A lot of drivers find street courses the most daunting on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule – the proximity of walls, bumpy brake zones, blind corners, and the opportunism and bravery that's required to pull off a pass – can cause mental road blocks even for drivers who are cool with lapping Texas Motor Speedway at 220mph.
But for Will Power, temporary circuits are Promised Lands, places where he expects to thrive. Over the last four seasons, he's conquered the streets of Las Vegas, Toronto, Long Beach and, most recently, Sao Paulo. If you go onto YouTube and watch his 2007 pole lap at Surfers Paradise, you'll understand why rivals and fans have come to expect something startling from the 29-year-old from Toowoomba, Australia, every time the series hits a street course.
So, with the first round of the IndyCar season – the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 – falling to car No. 12, and with two more street races in the next three rounds, now's the time to catch up with Power and get the lowdown on street course racing. It's not quite a 101, because he's not going to give up his secrets so easily, but it's educational nonetheless.
“Street tracks have a lot of bumps, a lot of strange cambers and different surfaces,” says Power, “so I couldn't put my finger on just one thing and say, ‘Yeah, coping with this or that is what makes a driver quick around there.' It's all about getting the little details right. In any sort of racing, you've got to find those last little bits and string them all together to make a difference.
“If I made a comparison, I'd say that on a road course, you might be able to make a small mistake, run too deep into a corner and you'll just go over a curb and onto sand or grass, whereas a street course has walls that show you pretty clearly where your limit is. That forces you to be very accurate and disciplined with braking and turn-in points and how much power you apply on the exit.
“But I think Sao Paulo showed something else, too, something that we all know about street races – you have to survive the mayhem! It's good to get pole on street courses because there's less chance of you getting taken out at the first corner, but you're still not completely safe. Look at Graham [Rahal] at St. Pete last year. Sometimes it's just down to luck.
“So it's a matter of putting yourself in a good position, surviving and then being mistake-free. Come to think of it, that kind of works in reverse, too, because being mistake free all weekend will help you get into that good position, obviously. If you hit the wall during the weekend, it can knock your confidence a bit: you can start thinking about the consequences of doing it again, so you might not push quite hard enough to get onto the front row.”
The margins by which Power achieved his five poles in Champ Car's final year of 2007 (right) are long gone, he reckons – although it's worth noting that he took pole by 0.8sec at Surfers in the IndyCar Series' single event there in 2008. With talents like Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves alongside him at Penske, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti in Ganassi cars, and Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold), Tony Kanaan (Andretti Autosport) and Alex Tagliani (FAZZT) all clearly capable of making it through to the Firestone Fast Six, life's tougher than ever in 2010.
“It's so competitive now – ridiculously competitive, actually – that I'm not going to reveal too much here!” Power admits. “I mean, I could tell you more about the techniques of being quick on a street course in qualifying, but I don't want to, for obvious reasons! But I suppose the basic is to get every little bit right in every single corner and do it all while the tires are at their absolute prime.”
That last point has a bearing on why Power ended up on the third row of the grid in Sao Paulo, as he'll explain. Despite setting the fastest lap of the weekend, it came in the wrong session to earn him pole position. He didn't intend it to fall that way, although Power admits he's a driver who likes to be quickest in all his sessions. That's not to demoralize the opposition (he's not big on playing psychological games), but to find his and the car's limit.
“You're just trying to get through, from one session of qualifying to the next, yeah; but to get through to the Firestone Fast Six, you're going to be up against all those drivers in the second round anyway, so you have to push as hard in that session as you do in the Fast Six. In Brazil, I did the quickest lap of the weekend in the second session, but then I went out on used red [option] tires for the Fast Six and couldn't get within half a second of my quickest. It was a mistake: I should've used blacks – but there is an excuse. We were playing it safe.
“We'd missed the 15-minute morning practice session because we had a gearbox problem, stuck in reverse, so I just wanted to make sure we got through to the second round, so we took the quicker compound, the red option tires, when most of the others were running blacks. So our sequence for the three sessions went red, red, used reds, when what you want is black, red, red. By the time we got to the Firestone Fast Six, that used set was obviously past its best. I'm not going to say, 'Oh for sure I'd have been on pole with a fresh set of reds, or blacks,' – but I am sure we'd have been further forward.”
