Next weekend at Barber Motorsports Park outside Birmingham, Ala., Will Power could become the first driver in the Indy Racing League's 15-year history to win the first three races of a season. He wouldn't be the first do so at the pinnacle of U.S. open-wheel racing – as recently as 2006, Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing won the four opening races of the Champ Car World Series. Nor would he be the first to win three consecutive IndyCar Series races – Dan Wheldon and Andretti Green Racing achieved that in 2005.
But, with all due to respect to Bourdais and Wheldon, to win the opening three races in such a closely packed grid as the 2010-era IZOD IndyCar Series would be a bigger achievement than both of those, precisely because of how difficult it has become to gain an edge in this branch of the sport. Yet, despite being tougher, paradoxically there is no logical reason why it wouldn't happen – beyond the fact that fate's odds will gradually stack against Power and his Verizon Team Penske No. 12 car. (Even the sharpest poker player in the world will eventually lose money.)
A three-from-three win tally at the start of the season would, without question, be a psychological hammer-blow to the competition, some of whom are already looking bruised. Last Friday afternoon at St. Petersburg, when Power was on top of the time sheets by over 0.7sec, there were drivers – arch-rivals, in fact – who looked like they'd just received news that their mothers had been shot. How was that margin possible in a spec series? Well, an engineer on a rival team summed it up rather honestly and simply.
“Racing is a simple sport,” he observed with a resigned sigh. “It's easy to screw up, it's easy to lose a race you should have won, but it also becomes real easy to win races if you put an extraordinarily good driver in an extraordinarily good car. That's what Penske has done. It's not rocket science.”
Power would certainly agree with how easy it is to screw up. That's why he played himself in gently during the opening laps on the damp-but-drying track surface at St. Pete. “Everyone was set up for dry conditions, and the track wasn't dry yet, so I was just being cautious,” he says. “Marco Andretti [Andretti Autosport] was very brave pushing that hard in those circumstances, but I just sat back and got my rhythm and looked after my tires. Helio [Castroneves, Penske teammate] got ahead of me, too, but I think he hurt his tires and then I was able to come back at him.”
Reading between the lines, it's apparent that the full-time gig as a Penske driver has transformed the 2010 version of Will Power. You see, as well as the shattering pace, and the inevitable race-smarts that come from experience, he has now added the confidence of driving for one of the two best teams in the business. He's become three dimensional along the lines of Team Penske legends like Mark Donohue, Rick Mears (with Will, BELOW) and Gil de Ferran. Power doesn't need to prove he's fastest on every lap, because he knows that his race engineer Dave Faustino will have tweaked the Verizon car to have confidence-inspiring, predictable handling for those decisive moments in a race when he needs to seriously put the hammer down – pit-in and pit-out laps, and the closing stages of a race, should he be receiving pressure as he was from Justin Wilson toward the end of the St. Pete race or applying it, as he did to Ryan Hunter-Reay in Sao Paulo.
But that was then, this is now. Racing drivers are tuned not to dwell on the past until their careers are over, and Power doesn't want to talk too much about St. Pete, his sixth victory in U.S. open-wheel racing. The IZOD IndyCar Series, as he points out, has completed just two of its 17 races for the 2010 season, and that ain't a high percentage. The Florida race was held on Monday; Power was thinking about round three by Tuesday.
“I'm gonna be at the front of the pit lane again, and I discovered how much of an advantage that was at St. Pete,” says Power. “For one thing, it's great to get onto the track before anyone else when they wave the green at the start of a practice session – although on the other hand, that does mean you're the first to catch all the cars that just came out of the pits and are still on their warm-up laps. But in the race it gives the crew an advantage, because they can see your rivals coming down pit lane, and also from a driver's perspective, it's nice and easy to pick out your pit crew.
“But, at Barber, being at pit out is probably even more important. For one thing, I think it's one of the tightest pit lanes we use, so it would be very, very easy for a driver to pull out of his pit box and block you even if you've got more momentum than him. And secondly, it's going to be almost impossible to pass during the race, because the track's pretty narrow and there are no really big braking zones.”
Yes, after putting on two fantastic races, the IZOD IndyCar Series is going to struggle next week to live up to its newfound reputation as the best open-wheel series for race action. That's not to underestimate the challenge of the Barber track which, from the outside, looks like the bastard child of Mid-Ohio and Imola. It's technically demanding, given the proliferation of decreasing-radius corners but, as one IndyCar driver (off the record) pointed out, "It's only fun if your car is perfectly hooked up. If you're turning in just praying the apex will come within spitting distance of your front wheels, it's going to get frustrating." That comment, perhaps predictably, came from a non-Penske driver.