1 – WILL POWER
Best finish: 1st (x 6)
Best start: 1st (x 8)
Championship position: 2nd
For a second straight year, Will Power won more races and scored more poles than any of his IndyCar rivals. For the second straight year, he came up short in the championship, largely through bad luck and just a little through inexperience. (Hmmm…11 wins and 16 poles accrued in just two seasons and yet no title to show for it: these sound like Michael Andretti-type stats.)
What's more remarkable still is that Power also makes fewer mistakes than any of his rivals. He beat himself up over qualifying at Edmonton and Motegi, where little errors on his quickest runs in Q3 allowed poles to slip away by 0.05sec and 0.03sec, respectively. And it will gnaw at him that at Mid-Ohio, a scrappy final turn on his hot lap allowed one of his Penske teammates (Briscoe) to outqualify him for only the second time in their 22 road/street course races together. But none of those were game-changers, none of them accounted for his 18-point deficit to Franchitti in the final standings.
If you're harsh enough to call it a mistake, in hindsight it's easy to say Power should have parked it at Iowa after he was released from his pit box into the side of Charlie Kimball. Despite his steering and front wing being knocked out of shape, he felt he must continue, and a smashed car and mild concussion were the result. Then again, no other IndyCar ace would have made a different decision.
Inexperience, rather than error, led to Power's setups for Milwaukee and Loudon being too on-a-knife-edge. He hadn't raced on the Milwaukee Mile since '08 (when he was with KV Racing and none of those ex-Champ Car teams had a handle on the Dallaras) and he had never raced at the New Hampshire track. By the time he realized how the fastest guys were getting their speed, it was too late to do much about it. But at all the other ovals, the Verizon No. 12 car was fastest of the Penske trio, at least in qualifying.
So those gaps in Power's armor are being filled, year on year. However, unlike in 2010, Penske rarely had a car advantage over Ganassi this past season. Roger's cars definitely had the edge at Sonoma, probably at Barber, and maybe in Baltimore, too; Will duly took full advantage with 53 points from each – pole, victory and most laps led. At Kentucky, as well, Power's Penske had a definite advantage. But by my unscientific calculations, Ganassi was top team at seven events, Penske at four and at the remainder, the teams were about evenly matched.
That wasn't the deciding factor in the way the championship resolved itself, though. No, what appeared to happen was that Power's genuine good fortune was used up in that lottery for the second race at Texas, where he drew grid slot No. 3, Franchitti drew No. 28, and Will went on to score his first oval win. Lady Luck would throw no other scraps the Australian's way this year.
Castroneves' error at Long Beach cost Power a definite second, and a probable win. Even if Ryan Hunter-Reay (his only true opposition that day) had beaten him to Victory Lane, the points for finishing second would have been enough to make Power this year's champion. At Indy he was sent out of the pits with only three wheels attached – although in terms of pace, Ganassi (as well as Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Newman/Haas Racing) had Penske handled that day. Iowa we've already discussed, but Toronto was another game-changer, where 53 points turned into 15 through no fault of his own (see Dario Franchitti section, above). Third at Mid-Ohio behind the dominant Ganassi cars was easily within his grasp until a yellow fell while he and Briscoe were stretching their fuel mileage to try and jump Franchitti after his final pit stop. The pits closed, and the Aussies finished 14th and 16th. And then of course there was Kentucky, where Ana Beatriz was sent out of the Dreyer & Reinbold pit into the side of the hitherto dominant No. 12 Penske.
Yup, in terms of potential points lost, Power's 2011 season is right up there with Michael Andretti's 1992 season (see – another parallel with the '91 champ!).
Given that he did so much right and so little wrong in 2011, Power was an easy choice for No. 1 slot in this list. More people are coming to agree that IndyCar's fastest driver is now also the best overall – and so long as Will continues never to assume either of those assessments to be true, he'll remain top dingo.
Who knows? One day, that may be enough to bring him and Penske a championship…
BEST: Baltimore, when he had to lay down 10 straight “qualifying” laps before a pit stop to avoid getting jumped by the off-strategy guys.
WORST: Qualifying 17th at Milwaukee after a wild slide on his first lap.