So now, Will Power is an oval race winner, too. The IZOD IndyCar Series' kingpin on road and street courses had the chops and the car to do it last season – notably at Indy, Texas, Chicago and Kentucky – but bad luck, slow pit stops, and tactics that didn't work with the way the yellows fell all prevented a win. But it was only a matter of time before everything came together. Power drives a Penske-run Dallara, makes few mistakes, doesn't back down from wheel-to-wheel situations and is intimidated by nothing. Those four attributes were virtual guarantees that he'd eventually have his name on at least one of the ovals' list of winners.
The Ganassi drivers being relegated to starting 18th (Scott Dixon) and 28th (Dario Franchitti) in the second race at Texas was helpful, of course, but it was Power alone who was a threat to them in the first race and he should have at least split them.
“Yeah, there was a pit stop problem which let Dixon get ahead of me,” says Power, “but I think Scott might have had a faster car than Dario. Once I caught back up with them, I realized Dixon was lifting in order to stay behind him. So, in my case, it would have been about finding the right opportunity to get around Dario, which is tricky there. I mean, Ganassi is just very strong on 1.5-milers, and if the quickest line around there is the shortest one, it's got to be an outside pass, like I did on [Tony] Kanaan in race 2.
“Fortunately, there are only two 1.5-milers left – Kentucky and Vegas – and it's now more about being quick on short ovals: Milwaukee, Iowa and Loudon. But obviously Dario and Scott are going to be strong there, too. They're fast, mistake-free drivers in great cars. They are the top opposition throughout a championship fight.”
The Milwaukee Mile, scene of the series' seventh event this weekend, is the track that Power admits he expected to be the first oval that would play to his known strengths, because of its similarities to a very fast road course. In the recent test, he was fastest, and he has always shown well there. In 2006, his first oval event, he qualified fifth in the Walker Racing Champ Car. In '08 with KV Racing, he started fourth. (2009 he missed, of course, as he was just a part-timer for Penske back then.)
“Milwaukee is a great track, I love it,” he says. “It's a challenge because you can really race there. I hope we'll find it's two lanes and that there won't be too many marbles because theoretically you can pull off inside or outside passes at Milwaukee, because you're not flat on the throttle the whole time. But there's going to be a lot of quick cars. Ryan [Briscoe] is really good there, and if Ganassi gives Dario a solid car, he's going to be quick, too. So are Scott and Helio, obviously. Oriol [Servia] and Newman/Haas have been good there, so now they're together, they should be a strong combination. Tag [Alex Tagliani] and I were teammates in '06 so I know how quick he is there. And Marco should be good as well. He's been on pole at Milwaukee.
“That's the thing about this series this year. There aren't drivers who haven't earned their ride. They're all good, and the gap to Penske and Ganassi has closed. Look at how good Andretti Autosport was in Long Beach, or how good Newman/Haas and KV have been at times. That's what I love: competition, man. It makes every driver and every engineer work harder, think harder, come up with ideas to improve and get even better. Go into the fine details.”
Sooner or later in any racing conversation with Power, the word “details” will emerge. It's the word Will Power uses when asked about how he manages to find those extra tenths in qualifying on a road or street course. It's what he's looking for when he watches replays of previous years' races as preparation for a race weekend. It's one of the (many) things he loves about going racing with Team Penske, where the meticulous nature of Roger Penske pervades down through team president Tim Cindric to the engineers, mechanics, – hell, probably even the janitors back at the Charlotte, N.C., shop. When Penske fails to execute (the team's word) in taking advantage of some of the best cars in IndyCar racing, it's very rarely down to lack of effort in preparation. It will be because of the similarly impressive (but dissimilar in style) Chip Ganassi Racing has out-thought them, out-researched them or executed that little bit better.
But “details,” as Power uses the term, is also a euphemism. It covers everything he does that has made him the man to beat on road and street courses. It covers the line that he takes through corners, how he brakes, how he turns in, how he exits. It covers, too, the minimalization of mistakes. That, too, is a Power strength. Every circuit is divided into multiple segments by IndyCar's timing and scoring staff. A team can then take these sector times for each driver on each lap and compile them into his or her perfect lap – the dream scenario where a driver's quickest times in each sector came on the same lap. It would be a shock to discover that anyone comes closer – and more often – to achieving that ideal lap than Power. Franchitti, possibly.
Of course, there will be anomalies: occasionally a team will make a change that sacrifices a tenth of a second in one sector in order to gain two in another. No gain without pain. And occasionally Power will make errors. That lap at Sonoma last year that earned him his eighth pole of the season? Not one of his proudest moments, yet one that in fact proved what reserves he has. For the public, on TV, the laps are broken down into just three sectors (the split times), and Will had found sector 1 tricky all weekend, and in sector 2 he dropped a wheel off and had therefore lost some traction on the exit of a corner. Into sector 3 of this scruffy qualifying run, he was therefore behind his very on-form teammate Helio Castroneves on the splits. Yet he made up 0.2sec in the final sector and snatched pole by less than four-hundredths of a second from the three-time Indy 500 winner. That wasn't details. That was do-or-die.
