Commentary

IRL kicks off 2010 in Sao Paulo

Updated: March 12, 2010, 12:54 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

The Izod IndyCar Series season starts outside the United States for the first time Sunday with the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300.

Indy cars raced in Brazil under CART sanction from 1996-2000 at a fast road course/oval hybrid near Rio de Janeiro. This time around, the venue is a 2.6-mile street course in downtown Sao Paulo through the site of Brazil's famed carnival celebration.

Designed by Indy racing veteran Tony Cotman, the track is wide and fast, highlighted by a mile-long back straight that might dispel the notion that street racing is boring and doesn't feature any passing.

[+] EnlargeCastroneves
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeHelio Castroneves is one of seven Brazilian drivers entered in Sunday's Sao Paulo Indy 300.

"It looks exciting," said Andretti Autosport star Tony Kanaan. "It's going to probably be the fastest street course we've ever had, with that mile-long straightaway, with a lot of places to pass. Who's going to want to lead the last lap on that back straightaway? Whoever has enough push-to-pass button to go. It's going to be awesome.

"I'm not pushing it because I'm from [Brazil]," he added. "It's because of the way Tony Cotman and those guys built the course. The Brazilians said, 'Whatever you want.' They took gates out, sidewalks ... they're building a racetrack the way we want it. If this works out for us, it could be one of the most exciting tracks we have."

Kanaan is one of seven Brazilian drivers entered in Sunday's 75-lap race. The others include three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Vitor Meira, Rafael Matos, Mario Romancini, Mario Moraes and Ana Beatriz, the only female driver to have won an Indy Lights championship race.

Kanaan and Castroneves remember watching CART's Brazilian debut in 1996 before competing in the CART races at Rio from 1998 to 2000. The 1996 race was at the height of Brazilian participation in CART, with a lineup that featured Emerson Fittipaldi and his nephew, Christian Fittipaldi, along with Raul Boesel, Gil de Ferran, Mauricio Gugelmin, Roberto Moreno and Marco Greco.

But they were all trumped on their home soil by Andre Ribeiro, whose wildly celebrated victory in April 1996 was one of three he scored in the CART series. By the time CART's five-year run in Brazil ended, Ribeiro had already retired from racing to focus on his Brazilian business interests in partnership with Roger Penske.

Based on a couple of promotional trips to the circuit, Castroneves expects the IndyCar Series to receive a warm welcome in his home city.

"The reception has been outstanding," he said. "Everybody is excited, everybody is pumped. Everybody is ready to welcome everyone. It may not be the prettiest site, but it's the place where everybody enjoys and has fun with the carnival, which just happened.

"They are doing everything they can for a great race," he added. "Yes, you have to expect some issues, which is normal the first time at a road course."

Kanaan believes the Brazilian organizers will come through with a world-class event.

"The pressure is huge," he said. "First of all, I think it was a bit late to decide to have a race there just four months before the championship starts. Obviously, we've got the Olympics and the World Cup coming up, as well, so it's really important for us to have a good presentation. As a first event, on Monday you'll be saying, 'We could do this or this or this better.' But I think it will be at a high standard from the get-go."

[+] EnlargeBia Figueiredo
AP Photo/Andre PennerBrazilian driver Bia Figueiredo wheels an Indy car in Sao Paulo to promote the opening race of the Izod IndyCar Series.

From a competitive standpoint, Kanaan and his Andretti Autosport teammates will be looking to catch up to the drivers for Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, including Castroneves.

Ganassi's Scott Dixon is especially keen to get his 2010 season off to a strong start after two poor early finishes compromised his 2009 championship challenge.

"We definitely got ourselves into a bit of a hole at the start of 2009, and I think we were something like 18th in the points after two or three races," said the two-time IndyCar Series champion. "It was a long way for us to try and make up. For me it's about concentrating on a strong start and hoping that will make the difference to bring us through."

It's a major task for teams to set up their cars for a track they have never seen after just two days of open testing. And because it is a fly-away race, they will not have all the usual resources at their disposal.

The challenge is magnified by the fact that the Brazilian event is being contested over just two days because a section of the track uses a major highway.

"As with any new circuit, the most important thing is to run a series of simulations to determine what the cornering speeds and straightaway speeds will be," said Craig Hampson, a senior engineer with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. "This then allows us to select the gear pattern and correct gear ratios. The same simulation also helps us to make decisions about the starting ride heights, the aero setup and brake cooling.

"Having only a two-day event at a brand-new circuit, with a new driver for the team [Hideki Mutoh], is far from ideal," he added. "You can usually make your best improvements overnight after a good study of the data. So we need to come off the airplane with a setup that is close, otherwise we probably don't have enough time to improve the handling. If we have managed to do a better job in our preparations, it could actually prove to be an advantage."

Twenty-four drivers are expected to compete in the IndyCar Series opener, including four females led by Danica Patrick. Veteran Milka Duno has landed a full-season ride with Dale Coyne Racing; rookie Simona De Silvestro will tackle a full campaign for HVM Team Stargate Racing; and Indy Lights graduate Beatriz will make her IndyCar debut in a one-off run for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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