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Opinion

Team orders suck, but losing a championship would be worse

Team Penske has made itself unnecessarily vulnerable to an attack by Chip Ganassi Racing in the IndyCar finale at Laguna Seca, by failing to issue team orders at Portland. By David Malsher-Lopez.

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, restart

During and after Formula 1’s grand prix at Zandvoort last weekend, there were some feverish minds at work. First came the asinine accusations that AlphaTauri deliberately fouled Yuki Tsunoda’s racecar in order to cause a Virtual Safety Car that would help Max Verstappen’s cause for the ‘cousin’ team, Red Bull Racing.

Then, Mercedes-Benz AMG was heavily criticized for allowing George Russell to pit during the ‘real’ Safety Car period while Lewis Hamilton was leading on used medium-compound tires. That removed the senior Mercedes driver’s buffer, allowing Verstappen on fresh soft compound tires onto his tail for the restart, and the Red Bull driver easily zapped him at the green. But had a second Mercedes on used mediums been ahead of him, that might have delayed his ascension to the lead by… what? One lap? Two? Verstappen was going to win either way. We know that because once past Hamilton, Russell couldn’t gain on Red Bull’s champ despite using the same tire compound.

A far more debatable failure to apply team orders occurred 5000 miles west, later that day. Scott McLaughlin, still clinging by his fingernails to championship contention, was allowed to retain his lead in the Grand Prix of Portland and finish ahead of his Team Penske-Chevrolet teammate Will Power, who is leading the points race.

By finishing ahead of Scott Dixon and well ahead of third Penske driver Josef Newgarden, Power now heads to Sunday’s finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with a 20-point lead, which sounds vaguely comfortable… but it could have been 30 points. As it is, should Newgarden or Dixon take pole at Laguna and lead the most laps – both perfectly feasible – that means Power would have to finish at least third to win the title. With a 30-point lead, eighth in the finale would have been enough for Will to clinch his second championship. A very different prospect.

So the big question is, should Penske have applied team orders?

Scott McLaughlin and Will Power of Team Penske Chevrolet lead the field to the green at Portland.

Scott McLaughlin and Will Power of Team Penske Chevrolet lead the field to the green at Portland.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The root of this issue probably lies in the nine-car test at Portland the week before the Grand Prix. Ignoring the fact that he eventually had a shunt, Power was three tenths faster than Newgarden, three-and-a-half tenths up on McLaughlin, and showing his hand like this may have been an error on Power’s part. Newgarden is not only one of the fastest drivers in IndyCar, he is also one of the fastest learners. And McLaughlin must be cut from the same cloth, because he is far and away the most improved driver in the series this year. They saw Power’s data and learned.

So the Penske drivers, while looking on a level beyond that of their rivals come race weekend in Portland, now looked on a par with each other, so whoever made the fewest mistakes on their qualifying run would earn pole. On this occasion, that man was McLaughlin. On what should have been his fastest lap, Power reached forward to adjust his anti-roll bar, and not only did he go a touch too far on his adjustment, on bringing his hand back to the steering wheel he accidentally clipped his upshift paddle! That left him 0.19sec behind McLaughlin and 0.11 behind Newgarden, the latter of whom also admitted to a crucial mistake on his flyer.

However, Power would still start on the front row, because Newgarden had a six-place grid penalty for an early engine change, now using his fifth Chevy of the year. On Sunday morning, there was a gathering of the Penske clan in which Roger emphasized teamwork, a unified approach, collaboration, etc. Was McLaughlin, his own distant title hopes notwithstanding, specifically asked to help Power and Newgarden, three points apart at the top of the points table? We may never know, and if it wasn’t stated in bald terms, then it was open to interpretation…

Whatever, McLaughlin couldn’t help anyone except himself in the opening stint, because an excellent start from Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard from third on the grid, meant he was able to take advantage of a careful, championship-savvy Power at Turn 1 to claim second. So Penske couldn’t swap their drivers around for now. Once Power’s strong out-laps and slick pit crew had ensured he emerged from the first round of stops ahead of Lundgaard, it still wasn’t until Lap 31 that the long-stinting Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda, who had temporarily split the Penske leaders, finally headed to pitlane.

This was the first opportunity for Penske management to make the switch, and they didn’t take it. Perhaps they didn’t feel the urgency. Dixon, who had started 16th, was still only 10th, plus there was a chance that Newgarden could come through and join the party, at which point it would be only fair for McLaughlin to make way for both his teammates or neither.

After the second stops, Newgarden was up to fourth, Dixon to eighth. But after the third stops, Dixon was a net sixth. The Ganassi ace’s third and final stop had come on Lap 78, and had prompted the top four – McLaughlin, Power, Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet, and Newgarden – to make their stops a lap later. A caution period, of which there had miraculously been none so far, would have closed the pits, bunched the field, and left Rossi (who stopped on Lap 77) leading Dixon, and the Penskes mired in the pack once they stopped.

Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden.

Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

During the lead quartet’s in-lap, it was McLaughlin’s misfortune to encounter Felix Rosenqvist (AMSP) on an out-lap, therefore on cold tires, and the Swede was inevitably slower and keen to not be lapped. Power trimmed his deficit to the leader from 3.8sec to 2.5, and by the time they left the pit, the Penske pair were barely more than a second apart. But McLaughlin couldn’t cede the lead right away because O’Ward was only a second behind Power, so any missteps between the pair could have allowed the AMSP driver to pounce.

But four laps later, Power was still within a second of McLaughlin and O’Ward was dropping back, clearly lacking Penske pace on this day. This was another clear opportunity to make the call for McLaughlin to move aside for Power.

Then came the sole caution period as a result of Rinus VeeKay bouncing Jimmie Johnson into the wall. At the restart, O’Ward had his last roll of the dice to remain in the championship hunt and lunged down the inside of Power at Turn 1. Power heard from his spotter, saw in his mirror, made room for the AMSP car yet still got hit over the curb, the #12 slithering sideways but remaining under its driver’s control and fortunately picking up no damage. But right there was a clear example of why Power should be put in the lead, wrapped in cotton wool and away from desperate drivers with nothing to lose, and with McLaughlin as his tail-gunner.

What was happening right behind this trio was no less significant. Newgarden had elected to go with primaries for his final stint, they don’t come up to temperature as fast as the alternates, so when he spun his wheels exiting the final turn at the drop of the green, he was vulnerable to Alexander Rossi’s attack into the braking zone at Turn 1. As Rossi drew alongside, the Penske driver braked as late as he dared but had to mount the curbing on the outside of the turn, thereby limiting his retardation into Turn 2, so ran himself and Rossi to the outside curb, leaving a lovely clear line for that man Dixon to dive through and move up to fourth. On the exit of Turn 3, Dixon zoomed onto the tail of O’Ward, still recovering from his failed attempt to pass Power, and the AMSP driver’s unsubtle attempt to block him caused Race Control to order him to give up position with 20 laps to go.

Suddenly Dixon was third, and able to keep pace with the Penske drivers ahead. He couldn’t gain on them but he was there, ready to pounce if McLaughlin or Power dropped a wheel, or if the pair came together as Power tried to make a move on the leader. And his close presence effectively froze the front two: If they fought and lost time, the Ganassi driver would be all over them. And now Power couldn’t burn up push-to-pass boost trying to pass McLaughlin, 1) because the latter had far more available having led almost the entire race, and 2) because Power needed it as a defensive tool for whenever Dixon launched an attack. Nor could Power sit indefinitely, right in McLaughlin’s wake without rooting his tires, which again would make him vulnerable to Dixon.

For the 13th time in 22 seasons, Scott Dixon heads into the season finale still mathematically in contention for the title. And he's won six of them... so far.

For the 13th time in 22 seasons, Scott Dixon heads into the season finale still mathematically in contention for the title. And he's won six of them... so far.

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

No, for Power to get ahead, he needed his team to be smart and order his teammate aside. It wouldn’t have been pretty, it would have caused a clamor among those who forget this is a team sport, and it would have been exceptionally hard on McLaughlin who had performed pretty much flawlessly all weekend. But it would have been the wise thing to do for Team Penske as a whole.

Dixon agreed, and twice alluded to it in the post-race press conference, mischievously trying to inject some discontent in the Penske camp but also commenting out of genuine bemusement.

“I called it with 10 laps to go: ‘I'm surprised they haven't swapped yet,’” said the six-time champion. He then went on to explain that Ericsson and now out-of-contention Alex Palou (discontent with Ganassi notwithstanding!) will be expected to act as his wingmen in Laguna Seca, if they can aid in any way. The Ganassi methodology, Dixon explained, is “try to help if you can. I've been involved in quite a few of these, and it never really comes into play, or at least it hasn't as much as you would think it would. [But] situations like today with the #3 [McLaughlin] and the #12 [Power] – I thought that would have been a no-brainer… We always work as a team to achieve the best.”

Bravo, Dixie: pot nicely stirred there!

Now, the ambition within McLaughlin is as strong as in either of his teammates, or any of the other aces in the IndyCar grid. That need for success is why he scored 56 wins in Supercars, and what motivated him to work so hard to become a better IndyCar driver. So when he enquired of his team after his third pitstop team how much push-to-pass boost he had relative to Power, it was clear he was not going to hand over the lead unless instructed to do so by Penske management. And that call never came.

Easy to say after the event, but for what it’s worth, McLaughlin said he’d have had no problem moving over for Power because “everyone knew that I would have been the true winner”. On the question of team orders, he used phrases such as, “I'll do whatever I need to do… I'm a Penske driver, I fit the mold… I am a full team player… I'm ready to do what I need to do for the team.”

Power knows that feeling, and has actively demonstrated such loyalty, sometimes blatantly, sometimes under the radar.

