Amid all the media interviews and photos of both him and the 2012 IndyCar, test driver Dan Wheldon said the series of new car tests has serious purpose.
Wheldon and the new IndyCar made a test run at Iowa Speedway on Tuesday, the first test of the car on an oval. Far from glorified parade laps, Wheldon said he was up on the wheel from the start.
“I was flat out very quickly,” said Wheldon with a smile. “I like to think you know my style by now. It’s very difficult for them to control me once they send me out on track. Obviously, you do need to be disciplined and understand that if it doesn’t feel right, come in. But by the same token if it does, hey, have at it. Our boss at the end of the day is Randy Bernard and I think part of the reason he picked me is he knows when I get in the race car I’m going for it. It’s important for me in the job that I am right now to know that the car has been driven as hard as it can be. And that’s important. When the team owners take delivery of the cars and put their race drivers in them, I want them to say 'you know what? Dan and everybody at Bryan Herta Autosport did a good job and would be recommended again.' ”
The test team brought only one car to Iowa Speedway, and admittedly it was full of downforce for the initial runs to minimize the risk of losing control. Still, the testing process has moved beyond early shakedown runs to heavier and heavier stressing of the car. Wheldon said he enjoys the technical aspects of his job as test driver.
“This team for this particular program led by Will Phillips and Tony Cotman,” said Wheldon. “They are strategic with every test and have a protocol that they want you to follow and certainly have a job they want you to achieve and are very disciplined in doing that.”
Wheldon said test days start with a meeting with Phillips to discuss specific goals for each test.
“It’s always great to just see from the first test to any given test that goes on how much the car has evolved,” said Wheldon. “You’re talking about some great manufactures that have a common goal, that is not only to impress the fans with a new car but obviously drivers and teams and I think because of that this excitement has really made it a great program to be a part of it.”
The feedback Wheldon offers on car performance more extensive and segmented than feedback all drivers give their engineer on performance.
“I talk to each given manufacturer,” said Wheldon. “There’s a set protocol. So I relay information to Honda, to Dallara, then I might talk to the guys who make the clutch and the gearbox, then talk about handling. On race weekend, it’s just talking about handling.”
As for comparisons between the new car and the current IndyCar Dallara ...
“I’m not allowed to give specifics away, but I think it’s common knowledge now that it’s lighter,” said Wheldon. “It’s got the turbocharged engine, which is different. It’s more agile. More nimble so to speak, which I very much enjoy. It’s got a hand clutch which works phenomenally well, but it took a little while to get used to the hand clutch. I was looking for a clutch pedal down there. It’s fresh and it’s new and when you're part of that it’s very good.”
But will the 2012 car be a “game changer” for IndyCar?
“I think that primarily we’ve got to do it for the fans,” said Wheldon. “IndyCar has a great deal of momentum right now. The one thing I do keep saying in the debriefs is it’s going to be difficult to improve significantly on the on-track product. The races this year been phenomenal whether they’ve been on an oval, a street course or road course. That’s going to be difficult to beat. We’re certainly working on that. This is a fresh look, as you can see, it’s more modern. It’s got a lot of great things. We’re going to have multiple engine manufactures involved. With all these changes comes a lot of excitement.”
$5 Million Dollar Challenge
Wheldon said the buzz around the new car has brought out racing media to various tests and attracted the attention of the non-racing media as well. The new car along with Wheldon’s participation in the “Go Daddy IndyCar Challenge” element of the season finale in Las Vegas has also brought in some buzz.
Wheldon and a randomly selected fan will split $5 million if Wheldon manages to start at the rear of the pack and win the race.
“I did hear in the media that some of the drivers were a little bit upset that I was eligible for the $5 million challenge,” said Wheldon, the reigning Indy 500 champion and multiple IndyCar oval race winner. “I think having spoke to a lot of the now, they’re not really mad at all they just think I have a genuine shot at it and I think they want part of $2.5 million. I think Oriol Servia already tweeted me that.”
Wheldon expects to make the readjustment back to the current IndyCar quickly.
“People come to these tests and say ‘the new car looks so different,’” he said. “Well to me it looks normal now and the old car looks different. I’m going to have to adjust but I’m honestly looking forward to being back in the competitive environment. I’ve been blessed to do really make the most of not racing full time. I got to do a ton of things wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it. But the racer in me wants to get back.”