“I'm not interested in being known as a road or street course specialist,” says road and street course specialist Will Power. “In the IndyCar Series, that would mean I'm only doing half the job. I want to be the complete package: that's how Dario [Franchitti] and [Scott] Dixon won this championship.”
Being in the hunt for the IZOD IndyCar Series title is exactly what's expected of him by his boss, Roger Penske. The Captain listened to former employee Derrick Walker's suggestion that he take Power when Team Penske needed a backup plan for 2009 should incumbent star Helio Castroneves have the tax evasion trial go against him. When it didn't, RP still wanted to add more races to the Power plan. In turn, those earned the Australian a full time ride for 2010. But having access to one of the best cars in the field leaves a driver with an obvious mission.
“I hope we don't have anyone on the team who isn't a title contender,” states Penske firmly when asked if he's surprised at Power's form. “We knew Will was fast, and he's been our lead dog in the road races, although Helio won at Barber and Ryan [Briscoe] had some good runs. On the ovals, Will still has some learning to do, but all he needs is more experience, and he's only going to get better as the year goes on. I don't think he has a thing to prove to us. He's delivered to date.”
Yes, Power was the man to beat in the first four races of 2010, winning two and taking pole in three. In fact, only the wrong strategy at Barber Motorsports Park and a gearbox glitch at Long Beach prevented him from standing on the podium's center step at all four. But how close is he to being the complete package that Penske will soon demand of him, and that Power already demands of himself? That's debatable because ovals are a work in progress. Yet “progress” is the key word. OK, of the five drivers spread across the Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing stables, Power is probably still the guy with the longest odds on him at an oval event. Yet, piece by piece, Power is putting it all together and the momentum is building.
Not that the results sheets show it. Kansas was a washout from the moment he overshot his pit box and, already mired in midfield (“I was too cautious at the start and on restarts,” he admits), he was lapped. Effectively game over. At Indy, he qualified second and might have beaten Franchitti to Victory Lane but that's a moot point: he had to serve a drive-through penalty when he was waved out of the pits with the fuel hose still attached. In Texas, he dueled with race-winning teammate Ryan Briscoe until the No. 12 Verizon car collected a suspension arm from Simona de Silvestro's wrecked HVM machine. A long pit stop for makeshift repairs necessitated a brave strategy gamble that didn't pay off. At Iowa, Power scored his first pole position and led the first 32 laps until the car's handling went loose and he dropped down the field before clawing his way back to fifth following a late pass on Scott Dixon. A DNF for Franchitti put Power back into the lead of the championship.
“Yeah, I think we've been unlucky on the ovals,” he says. “If Indy and Texas had gone smoothly, I think I'd be leading the points now, even if Dario had won Iowa instead of retiring. But on the other hand, it's been a massive education. I don't want to sound like a broken record over this, but it's just like Rick Mears has been telling me all along: It takes experience and the best way to get that is finishing races. That's what I've done.
“In RACER a couple of issues ago, Dave Faustino [Power's race engineer 2007-'08 and again now] was saying that at KV Racing in '08, we didn't get a handle on the oval car until the last round of the season at Chicago. Well, I agree with that! The car was knife-edge, I shunted three or four times so I wasn't getting any miles and that made the problem worse. Apart from Indy, which all of us drivers treat like the world's fastest road course, and Milwaukee, which is flat and requires lifting off the gas and driven like a road course, I reckon I'd done the equivalent of two oval races by the end of '08! Then I did two ovals for Penske last year, found out how a great car feels, went fast and got good finishes. Now we're just four ovals into this season.”
There actually should have been a third oval race for him in '09, at the season finale in Miami Homestead. By then, however, Power was recuperating from a broken back following his accident in practice at Sonoma. Given how much he's learning at every oval event, could he have made a better job of Kansas if he'd had that Homestead race under his belt?
“Yup!” he answers without hesitation. “That's the thing. Every race experience helps. You think about Kansas, Texas or Iowa where we're flat all the way around, and you think, ‘That can't be hard.' And then I drive out of the circuit after a race knowing I've learned so much for next year.
“Like at Iowa: one thing I only discovered late in the race was how useable the high line was for passing backmarkers. And then another thing I'm wondering is, if I'd run behind another car in the first part of the race instead of leading – so I scrubbed some of the grip out of the front tires – maybe that would have kept the balance more neutral when the rears went away instead of going loose. At least it's info for next year.”
