Team Wildcard

Lotus has started to make noise ahead of 2012, but will it continue on the track?

There are always a few questions to answer during the IZOD IndyCar Series’ offseason. Some of them are the usual ones revolving around driver/team lineups and sponsorships, but with the onset of new cars and engines, there’s been more to ponder over.

But perhaps the biggest unknowns lie with engine manufacturer Lotus, which has finally started to reveal its plans as of late. As of now, the British marque has three factory squads in hand — HVM Racing, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport — and a standard engine partnership with newcomers Michael Shank Racing. That said, their roster for 2012 is not yet set in stone with multiple teams still trying to nail down engine deals with either themselves, Chevrolet or Honda.

Even more unusual is that it appears the Lotus corps will be behind the 8-ball in terms of testing, with scribe Marshall Pruett reporting that the Lotus V6 won’t see the track for the first time until after the new year.

This could all lead to trouble, at least in the initial stages, once the season begins for Lotus. DRR co-owner Robbie Buhl seemed to acknowledged the possibility last week, but also said that it wasn’t “an insurmountable task” trying to catch up with Chevy and Honda, who have been well underway in developing their engines on-track.

“Obviously with those guys physically being out on track, you know, that’s definitely an advantage at this point,” Buhl said. “Hopefully, the product, the chassis is still evolving and we are still learning about what we have to do on that, and as a series. And they still need to come out with the ECU box that everybody has to run. Nobody has run that. So there’s still some components on the cars that are still evolving.

“As much as you can do back in the shop and being prepared for our car, when it’s ready to go with the Lotus and put on practice, we have got to do everything we can to hedge against not being on track right now.”

But Buhl and fellow co-owner Dennis Reinbold decided to go with Lotus based on their engineering credentials, which they feel will help them rebound from a tough 2011 that saw their No. 1 driver, Justin Wilson, suffer a season-ending injury and their No. 2 driver, Ana Beatriz, slog through a rough rookie campaign.

Wilson competed in the first 11 events before sustaining a fractured T-5 vertebrae during practice at Mid-Ohio when his car went off the course and got airborne over a small bump — the impact coming down was enough to cause the injury. Simon Pagenaud, Tomas Scheckter, Giorgio Pantano, and Townsend Bell all took turns as Beatriz’s teammate in Wilson’s absence.

As for Beatriz, she could only muster a top finish of 11th at Toronto and also dealt with injuries as well. A broken wrist sustained at the season opener in St. Petersburg forced her out of the car at Barber Motorsports Park (Pagenaud took over her No. 24 machine for that race).

Suffice to say, Reinbold doesn’t want to go through any of that again.

“We were very disappointed with our results,” Reinbold said. “And to change things, we made some personnel changes and for us…What we are doing is rebuilding with the real focus on the engineering side of our business.

“We have acquired some equipment that will help us do some testing in house, as well as doing some testing in conjunction with Lotus…But we are excited about really rebuilding ourselves, just getting ready for the new cars, and really putting the effort in to figure these new cars out at a higher level than where we were with the last version of car.”

But the fact that DRR and their Lotus brethren will be well behind Chevy and Honda in terms of on-track testing can’t be completely comforting — even with Bryan Herta Autosport, the team that developed the new cars with the late Dan Wheldon, on board with their valuable information.

In fact, Lotus hasn’t been completely comforting to begin with. While they have managed to grab some teams and figure to grab some more in the weeks ahead, the marque was rather quiet on its IndyCar plans up to the final stages of the 2011 season. Series CEO Randy Bernard flew over to Lotus’ England HQ in September to check in on things.

But Bernard came away positive on the meeting, and to Lotus’ credit, they’ve made good steps afterwards.

And with this many questions going into the 2012 season, they’re in position to pull off quite the surprise if their engine proves stout. How interesting would it be to see the smaller, Lotus-powered teams ascend into the lead pack and pick fights with the bigger teams boasting H’s and Bowtie’s on their cowlings?

“Until you get the cars out on the track and until we lineup at St. Pete, there’s a lot of unknowns that are going to come into the 2012 season, not just for us, but for the entire field,” Reinbold said. “You do the best you can in testing and you trust that Lotus, as well as Honda and Chevy, are going to make a good product, as well as Dallara, and it’s going to be raceable. So you go out and do whatever you can.”