The Izod IndyCar Series will crank up expectations for 2011 Monday with preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala.
But for league officials, much of the focus will be on 2012, which will bring the arrival of a new chassis, multiple engine manufacturers and possibly a new tire supplier.
"Because there isn't anything new, the test is more for the teams than the league," says Brian Barnhart, the IndyCar president of competition.
"We have a few rookies to keep an eye on making sure they're performing at the standards of car control, but for the most part, it's for teams to knock the winter rust off."
Among the most anticipated new combinations is at Chip Ganassi Racing, which will pair Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball with the Target-sponsored cars of past Indianapolis 500 and series champions Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Though the new drivers' teams will be housed in a separate building (about 15 miles away from Ganassi's Indianapolis headquarters), Rahal says they will share data and high expectations with Dixon and Franchitti.
"We have to have a breakout season," Rahal says. "We have to win races. We've got to be right up there with the Target cars and Penske cars. If we're not, I'd be very disappointed but also pretty surprised."
Barnhart said a record 26 teams are expected at Barber and possibly as many as 30 will run during the season. Because the Dallara chassis in use since 2003 is becoming obsolete, used equipment costs have depreciated significantly, and Barnhart expects bargains will intensify after the Indy 500 and possibly draw more new teams.
Having capped its fields at 26 cars this season (largely for safety considerations at tracks such as Milwaukee, Toronto and Mid-Ohio whose pit lanes can't accommodate more than 26 cars), that means IndyCar could have drivers fail to qualify on a regular basis for the first time.
"From a competition and credibility standpoint, it is consistent with making sure we're starting the best of the best and having them earn their way into the field," Barnhart said. "Yet in a tough economy, you are going to be sending people home making a commitment and spending money to join your sport. You hope they understand the reasons and that they're not always going to be the same ones sent home."
Development of the new chassis likely will begin in mid-August with IndyCar testing a prototype, followed by testing for engine manufacturers (Chevy and Lotus will join Honda next year) and then chassis distribution to teams for offseason testing.
Choosing a tire for 2012 is much murkier. Firestone announced its departure after 2011 last week, but team owners told IndyCar this week they wanted to keep the exclusive supplier by any means necessary. "It's provided us an opportunity to revisit the situation," Barnhart says. "There's ongoing talks to try to create a scenario to keep them in series."
IndyCar will add double-file restarts this year, and Barnhart said a "free-pass"-style rule (a la NASCAR) also is being considered. It would allow the first lapped car to get a lap back under yellow.
"Racing has changed from the days when pit lanes were open all the time and didn?t have speed limits," Barnhart says. "The ability of teams and cars to get laps back was dramatically different than now. When you close the pits upon the execution of a caution period and open the pits for lapped cars and lead-lap cars, you significantly reduce the opportunities for teams that have lost a lap to get their lap back through competition. So the free pass car was. .. a way to let that happen."