage, and a somewhat hipsterish "I knew that before it became big news" attitude from the cynics.
In reality, if Patrick had indeed waited until the end of 2011 to make her 2012 plans, that would have been far more shocking than what actually happened.
The rule in the biz goes that the amount of lead time required for plan-making for something like this is directly proportional to the size of the teams involved and the amount of star power in the mix. A fly-by-night team with a journeyman driver can make plans with only a week's notice, but negotiating the complex, choppy waters through which people like Danica and teams like Andretti, Stewart-Haas, and Hendrick Motorsports sail takes a much more time-consuming and concerted effort.
In a former life, I was involved in brokering, planning, and constructing deals like this, and I can reasonably assure you that the deals were signed, sealed, and delivered even before the rumors had started leaking. Hell, they probably had the paint schemes approved and die-cast put into production while Danica was still saying in public that it was premature to even start thinking about it.
You can be sure that when it comes to "worst-kept secrets" in racing that, most times, the secrets are kept better than you probably expect.