Aside from what he regards as the necessity to do it, Power gains a lot of knowledge from pushing hard the whole time, and that philosophy worked well for some of the fastest legends in motorsport history – from Bernd Rosemeyer through Stirling Moss to Gilles Villeneuve, Rick Mears and Ayrton Senna. It's a self-perpetuating state: The more often you drive on the limit, the more frequently capable you are of reaching that limit and the more comfortable you are being there. That eventually gives you the foundation and confidence to transcend the car's natural limits and discover your personal boundaries are much wider.
The man himself explains it thus: “You only know what the limit is if you push in every session. You can't ‘save yourself' for the next session, because it's a constant learning process and the only confirmation that what you're doing is right is in the lap times. You're not going to find out everything you need to know unless you're on it all the time. The car's behavior is different when you're on the absolute limit, so if you're working below that level, you're not really understanding what the car needs to improve, or what you need to ask for from your engineer to improve it.”Although he's got his car tuned to suit his own style, Power watches other top drivers carefully. Even from TV images, he can take an educated guess at how they're operating, and he highlights Franchitti for special mention when it comes to channeling an Indy car between close, concrete confines.
“Dario's very, very quick on street courses,” Will says. “He's got it down pat, so I always watch him and I can see that he likes the rear of the car to be very solid – no oversteer – so he keeps it very clean, smooth and mistake-free. Dario's usually the guy you've got to beat on street tracks.”
So, Chip Ganassi's reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion is doubtless going to be in the hunt for pole next weekend at St. Petersburg. Although Franchitti has never won in his four starts at the 1.8-mile course around the harbor front, he started all of them from the first two rows, including a pole position in 2006. Even if it's going to be the same drivers in the front-of-pack mix as a week ago, Power knows they're all going to encounter a very different challenge in Florida than in Brazil.
“The track surface is a lot smoother at St. Pete,” he says, “although there are still crowns in the road. But there are also some pretty tight, 90-degree corners. It has more turns than Sao Paulo, but over a much shorter lap. I got the KV Racing car on the front row in 2008, but last year I didn't qualify as well as I wanted to, because I made a little mistake once I got through to the Fast Six. Obviously, this year I want to get back to the front row, at least.”
That isn't just to prove he's quickest. The much shorter straight means it's much harder to pass – obviously an advantage if you're at the front already, but a situation that can leave you stranded if you get stuck behind a group of slower drivers fighting among themselves.
“At the start and on restarts, if you're held back by someone in front making a bad getaway, that can leave you stranded out of that final corner – or even worse, it can mean you're at risk of getting passed by the car behind you. Obviously IndyCar has very strict rules about blocking, so you can't move over to the right [the inside for Turn 1] if someone gets in your tow, and you can't stick to the right all the way down the straight because… Well, if you're able to do that, it means you've had a terrible exit from the last corner! And anyway, your tires will get covered in debris because you're off line.”
Maybe it will all go so smoothly for Power next week so the only cars he has to pass are backmarkers. OK, even for a Penske driver, such a straightforward day would be unusual, but its likelihood has been increased just a little as a result of the Sao Paulo success. As championship leaders, the Verizon branch of the Penske team will be situated at pit-out for St. Petersburg – a bonus that should never be ignored.
“I've never been in that situation before, so I guess I haven't seen how big an advantage it might be,” admits Power, “but obviously during race day pit stops, we can see when all our rivals are coming, so the crew knows when to send me out. I think being there will be a help in practice and qualifying, too, because it means you can choose to be first onto the track each time, so you get a clearer run and don't hit traffic so soon.”
It kind of goes against the grain of real fighters like Power, Kanaan, Wilson and Briscoe to have to save fuel instead of just running flat-out 100 percent of the time on race day, but it's an essential part of success in IndyCar. Make a later pit stop, and usually you're going to save time and gain track position through having a shorter stationary period. But saving fuel without losing track time to your rivals before you pit – that's a trickier proposition.
“That's another difference between Sao Paulo and St. Pete,” agrees Power. “If someone was running faster than you in Brazil, they were going to pass on that long, long back straight. There was no way a fuel-saving guy could hold back someone who was going flat-out and planning to make another stop. But the way this next track is laid out, you can save fuel and still keep everyone behind you. A circuit where it's hard to pass can work for you if you're up front, so…”
He can leave the rest unsaid – that the front is where Will Power's aiming to be. It's not a given he'll be there. There are (thankfully) way too many ace drivers in cars with good street course setups in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Like the man says, it's “ridiculously competitive.” But would you be confident betting against Verizon Team Penske No. 12?