Power never stops thinking about the job and how he could do it better, and that is one of the traits that appealed to the team. “I'd say there are four or five attributes we look for in a driver,” says Penske. “First, he has to know how to win. There are a lot of drivers who are fast, but can they win? Do they know how to keep a car under them? I think Will went through a period when…Well, you saw down in Surfers Paradise in 2008, he was lightning fast for KV, but Ryan won the race for us because Will got into the wall. But Will had won three races in Champ Car already, and we felt we could put him in an environment where he wasn't under so much pressure to prove every lap how fast he is. So being able to win is key.
“Number two, he has to understand the car and communicate with the engineers, and there's no question that Will has that attribute. In my opinion, that's one of the reasons he's so good. Third, is he in physically good shape? Is he committed enough to keep his daily routine and be self-disciplined? Fourth, is he a team player? That's important because this is one team – not three. And fifth: he must be able to communicate and interface commercially with our sponsors, because without sponsors, we don't have the revenue to run a race team.”
In fact, Power's communication as a whole – with sponsors, media and fans – has improved noticeably in 2010. Will himself puts that down to not constantly worrying about his car.
“It's not like at Walker in '07 when we were learning the new Panoz, or at KV when we switched to IndyCar and had the Dallara to learn. At Penske, the cars are so well set up already because we've got the best guys – they've been working on these cars for years and have loads of wins. Now, both Dave and me noticed that being at Penske is kinda drawing a new set of skills out of us where we're really looking at the finer details with Helio, Ryan and their engineers. It's great: I know I'm a better driver because of that.
“But to get back to your question, yeah, I think the calmer atmosphere means I'm a bit more relaxed outside of the team transporter and I've learned more about the commercial side. I mean, Verizon backed me at Indy last year, and then committed to a full season for this year, so I kind of feel a bit honored that they're on my car. Lowell McAdam [Verizon's CEO] has been great because he gets this sport. He won't think, ‘Good driver plus good car equals a win at each race!' He's a true enthusiast who understands how luck can go against us some times. So he's been 100 percent behind me. Look at those ads he put in USA Today after we won.”
So Power led the championship standings as the IZOD IndyCar Series headed back to five more road/street courses. That's a huge deal, right?
“I know what you're saying,” replies Power, “but I can't just rely on points on road and street courses because you can have bad races or bad luck on any circuit. You know, I'm with Penske so we'd be very disappointed if we went anywhere and weren't fast and that includes the final four [oval] races. We haven't been slow on the ovals we've had, I've finished them all and I've gained good experience from being put in lots of different situations.”
Will Power: An improved driver in terms of details? Couldn't fail to be at Penske. A more commercially and media-savvy personality? Had to be at Penske. A better oval racer? He's learning fast at Penske. So…a true championship contender? There's no excuse not to be at Penske. Roger says it. Will knows it.HARNESSING THE POWER: Will has adopted the typical Team Penske professionalism
So, how well has Will Power fit in to Team Penske? One of the best people to ask is Penske team manager and Power's race strategist, Clive Howell (PICTURED, center).
“We operate transparently and network all the data. Any race engineer can look at any car's data and overlay speed graphs on a big screen in the debrief room. One driver can see where the other two are better, so they can all raise their game. Will seems to do well right out of the box on road courses, but he's not nonchalant at all. He's a pretty intense guy and won't leave any stone unturned to find ways to improve.
“I've been pleasantly surprised at how confident he's been on ovals, too,” Howell continues. “If we hadn't amped out in the pits at Indy and sent him with the fuel hose still attached, he'd have been fighting Franchitti for the win, and if his car hadn't eaten part of Simona's suspension at Texas, we had a good chance of victory there, too.”
That race at TMS was where Howell appreciated his driver's calm midrace demeanor. “We were looking over Will's car from trackside – pretty difficult on a black car in a night race! But when we finally decided there'd be damage to repair and he'd have to pit, you could sense some of the air go out of him, so I had to give him a pep talk. But he didn't rant at all. He was deeply frustrated after the race and wanted to bang his head against a wall, but he never really sounds off.”
“The other thing I've noticed is that Will also takes whatever info you give him. I can talk to him anywhere on the track at any time and he'll process it. He says, ‘The more information I've got, the better,' – unless you remind him of something. There was a moment at Barber where I got the Aussie drawl: ‘Yeah, I heard you the first time, mate!'
“But for someone so intense outside the car, he's pretty cool in the cockpit,” says Howell. “Will knows that, sooner or later, things will fall into place because he's with RP's team, he's quick everywhere and he's got the measure of the opposition.”