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.During the series' open test in late February, Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were 1-2-3 for The Captain's team and, despite the track and ambient temperatures forecast to be vastly different on race day than they were for those preposterously cold test days, we can expect all three to contend for victory. What's more of a worry, to Penske and to any team, is what they can't control…
“It's going to be down to whoever reads the strategy the best when we get full-course cautions,” says Power, “and, unfortunately, that's down to pure luck. I think people are gonna get bunched up in a train of cars, and they'll roll the dice and go off-strategy and just hope it ends up falling their way with full-course yellows. There's nothing we can do about that sort of thing – except to put the Verizon car at the front and be fast, so we have more options if it does all kick off and start getting crazy with people spinning and stalling and so on.”
So Barber will be hard to race on, but will it be hard to drive?
“Hmm...I think it's going to be a physically tough circuit, especially in qualifying when you're doing constant new-tire runs, and you've got that maximum g-force pulling at you and the steering's really weighted up with grip. In St. Pete, Firestone brought a red [option tire] that was really soft – I mean, it went off quicker than a lot of us were expecting, so if you didn't look after them, you'd be in trouble – but man, they offered a lot of grip when they were at their best! You could really lean on them.
“Isn't it great when the reds behave so differently from the blacks, though?” he adds. “Us drivers don't all drive the same way, and obviously not all our setups are the same, so it's like Firestone has emphasized those variables and doing that has helped the series by creating more racing and passing. On Tuesday, I watched St. Pete on television, and I think we all put on a good show again.
“But like I say, there isn't going to be a lot of passing at Barber, so we're all going to be focusing on qualifying. To be honest, we don't do any real race-setup work until the Sunday morning warm-up, anyhow. We don't have enough sets of tires available to use Friday and Saturday practice to do any long runs.”
With the teams focused on qualifying, Power is expecting a fierce fight to get through to the Firestone Fast Six and, ultimately, scrap for pole position.
“Well, obviously, Ryan and Helio are going to be tough, and I'm not just saying that because they're my teammates. Everyone knows how quick they are and they're in Penskes, so it kinda goes without saying. Obviously, I'm guessing Dario [Franchitti] and Scotty Dog [that's Dixon to you or I] will be right up there too, because we haven't all compared on a road course yet, except that test two months ago. Penske and Ganassi don't know how we compare to each other on anything except street circuits yet. But Dixon and Franchitti are both double IndyCar champions and they're in Ganassi cars so, you know, you're talking about pretty good quality opposition there!
“But I think we've all seen there are a lot of good cars, like at KV Racing: I bet you Sato is going to be pretty quick around Barber, because it's more like a European-style track and he was top six in the test there. And Viso's been looking strong, too. The two Dreyer & Reinbold guys as well: You can almost guarantee Justin Wilson's gonna be fighting in the Fast Six every time because, man, that guy's just a great driver. Then there's Hunter-Reay, Kanaan and Marco in the Andretti cars, too. Er…so how many have I listed there? Like I say, this is a seriously competitive championship. You can't afford to slip up.”
Both the first two rounds have been afflicted by rain and, at present, the forecast is for showers in Birmingham, Ala., at some point over the weekend. That throws an unknown quantity in the mix, as rain will surely increase the likelihood of full-course cautions at inopportune moments, but according to Power, it shouldn't cause the teams major headaches.
“The straights are short at Barber, so we're probably going to run pretty much maximum downforce anyway,” says Power. “If it rains, apart from sticking on a set of wet-weather tires and maybe cranking a bit more front wing on, I don't think there will be much more we can do. At least drainage shouldn't be a big problem on a real road course."
Power tends to assume nothing (or as he puts it, “I try and be prepared for anything and everything, mate!”) so he doesn't want to consider the possibilities of winning three races in a row until – if – it happens. Imagine how much he'd cringe, then, if it was pointed out to him that those back-to-back-to-back winners mentioned earlier – Wheldon in '05, Bourdais in '06 – went on to win their respective titles. Even two consecutive wins has caused some premature prognostications from certain people who should know better.
“It's kinda interesting, isn't it, that winning the first two races seems to give you a lot more attention than if you get back-to-back wins at the end of a season or in the middle,” muses Power. “It's like our Verizon car has suddenly become everyone's target! I suppose that's nice, but I tell you, I'm always going to stay realistic about it. Everything – everything – has to go your way to win, and that's what I've been trying to tell all the media guys who've been banging on about this. I really believe the IZOD IndyCar Series is the most competitive open-wheel series in the world this year, because we've got so many good drivers in good cars.
“So, that's why we need to keep executing at this level. If we – and I mean me, the strategists, the crew, the whole Verizon Team Penske operation – have covered everything that's in our power to control each weekend, then we can't do much more except hope and pray, you know? Like I say – stay realistic. I go into each weekend thinking, ‘If I go fast, work hard and don't make mistakes, then that at least gives us a good chance.' That's what I'll be trying to do at Barber next week.”