1 – WILL POWER
Best qualifying position: 1st (St. Pete, Sao Paulo, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Baltimore)
Best finishing position: 1st (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo)
Championship position: 2nd
Will Power experienced a truly bizarre year of great driving but occasional errors, great strategies but occasional miscues – and then also some pretty poor luck, especially when predicting how Race Control would react to certain situations with regards to pits opening or closing under full-course cautions. But despite all these ups and downs, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series title was there for the taking for the Verizon Team Penske squad.
In two of the final three races there were occasions when Team Penske was scrupulously fair to Ryan Briscoe, to the detriment of the championship quest. Not a single IndyCar participant seems 100 percent sure what the deal is regarding imposing team orders on drivers – as in all forms of racing, it seems to be a very gray area – but a phantom pit stop for Briscoe before the final restart at Baltimore would have not only have elevated Power one position, it would have put the highly ambitious and fired-up Pagenaud alongside the similarly aggressive Hunter-Reay when the green flag waved, and put Power alongside Dixon and given him a chance to go for third place. Considering the mood he was in ever since his strategy had gone awry at the first pit stop, I'm not sure he'd have stopped there, either.… But even a fourth-place finish, as things transpired, would have been enough for Power to win the championship.
The race before was an even more stark example of the team choosing sentiment over title-hunting. Power had the Sonoma race in the bag until a very slow final pit stop put him behind backmarkers who were driving at two-thirds speed under the yellow-flag conditions. This allowed Briscoe to emerge from his pit stop ahead of the Verizon car.
Now, I know that it's tough to ask a driver who hasn't won in two-and-a-half seasons to give up a win to his teammate, I know that the No. 2 car's crew needed a win as much as their driver, I know there's an obligation for Team Penske to keep all its sponsors happy, including Hitachi, and I know that with Hunter-Reay not only being spun out but also serving a drive-through penalty, Power was still going to leave Sonoma with a 36-point lead. But at the time, I recall thinking that effectively sacrificing 10 points could prove expensive in what had been a hugely unpredictable season. In that particular situation I'd have had no hesitation in telling Briscoe to let Power through. Had it been Ryan rather than Will who'd dominated the race then yeah, OK, I'd have thought twice about it – but I'd probably still have “done a Ferrari” and ordered the switcharound. I guess I'm just not as benevolent as Roger Penske.
Still, after these two races, a 17-point lead heading into the finale should have been enough for Power, especially against a driver whose car was nothing like a front-runner that night in Fontana. There are various versions of why he didn't just stay a few car lengths behind Hunter-Reay rather than make a pass, but the actual error was Will's and Will's alone – especially as he deliberately drove over the seam that sent the car into its lazy spin! (as he explained here). And that was certainly not the only mistake from Power this year. At Iowa, he didn't hear his spotter say “inside” and thus pinched down on Viso, causing a collision that ended both of their races. He lost a probable win at Texas when he got a drive-through penalty for blocking Tony Kanaan. He made a bad situation (not of his or the team's doing) worse at Toronto by clipping the rear tire of Josef Newgarden and damaging his front wing, sending him to the pits for repairs. And his tentative drive to 12th at Milwaukee was reminiscent of his performance at Kansas two years ago – far too cautious.
Some of that caution was also evident in the season opener at St. Petersburg where Will proved quicker than his opposition in the early stages, but the team's strategy worked terribly with the way the yellows happened to fall – not helped by the pits closing when a car ground to a halt in the pit lane entrance. On one of the restarts, the No. 12 car seemed to allow half the city's population drive past, so desperate was its occupant to stay out of harm's way. Power had a lot of work to do in the final stint, then, but then he came alive, laying down fast laps and passing cars left and right on his way up to seventh.
That was suitable preparation for the next two races where he came from ninth and 12th on the grid to win on a couple of tracks where you supposedly can't pass. And then finally, in Brazil, he was able to do what we've come to expect from him: dominate from the front.