In 2009, his part-time season with Team Penske, Power collided with Graham Rahal on the opening lap at Toronto, got a puncture, stormed back through the field to run third. Before the final restart, he radioed in to his team to ask if he could pass teammate Ryan Briscoe because he was confident he could tackle Briscoe’s championship rival and race leader Dario Franchitti. Power was told in no uncertain terms to stay third, and back up the opposition ahead of the restart, allow his Aussie compatriot to go fight his own battle with the Ganassi car.

Four years later in Toronto, Power had two bad results in the double-header in the middle of a hitherto winless season, so felt no longer in the running for the championship. He went to Roger Penske and informed him that from here until the end of the year, he would try and help his teammate Helio Castroneves earn that elusive title.

At Sonoma in 2015, Power was still in the running for the championship – it was a distant hope but still a hope – when he got punted off by teammate Juan Pablo Montoya who had been leading the points coming into the event. In the late stages of the race, Montoya was running sixth and needed one place more to beat race leader Dixon to the title. Despite now having nothing to lose and still seething at his teammate’s error, Power nonetheless stayed right behind JPM as the Colombian ace tried in vain to gain one more spot and turn the points situation in his favor.

Two years later, at the same venue, Power desperately wanted to end his season on a high with a fourth win, even though he was realistically out of the running for the title. But he swiftly understood which way the wind was blowing within the team when a couple of his best crew guys were transferred to Newgarden’s car, since Josef held just a three-point lead over Dixon. Power was made aware what needed to be done for the team as a whole, and dutifully played backstop on raceday. As teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden fought for the race win, Power sat in third and kept Dixon in fourth.

In 2019 at Laguna Seca, Power didn’t wish to favor one teammate over another as Newgarden and Pagenaud took on Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi for the championship, and so kept from interfering with either driver when around them. Eventually he was clear of them and able to go hunting race leader Colton Herta.

Verizon has been as loyal to Penske as Will Power has. Is this combo truly on the cusp of its second title?

Verizon has been as loyal to Penske as Will Power has. Is this combo truly on the cusp of its second title?

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

So those are five examples of Power playing the team game to the detriment of his own ambitions on race days, all because he understands the big picture, tries to follow another of Roger Penske’s maxims to the letter – “When one of our drivers wins, everyone on the team wins.”

Power has had a laser-like focus on the championship this year, has kept the big picture in mind at all times, and has on at least three occasions consolidated what he had rather than overstriving for 50/50 chances of a race win. He’s also dug himself out of holes that sometimes were of his own making, sometimes the team’s fault, and never let whatever anger or frustration he felt at bad strategy calls, clumsy rivals or genuine misfortune override his actions and hurt his ultimate goal. It would be so refreshing for Power, his dedicated engineers and faultless crew guys to have seen team management demonstrate similar rational thought in the heat of the moment in Portland. That spirit of cooperation to maximize the #12 team’s advantage going into the finale would have practically and emotionally made a positive difference at Laguna Seca. It would maybe have taken a half percent of pressure off Power during those crucial qualifying runs, off his pit crew during those crucial pitstops, and off the pit stand brain trust when making on-the-go strategic decisions.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric’s answers to Motorsport.com and Associated Press regarding team orders weren’t convincing although maybe there was a hint of a lesson learned when he said: “There's an obvious one out in front, 20 points ahead, I think the most realistic chance we have, depending on how things go for the day…”

If this was a purely intra-team championship battle between Power and Newgarden, such as we saw between Power and Castroneves in 2014, and Pagenaud and Power in 2016, then allowing the third man, McLaughlin, to win Portland would have been fine. In fact it would have been the only moral thing to do, for the team can’t favor Power over Newgarden, who came home eighth in Portland. But there are certain members of Penske who have a near-fixation on Dixon, a phobia about Ganassi, yet last Sunday they effectively gave these dreaded rivals a 10-point headstart on closing the championship gap at Laguna Seca. And no team makes great tactical decisions in pinch situations like Ganassi, and no one makes the best of an opportunity like Dixon.

After the race there were comments about Penske proudly following its tradition of not issuing team orders. But there are enough examples – just a few listed above – of that not really being the case. And pride? That brings to mind the comment made by Marsellus Wallace [Ving Rhames] to boxer Butch [Bruce Willis] in the immortal Pulp Fiction, after he pays him to take a fall in his next match.

“Now, the night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting,” growls Wallace. “That's pride f***in' with you. F*** pride! Pride only hurts; it never helps.”

Certainly, it hasn’t helped here.

Of course, this may amount to nothing, maybe 20 points will prove to be enough of a margin for Power to clinch his second championship come Sunday. But if he misses out on the title by fewer than 10 points and it goes instead to Dixon and Ganassi, there will be a lot of muck thrown the way of Penske, a team that has lost nine of the last 14 championship battles to a Ganassi driver. Because while I don’t know for sure, I’m guessing it’s easier to justify team orders to those who don’t yet understand that racing is a team sport, than it is to explain to your driver, crew members, engine supplier and sponsors why, despite winning three times as many races as any of your rivals, you lost the championship. Again.

Power, with Dixon lurking oh-so-close. 'Twas ever thus.

Power, with Dixon lurking oh-so-close. 'Twas ever thus.

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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