COUNTERPOINT: Team Penske, Will Power & the championship

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on June 9, 2011 8:55 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on June 2nd, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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STEPH’S POINT:

Will Power was one of two drivers in contention for the championship at the end of last season. Ultimately, the prize went to Dario Franchitti, and many people pointed at Will’s lack of experience on ovals as being the reason that he didn’t come out on top.

I argued at the time that many of the problems that Will encountered during the oval races were in no way his fault. On Sunday, an error by Verizon Team Penske again cost Will points in the championship when he had a tire fall off the car after a pit stop early in the race. After Will had to ride all the way around the 2.5-mile oval while missing the left rear, the suspension was damaged to the point where he had to make multiple pit stops to allow the team to fix the problem, and he never fully recovered.

Once again, Will lost valuable points in the championship due to an error that was not at all of his own doing. And this team may be looking at a repeat of last year’s championship result if it doesn’t weed out the problem.

Here’s a summary of the statistics from Will’s 2010 season that are relevant to this discussion:

EVENT TYPE STARTED FINISHED IN-RACE ISSUES
Sao Paulo Road/street 5th 1st
St. Petersburg Road/street 1st 1st
Barber Road/street 1st 4th Pit strategy/difficulty passing
Long Beach Road/street 1st 3rd Car got stuck in gear
Kansas Oval 7th 12th Stuck fuel hose on pit stop
Indianapolis Oval 2nd 8th Left pits with fuel nozzle attached
Texas Oval 3rd 14th Late-race splash-and-go
Iowa Oval 1st 5th Loose car
Watkins Glen Road/street 1st 1st
Toronto Road/street 2nd 1st
Edmonton Road/street 1st 2nd
Mid-Ohio Road/street 1st 2nd
Sonoma Road/street 1st 1st
Chicagoland Oval 3rd 16th Late-race splash-and-go
Kentucky Oval 2nd 8th Late-race splash-and-go
Motegi Oval 3rd 3rd
Homestead Oval 3rd 25th Wall contact

Now, let’s break this down. Homestead was all Will — no question there. But that’s where the blame that falls squarely on Will’s shoulders comes to an end. Barber, Long Beach, and Iowa can all be chalked up to typical racing misfortune. But five out of seventeen races last season saw Verizon Team Penske give up valuable championship points due to issues in the pits — and all five of those races were on ovals, where observers were quick to blame Will for poor performance. And Dario took the championship last year by five points. Read that again: Dario won by five points. Put all of that together and the truth becomes clear: last year for Will Power, the championship wasn’t lost in the cockpit. It was lost on pit lane.

And then, the same process started up again this past weekend. I had the good fortune of being seated directly across from Will’s pit box for this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, so I was able to keep an eye on the team throughout the race. When the tire came off Will’s left rear after his first pit stop and he had to ride around 2.5 miles without it, enough damage was done to the suspension that the team had him in and out of the pits to make repairs all day. Straight up, the statistics will show another lackluster day on an oval for Will, but the story behind the numbers once again demonstrates that the issue had nothing to do with him whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the other teams in the Penske stable operate like clockwork. Watch Helio and his team during any practice session on any given race weekend and you’ll see pit stop practice over and over and over again. And come race time, it’s rare to see a misstep in Helio’s pit. But with that being said, even that hasn’t been enough to see Penske take a championship since 2006. The Penske organization doesn’t usually allow that level of defeat for that long.

This leads to some follow-up questions. Why is Penske’s strongest assembly of personnel not servicing the driver that’s unquestionably the team’s top championship contender? And why has a team that’s known for its precision been so accepting of so many mistakes?

The drivers are always the names who are remembered, but those who follow auto racing know that championships are won and lost as a team. If Team Penske wants to start winning championships again, it will need to find the answers to these questions. If changes aren’t made internally, it’s likely that Will Power will once again find himself on the outside looking in as the 2011 championship celebrations take place without him.

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PAUL’S POINT:

The Month of May was supposed to have been the turning point for Team Penske in their topsy-turvy season thus far in the IZOD IndyCar Series.  While road and street course specialist Will Power came to Indianapolis as the points leader, teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe have suffered through a miserable opening quarter and were hoping to regain their mojo once the Penske clan returned to their personal playground at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.  Unfortunately, things took an unexpected turn, leaving Power clinging to the points lead and sending the seasons of Castroneves and Briscoe into shambles.

The calamity for Will Power started on the first pit stop when his crew sent him off without properly securing his left rear wheel.  The wheel predictably came loose once he pulled away, and Power was forced to take an entire lap around the 2.5-mile circuit at minimal speed before returning to the pits.  Once relegated to 27th position, Will was barely able to climb back into the top 20 for most of the race before finally finishing a disappointing 14th.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that a critical error has cost Power a race win, and when his crew erred in fueling the car last year at Chicago, the mistake likely cost him the season championship.  So the natural question arises: does Roger Penske need to shake things up on the #12 crew to help Will Power win this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship?  I say no.

Look, accidents happen, and whether the records will eventually show it or not, auto racing is a team sport.  To win championships, everything has to work correctly.  The drivers, the pit crews, the engineers, the strategist, and everyone else involved must perform at the top of their game.  If just once piece of the puzzle is off, it can throw the whole season into disarray.  No team is ever perfect, but the consistent winners find themselves at perfection more times than not.

Did the pit crew drop the ball for Will Power this past weekend?  Yes.  Did the pit crew cost Will Power a chance at victory at Chicago last year?  Yes.  The results were the same in both cases.  Will Power was denied victory.  But what about at Miami last year?  Did the pit crew put Will Power into the fence?  No.  There have been other times when Power has failed to find victory lane by his own volition.  Just because he made a mistake in those instances doesn’t mean Penske goes looking to make changes to ensure that the #12 can secure a championship.

When changes come about because of a single isolated incident just as this past weekend’s, which is ultimately due to human error, it’s a complete knee-jerk reaction and usually causes more damage in the long run than it prevents.  Penske’s people are too good to make such mistakes on a constant basis, and while these are isolated incidents, safeguards and practices will be put into place to ensure the chance of them happening again is reduced.  Now, if these issues become chronic and Power continues to be denied victories on a regular basis because of pit failures, then it is time to reevaluate the personnel.  However, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Roger Penske has safeguards in place that will ensure that these types of mistakes will be addressed and not be repeated.

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