Indy was a disaster, wiped out when A.J. Foyt Racing sent Mike Conway out with a broken front wing; when it completely let go, Power, running in an easy eighth place, had nowhere to go. Detroit could have been better, but the restart rules – everyone had to use a fresh set of tires of the type they'd been using when the race was halted –of course militated against those on the primaries, and played into the hands of all those on reds, who could not only get up to temp faster but also ultimately had more grip. In the circumstances, fourth place wasn't bad, and was a lot better than Toronto. There, the fast guys got hosed by the pit closing under yellow; Power, leading at the time, thus rejoined in a gaggle of cars. The mistake he then made was minimal – he didn't even know he'd tapped Newgarden's tire until he next tried to turn for a corner – and was an error that all the front-runners made at some point in the course of the year; from a DW12's cockpit, it's impossible to see the car's front-wing endplates. But in light of the fact that Newgarden rose as high as third in the closing stages, it was clearly an expensive error: Power should have finished on the podium.
In Edmonton, apart from the “Doh!” moment in qualifying where the track dried quickly after Will thought his Q2 time was safe, his and the team's performance was impeccable. With an engine-change-related 10-place grid penalty to add to his seventh fastest quali time snafu, Power was aiming for a top-five finish. Yet without the aid of any yellow flags, he rose from 17th on the grid to finish third.
At Mid-Ohio, he played it smart like a title contender should. After dominating the first two thirds of the race from pole and getting beaten out of the pits by Dixon, he acknowledged that it's virtually impossible to pass a car of similar performance on that track and so he went straight into fuel-save mode, waiting for a double-file restart to look for an opportunity to get around the Ganassi car. Sadly for him, it was another caution-free race. C'est la vie.
Sonoma and Fontana, we've covered already, but Baltimore was another One That Got Away, for had Power and his strategist Tim Cindric not miscommunicated regarding the wet/dry tire dilemma, they'd likely have won the race and would now be champions. Will had been quickest with slicks in the wet before the yellow flag; ideally what the Verizon team needed to do was just cover any move (or lack thereof) made by its sole title rivals, the No. 28 Andretti Autosport team. But “ideal,” in those circumstances, wasn't possible: if you're in the lead, the best you can do is second-guess your opponents' pit strategy. And get reliable weather forecasts…
And so Power is IndyCar runner-up for the third straight year. You may be wondering why he's not runner-up in this list, too – especially when the points I've awarded to Dixon for each race reach a total slightly higher than Power's race tally. And the answer lies in their relative qualifying performances, in which Will remains peerless over the course of a season.
As he tried to right a wrong in that final stint in Baltimore, Power's closing rate on the Ganassi cars ahead was, on average, one second a lap, but that shouldn't surprise us. His pole position the day before was almost 0.6sec faster than the second quickest driver.
Others, too, had days like that in 2012 – Franchitti's pole-winning run at Milwaukee, Dixon's speed on primary tires in the final laps at Detroit, Bourdais' drive to ninth in the Lotus-powered Dragon Racing entry at Barber – but Power produces them more regularly. In qualifying on road and street courses, he was often around half a second quicker than his teammates or indeed, any other Chevrolet-engined driver; and for those who think he doesn't “get” ovals, he was a top-six qualifier at all of them this year (ignoring engine-change penalties), and faster than at least one of his teammates at all but Iowa.
Power is also the guy who, after the crew botched a tire-stop in Texas, forcing him to do a slow lap and return for a check-up, emerged from the pits in 20th and carved through to the lead. With ovals becoming a driver's – rather than an engineer's – formula, Will's performance that night at TMS resembled so many of his road course displays, going quicker and preserving his tires better than his rivals.
Does he have things to learn? Of course – in particular, how to race more aggressively on the short ovals and on all oval restarts. Maybe Tony Kanaan can take Power for a ride in IndyCar's two-seater at Milwaukee next year. But, facetiousness aside, here's a genuine reason for believing it's vital that he throttles back on the Rick Mears method and instead dials up the Tom Sneva approach to oval racing: Power's significant errors on any type of track almost invariably occur not when he's pushing to the limit, but when he's trying too hard to take it easy. Peculiar but true.
Will is right to never underestimate his opposition, because I can think of two – possibly three – IndyCar drivers who are capable of his top-class drives in the races at Barber, Sao Paulo, Edmonton and Sonoma this past year. Those were also weekends when Cindric, race engineer Dave Faustino and Billy Vincent and his crew played vital roles not only in their work during the race, but throughout the weekend, plotting, fixing and refining. But Power's performance in Long Beach from 12th on the grid – going fast and pulling off passes while saving enough fuel to make a two-stop strategy work – showed the full extent of his talent, as did qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Baltimore.
An IndyCar title is overdue for Will Power and long overdue for Team Penske: it's time for two rights to make a right.