- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Compared to a year ago, when the demise of the Champ Car World Series resulted in a last-minute influx of entries into the IndyCar Series, changes to America's top open-wheel racing formula are relatively minor. But that doesn't mean things have stayed the same.
IndyCar Series fans can look forward to two new events, the return of a former Indy 500 winner and series champion, the arrival of four rookie drivers, several rules changes, a modified television package and one important technical development that won't make the trusty Dallara-Honda spec cars go faster but will help them seem more fan-friendly.
The championship will be fought out over 17 races spread over three countries on two continents. Here's what to watch for between now and Oct. 10, when the title chase wraps up for the first time under the lights at Homestead-Miami Speedway:
• A modified schedule -- For the third time in four years, the IndyCar Series will feature 17 races. Yet another former CART/Champ Car event has been added to the ICS docket -- the popular Grand Prix of Toronto, now under the management of Andretti Green Promotions. Another CART/Champ Car stalwart, the Grand Prix of Long Beach, will be run under IndyCar Series sanction for the first time. Most of the drivers and teams are excited about returning to Toronto and Long Beach, which were two of the most successful venues for the rival CART series since the mid-1980s.
However, the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix has been dropped, a victim of the severe economic downturn in the Motor City. Nashville Superspeedway also has disappeared from the IndyCar slate. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Homestead closer swaps ends of the schedule, having served as the IndyCar Series opener since 2001. The race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course has been pushed back from late July to early August, and the annual flyaway race in Motegi, Japan, has been switched from a Spring date to the penultimate round on Sept. 19.
• A new spot on the dial -- Since its formation in 1996, the IndyCar Series has been broadcast exclusively on the ABC and ESPN family of networks. No more. ABC will televise the Indianapolis 500 for the 45th consecutive year, but only four other races (Milwaukee, Iowa, Watkins Glen and Toronto) will go out on the free-to-air network. The remaining races will move to the Versus network, and IndyCar Series officials hope that longer program windows (featuring additional prerace and postrace content) and more aggressive promotion will result in stronger ratings.
• Quieter cars -- Anyone who has attended an IndyCar Series race in recent years is familiar with the loud, piercing ring of the Honda engines that power the field. Responding to input from fans and participants, Honda Performance Development has engineered a mechanical silencer system that cuts 9 decibels from the drone. The exhaust note sounds pretty much the same, but it is noticeably quieter, which allows folks in the stands and in the pits to carry on conversation. A few beer-addled fans have complained on Internet forums, but if the change had not been publicized, they might not have noticed. Suffice to say the people who are at the track day in and day out are happy.
• The rookie class of '09 -- Last year, mainly thanks to the unification of the American open-wheel scene, a series-record 12 rookies took part in IndyCar Series competition. For 2009, there will be just a third of that number: Robert Doornbos makes the transition from Champ Car a year late, joining Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing; Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos jumps up to the big cars with Luczo Dragon Racing; European street course specialist Mike Conway takes over the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry; and Hollywood stuntman/stock car driver Stanton Barrett switches to open-wheelers with the new Team 3G. Doornbos is the logical choice to claim rookie of the year honors, though many tip Matos for long-term success.
• New faces in new places -- After his attempt to move into NASCAR didn't pan out, 2007 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti returns to the ICS with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Franchitti's comeback resulted in a domino effect of driver changes:
Meanwhile, Will Power (formerly of KV Racing Technology) will start the season in Team Penske's No. 3 car and will hold down the seat until Helio Castroneves' federal tax-evasion trial is settled. KVRT has also dropped Oriol Servia in favor of second-year driver Mario Moraes. Doornbos takes over the seat vacated at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing by Justin Wilson, who moves to Dale Coyne Racing. 2004 Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice is on the sidelines after running the past two years for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, while Luczo Dragon Racing expands from a part-time to a full-time effort and exchanges Tomas Scheckter for rookie Matos. And Vision Racing is set to run Ryan Hunter-Reay instead of A.J. Foyt IV alongside incumbent Ed Carpenter. In fact, Andretti Green Racing and HVM Racing are the only teams to feature the same driver lineup as they did in 2008.
• Rules tweaks -- For the first time, the IndyCar Series will award a championship point to the driver who earns pole position at each race.
The driver who leads the most laps will continue to receive two bonus points, but the scoring system that has produced championship battles that came down to the last lap of the last race for the past three years remains otherwise unchanged.
For road-course races, Firestone has brought the alternate tire program successfully used in the Champ Car World Series to IndyCars; drivers will be issued three sets of the alternate tires, which are distinguished by bright red sidewalls, and they are required to run at least two laps using the alternates at some point during the race. The theoretically faster tires should add an interesting element of strategy at narrow road or street courses that often do not offer many on-track passing opportunities.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.