Generally, though, Power's errors don't come at crucial moments. His brush with the wall in the finale at Homestead last year came in a last desperate attempt to carry the car; infamously, that's near-impossible on an oval, yes, but all other options had gone. He could see the faster Ganassi machines, along with his championship chances, disappearing into the distance.
In their post-race gloom, Roger Penske, Cindric, Power and company trotted out the usual boilerplate, along the lines of, “This will make us even more determined, we'll come back even harder next year,” etc. But in their case, it wasn't just spiel. The Verizon No. 12 Penske appears increasingly unbeatable on road and street courses this year in qualifying and, if things go smoothly, in the race, too. Even his teammates, his direct point of comparison, have been struggling. Briscoe has, through reverting to left-foot braking like Power, gained an advantage over Castroneves, but has gained nothing on his other teammate. At St. Petersburg, Power and Briscoe were more than 0.6sec apart; at Barber 0.28; at Long Beach 0.47 (in the same session – Briscoe got blocked on his quickest run in Q2 and didn't make it through to the Fast Six); at Sao Paulo 0.49. Castroneves, meanwhile, has yet to get within half a second of Power in a qualifying run this year.
If Penske had a sizable car advantage, those gaps wouldn't be quite so alarming to the Penske team, but such is the competitiveness of the IndyCar field in 2011, a gap that size can now be filled by several competitors from rival teams. As well as the inevitable Franchitti/Dixon combo, so, too, there are Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway and sometimes Andretti from Andretti Autosport; there's Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and there's Servia. Nor can you discount Tony Kanaan if KV Racing gives him a setup he likes. That's why Castroneves twice in those opening races has failed to make the Fast Six.
Power, interestingly, doesn't revel in the reduction in his intra-team rivalry. “Nah, I loved the fact that Ryan was so quick through practice at Long Beach, for example, and I was annoyed that we couldn't go head to head in the Fast Six because he didn't get a clear lap in Q2. Some people thought I'd been sandbagging through practice, but actually Ryan was just faster. And there was an example of me using his data to improve my performance, and I did the same again in Sao Paulo. Ryan and I have been pushing each other along this year because we have similar driving styles and car setups. At Long Beach, we felt we got the maximum from the car that weekend, because we were quicker than each other in different parts of the circuit, and afterward we put the data together and saw where we could each improve. I love that stuff.
“That's what you expect when you join a team like Penske; that you'll have top-quality teammates and when you pool all the information, there'll be something each of you can use. Look what's happened at Andretti Autosport now that Conway's joined: Hunter-Reay's a consistent threat, and the pair of them are improving Marco's performances, too. They're all gaining data from each other. That's healthy; it pushes a team along…as much as a driver hates getting out-qualified by a teammate.”
That's something that hasn't happened to Power on a road or street course since St. Petersburg in 2009, his first race for Penske, when he started sixth to Briscoe's fourth. This year, he's yet to start behind his teammates at any type of circuit, having started as top Penske for both the Indy 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway. But he's not satisfied with that either.
“That doesn't really mean anything when all three of us were lacking that bit of speed at Indy to beat the Ganassi or Sam Schmidt cars on Pole Day. And, at Texas, qualifying doesn't mean a lot, either. It's just about taking the shortest route around the track, and you only need a change in the wind direction and cars with the same setup are going to be setting different times. It's all about the race, and the great thing is, we finished pretty well as a team that night.”
While Power admits that he would have gained greater satisfaction from winning the second Texas race if Franchitti and Dixon had started from speed-representative positions, he doesn't consider (as many in the media inaccurately stated) that winning that race meant he'd gotten over some mental hump when it came to ovals. However, he admits he's still improving.
“It's not just about knowing what to expect while I'm racing on ovals now. It's knowing how a good car like a Penske should feel on each of the ovals that's different for me this year. I think Dave [Faustino, his race engineer] and I are bringing more to the table when the team's discussing oval setups. We aren't just relying on what Helio and Ryan have run in the past and going from there. At Texas, we tried a setup that the team hadn't tried there before and it worked and we could share that information. That's how we work.”
And the so-called “mental hump?”
“There was no mental hump,” he says. “That's just people looking at the results and not the circumstances. But that doesn't bother me – can't say I even thought about it until you brought it up. I knew I could have won a couple of ovals last year so if people want to say I'm not good enough on ovals, well, that's fine because I like being regarded as the underdog.”
