Reigning four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti assesses Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay before the season-ending MAVTV 500 – and explains why (for once) he comes to the finale knowing he's about to give up his crown.
Maybe this year more than ever, the IZOD IndyCar Series has proven that you need to have everything right if you want to have success. And for all teams, finding that level on a truly consistent basis has been a major struggle in 2012. It's been an extraordinary season.
I realize that there are two fewer races this year than in 2010, for instance, but myself and Will Power were up at the 600-point mark in the championship two years ago, whereas this year only one person can hit 500…and yet up to five people may be past the 400-point mark by next Saturday night. The points have been far more evenly distributed over the past 14 races than in recent seasons, which I guess proves that the new car had the effect IndyCar desired.
For us on the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, there have simply been too many issues and so we were mathematically eliminated from the championship with two rounds to go. But realistically, the game was up before then. Whether it was getting a handle on the new car, being outpaced, engine blow-ups, pit stop issues and just sheer bad luck, we just weren't able to take advantage of all the days when we had a winning car.
But there will be no finger-pointing from any of us – this is the same group of guys who took the past three championships, and although we're in a very uncharacteristic ninth in the championship standings, we have won a race this year. And if you're only going to win one race, I think we got the right one! But hey, look at even that day: we got turned on pit lane and had to come from the back. Hmm…now I think about it, that was some of my best driving this year and the team's execution that day was flawless.
But the season isn't quite over. There's one race to go, it's another 500-miler and I think we stand at least as good a chance at Fontana as anyone else. We can just go for it. There's a lot less pressure on us in the finale than in the past three years – and to be honest, that feels horrible! I really would be happy to deal again with the pressure of going for the championship. Ah well…
The two guys who do face that burden of expectation are Will Power, the guy who's run us closest the past couple of years, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, driving for the team with whom I won my first title. Will has the points advantage, but Ryan has won more recently.
The new car threw everyone for a bit of a loop, as you'd expect. We all knew the old one, and I mean we really knew it inside out: we knew that if we made adjustment X and adjustment Y it would give us result Z, whether that was in terms of handling, traction, stability under braking, and so on.
The Dallara DW12 was something very different, and I think we saw Will and Team Penske get on top of that and explore all of its avenues quicker than anyone else. But like the rest of us, they had engine issues and therefore grid-penalty issues and other things you expect to encounter over the course of an IndyCar season, like strategy not working with the way the yellows fell or the pits being open under yellow or unexpectedly closed! Will and I both got hosed at Toronto, for instance, because the pits were closed, and so from first and second we came out of the pits outside of the top 10, I think.
These are things that just get in the way, and cause you to stumble. Will hasn't been taking advantage of his pace. I'm not saying it's down to him (although actually I really think maybe it is but you'll have to check with Will on that one!). Seriously, when I say “Will,” I mean the No. 12 team – you can't ever separate the driver from the rest of the team. For various reasons, they often haven't achieved what their pace suggested they could have (I know the feeling, mate!).
However, I think Will has become a smart operator in terms of accumulating points and seeing the big picture. I had someone ask me if that's something he learned from competing against us over the past couple of seasons, and, I don't want to sound like I'm flattering myself, but I really think maybe it is. You don't see Will making a risky pass for fourth if he thinks he might lose a nose-wing doing it; he'll take the fifth place. And that has made him more consistent in a year when it's damn hard to be consistent. When I was racing around him at Toronto and Baltimore, too, I remember thinking to myself, “Will: that's a very cautious and measured attack.” There was no wildness.
The contrast with Ryan Hunter-Reay has been intriguing. They may be on similar points totals, but Will and Ryan have reached that point by very different routes: Ryan has been on full attack mode and Will has been in defensive mode. In fact, I'd say Ryan has been very aggressive this year, and there have been times when he's been quite lucky to get away with it. But then again, it's his first championship battle at this level of racing and in those circumstances, you do try and ride your luck for as long as you can.
In previous years, Ryan had certainly shown flashes of this kind of form, but had never come close to putting a whole season together. This year he's been strong on a variety of different tracks, and that's also a great credit to Andretti Autosport. I still have a lot of friends there, and in recent years I've seen them wandering the paddocks with the weight of the world on their shoulders; AA have a ton of good people there, but somehow the results just weren't there, certainly not on a consistent basis. Now they're on an up-cycle and that's been good to see. Pace-wise, Ryan hasn't been at Will's level, but he's made the most of what he's got, driven some really good races and, like I say, he's been bloody aggressive!
So now it's time to see who's the champion, and I think it's pointless to say who I think deserves to win: Let's stress again that I'm a firm believer that the driver can't be regarded as separate from the team. I think the driver/team combinations that deserve to be in the running for the championship each year are the ones who are there, and that the driver/team combination that prevails and wins the title is the one who most deserves it.
I think it's important that both Will and Ryan drive in the same way that got them into this showdown situation, the way that comes naturally to them. I think the experience of fighting for a championship before does help Will and Penske. And while I think it's worth noting that the No. 12 pit crew have made much fewer mistakes this year – Sonoma notwithstanding! – the real key will be how they handle a championship showdown situation. That's when the pressure is on, especially in the final pit stop and if Ryan's crew have already done their final stop and done it well….
In his favor, Ryan has scored his wins on a variety of tracks this year, including ovals. But I think – no, I know – Will can drive ovals well, too. Sure, at Iowa he pinched down on EJ Viso and took them both out, but he was very strong in Texas, for example, and I think the cars will be handling like that again at Fontana.
Well, I hope my car isn't handling like it did in Texas. Dear God! We had to take so many turns of front wing out, and disconnect the rear anti-roll bar and it still didn't handle! The following week, I saw Eddie Jones [Rubens Barrichello's engineer] – and he's a man who's not known for coddling his drivers. But he said to me, “Well done!” and I said, “What, for winning Indy?” and he said, “No, for hanging onto your car in Texas and keeping it off the wall.” Coming from him, that was high praise indeed!
Anyway, my point is, the strakes on the underbody will not be allowed at Fontana so there will be less downforce than some hoped for and so it becomes a handling track. Aside from that, it's also quite bumpy and none of us know the Auto Club Speedway particularly well, despite the test sessions there.
Basically, if you miss it on setup, you will miss by a mile. Being the championship leader, Will can be a little more cautious than Ryan – but not too cautious because otherwise, in a field as close as the 2012-era IZOD IndyCar Series, you will get swamped and you'll go a lap down before you know it. Remember, everyone else will be just going flat out for the win with all to play for. Will and Ryan will need to be doing quite a balancing act, because there may also be the desire factor – who is prepared to gut it out if he gets a bad yellow or has a pit lane problem and has to climb through from the rear of the field? And this is crucial: which of them can best keep his head in those circumstances? Interesting stuff…
What's certain is that the spectators at Auto Club Speedway will get their money's worth. Think about it: two drivers going for the championship, 25 drivers going for the win, a 500-mile race, a variety of tactics, an oval wing package that demands real driving, ever-changing track conditions as evening turns to darkness…It should be a hell of a spectacle!
But while I'm intrigued to see who my successor is as champion, I'm not so interested that I'll be asking Chip for updates on the radio during the race. No: I want to be standing in Victory Lane with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing boys, and then congratulating the new champ.
See you at the track.