BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Dario Franchitti and the rest of the IndyCar drivers and teams are still in the homework phase a month from the season opener, getting a handle on new cars that are deemed safer and swifter.
"Right now, it's not so much an itch to get racing, it's an itch to figure out, OK, how are we going to make this car work?" Franchitti, the three-time defending points champion, said Monday on a break from testing at Barber Motorsports Park. "All the teams and all the drivers and engine manufacturers are still in that stage of not really fully understanding everything we need to.
"We understood the old cars so well and we're learning things in leaps and bounds here. When the first race comes it'll be pretty typical racing but at the same time there's going to be lots of unknown things."
That first race will be at St. Petersburg on March 25, marking IndyCar's return to racing after last season ended with Dan Wheldon's death in the finale at Las Vegas.
The new cars have more horsepower and more grip, along with new safety features to protect against side impacts and three inches of extra foam around the driver's seat and one inch of foam underneath to reduce injuries.
"I think it's definitely safer," driver Scott Dixon said. "It's evolved a lot from the old car that we had. Technology that was six or eight years old is a big difference. It's a lot safer in some areas.
"Whether you can eliminate freak kind of crashes ... With Dan's, I don't think any kind of car could have stopped what happened there."
In the meantime, Dixon said every test brings "page-long lists" of things to work on leading up to St. Petersburg.
The cars aren't the only things that have been altered with safety matters at the forefront.
IndyCar has also said double-file restarts won't be used at Indianapolis, Texas or Fontana in another change designed to make the sport safer.
"It's just safety to me," driver Will Power said. "At Indianapolis, it was just insanity the speed we were doing with the double-file restart on that front straight.
"That's a good compromise to me."
The series will also experiment with three 30-lap qualification heats at Iowa, which both Dixon and Power think will be "pretty cool."
"It's a sport that's very competitive but it's also a show, and it's got to be interesting for people to watch," Dixon said. "We're going to do our best to put on a great show. I think the heat race idea sounds pretty cool. It's nothing that we've ever done before. I remember doing it in Go-Karts when I was like 8 years old. I think it'll be fun, and definitely be a huge show (pre-race) Friday for the people in Iowa."
The predominant issue leading up to the season has been safety, though, in a high-speed sport regrouping from tragedy.
"I hope it will be (safer)," Franchitti said. "Racing is naturally a dangerous sport; we try to make it as safe as possible. Hopefully we're making progress with that."
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