That mental strength is another key point to the Will Power of 2011. The guy who seemed so ill at ease racing for KV three years ago, living on nerves and instincts, and feeling that almost every lap of every session was make-or-break for his career – that guy has long gone. Now he feels wanted and appreciated; not just an extra in a chaotic soap opera. He's surrounded by people as focused and hungry for success as him. Since he and wife Elizabeth moved down to Charlotte in the off-season, Will has been in the Penske shop every day and feels a closer bond with Cindric and the whole team. He knows that a missed opportunity to win – such as at Long Beach this year, when Castroneves infamously spun Power and himself out of contention – is felt by the whole team. And he has a way of (eventually) seeing the positive side…or at least, the bigger picture. Pre-Indy, he admitted that getting four poles, two wins and a second place from the opening four races and leading the championship heading to the 500 was “pretty good.” A previous-era Power would have still been dwelling on the loss of two wins.
However, his greatest strength is not ever being content to the extent of self satisfaction. For example, it annoys him that he's yet to take pole at Toronto, especially since it's a track he loves and where he's won twice. He was deeply impressed with Wilson's pole position there for D&R last year.
“I'm not sure how he did it, because even if I'd put all my best sectors together, I think I'd have still been like half a tenth off. He's just fast, man. And Hunter-Reay at Long Beach this year: exceptional. He could have been on pole; he only lost it in the last sector, so the majority of the lap must have been unbelievable! I always rated Hunter-Reay though. He's just one of those relentless drivers. You pull a small gap on him, and if you relax just a fraction, he's right back at you, filling your mirrors. Never really understood why some people used to overlook him and bang on about a driver who hasn't been proven yet.”
Power's personal quest for self-improvement is driven by a fairly rigid belief that there's no such thing as natural-born talent in a racecar driver. A sense of balance, depth of perception, bravery, coolness under pressure and so on – those are natural, genetic inheritances that can aid a racer's cause. But Power is convinced that hard work, experience and understanding will allow any driver to apply someone else's data on track and replicate it.
“It's logical to me,” he says when questioned about it. “There's always something you can learn. I learned from Helio and Ryan, and before that Oriol, Simon Pagenaud and Tag. And they learned from me. If I was teammate to Dario, Scott, Justin, Ryan Hunter-Reay, I know there would be things I could learn from them and they'd learn from me. So eventually everyone becomes a more complete driver and you each have to find new ways to improve, and the level just goes up and up.”
With that philosophy, Power clearly feels the devil's always snapping at his heels.
“Yeah, and it's the same whenever there's an incident with another driver. I hate it when guys never take the blame or always thinks it's totally the other driver's fault. That's just bull. There's always something you could have done different that could have altered the outcome. For example, Edmonton last year. Forget about all the stuff with Helio and the black flags. I shouldn't have lost the lead in the first place. I put myself in a position where Helio could get a run on me, because I got caught behind a backmarker at a part of the circuit where I couldn't pass, so I lost momentum. I could have timed it better: I could have gone harder and passed the backmarker earlier or timed it so that I caught him at a place where I could pass without losing momentum. That's what I mean: you've got to learn from everything that happens, otherwise how can you improve yourself?”
That echoes precisely what Clive Howell, team manager and race strategist for the Verizon No. 12 car, has observed in Power. “Will's not nonchalant at all,” he remarked last year. “He's a pretty intense guy and won't leave any stone unturned to find ways to improve.”
And that's what he's done. With an oval win under his belt, the perceived chinks in Will Power's armor are closing all the time. One criticism that could perhaps be leveled at him is that he's sometimes too cautious on restarts when he isn't the race leader. But maybe even that's unfair: the whole start and restart procedure has looked increasingly random – and randomly officiated – especially on ovals, since the series went to double-file restarts. And from closely observing and racing against people like Franchitti, Power has learned when caution is better than valor, and when to be opportunistic.
There will still be days – probably on ovals – where Castroneves and/or Briscoe will finish ahead, but on current form, those days are going to be few and will be down to their pit crews occasionally being sharper or RP's or Cindric's strategies working better than Howell's. What each needs to boost their confidence is a win. Power, as is standard for him, is expecting them to be right at the front at Milwaukee.
“I expect Ryan and Helio to be quick <I>every</I> race. They're quick drivers who had unfortunate starts to the year. That's why they're playing catch-up; not because they haven't been fast enough. And I can see Ryan still being able to make a strong run at the championship. No way is he out of it. OK, it's going to be bloody hard for Helio, but being as quick as he is, he can still win a bunch of races and affect the direction of the championship.”
In other words, Castroneves can rob the Ganassi drivers of points – a vital role. Franchitti and Dixon are an awesome pair of rivals: they don't have the mental hang-ups of a direct comparison with Power, they know how to win championships (two each), they're fast everywhere, they have fast cars everywhere and Franchitti, in particular, stays mentally cool. Now Dixon, too, seems to be getting closer to that consistently placid state of mind and that's making him ever stronger.
So Power can expect an even tougher championship battle than last year; the Ganassi opposition is even stronger and Briscoe has still got time to turn his championship campaign around at any time. But the Ganassi boys know their opposition from the Penske No. 12 is stronger than in 2010 as well…and will continue to strengthen. The evidence is in the details.