Why the 2022 IndyCar title fight is Penske vs. Ganassi… yet again

There have been wins, poles and promise from others, but the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship battle has distilled down to Team Penske vs. Chip Ganassi Racing. A principal from each told David Malsher-Lopez what has elevated their teams beyond their rivals.

Why the 2022 IndyCar title fight is Penske vs. Ganassi… yet again

So there we were in February, a fellow IndyCar addict and I, chewing the fat and predicting who would win the IndyCar championship, who would win Rookie of the Year, who would be most improved driver, who would win the Indy 500, who would win the 500’s Rookie of the Year honors… We didn’t write down our predictions and, since we’re both hovering around the half-century mark, our short- to mid-term memories are patchy at best.

But we were certainly wise enough (or uncertain enough) not to put any money on it, and that’s just as well because I think I went for Colton Herta as champion, Scott Dixon as Indy 500 winner, Kyle Kirkwood as Rookie of the Year and David Malukas as Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. Now, in my defense, Malukas should have gotten that last one, but there’s a voting system element to that accolade, so its destiny is vulnerable to folk obstructing the course of justice. Ah well.

And I also recall, on the eve of the season-opener, chickening out of my Herta prediction and going instead for Will Power. But that may have been my naturally obdurate reaction to reading five stories in 10 days about IndyCar’s youth movement/changing of the guard/torches being passed… yada yada yada. One can’t help but notice the 2022 IndyCar championship features two 40-somethings being chased by two 30-somethings. Maybe the 20-somethings kindly passed the torches back to their elders.

Still, I have little else to crow about, having shown all the perceptiveness of the guy from Decca Records who spurned The Beatles. For three years, I’ve been predicting that Arrow McLaren SP is going to turn IndyCar’s Big Three into a Big Four, and indeed, AMSP and Andretti Autosport are worthy occupants of third and fourth place, in either order. Colton Herta (AA) and Pato O’Ward (AMSP) finished third and fourth in the championship in 2020, and fifth and third in 2021.

But 2022 suggests that in fact IndyCar comprises a Big Two – Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske – followed by the Next Two, Andretti and McLaren. On their best days, AA and AMSP can beat The Captain’s crew and Chip’s chargers to the summits, but in between these peaks are vast barren plains, when only Penske and Ganassi find fertile ground. Considering Arrow McLaren comprises driver/race engineer combos Pato O’Ward/Will Anderson and Felix Rosenqvist/Craig Hampson, while Andretti includes Colton Herta/Nathan O’Rourke, Alexander Rossi/Jeremy Milless and Romain Grosjean/Olivier Boisson, there are clearly bigger factors that define the top tier from the second in the chase for IndyCar’s Astor Cup.

So while Rossi in 2018 and ’19, and Herta and O’Ward in ’20 and ’21 appeared capable of helping their teams start prizing the prize from the grasp of the Ganassi and Penske hordes, the latter group have kicked them away and then kicked again. The top six drivers in the ’22 championship with three rounds to go are Will Power, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Josef Newgarden, Alex Palou and Scott McLaughlin – Penske-Ganassi-Ganassi-Penske-Ganassi-Penske.

The Penske perspective

 

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

After Team Penske-Chevrolet failed to score a win in the first nine races of 2021, two-time champion Newgarden remained insistent that the team had been a victim of circumstances, that he saw “nothing truly missing” when assessing the squad’s competitiveness. And after the dam broke and he dominated the Mid-Ohio race, he went on to finish second in the championship, after he and Power added two more wins. But still, that winless first half of the season rankled within Penske – the absolute nadir was its qualifying performance at Indy, of course – and so it dug deep to make amends in 2022.

Penske managing director, Ron Ruzewski, who also calls strategy for Power, tells Motorsport.com: “If I look back on 2021, Will’s pace was good and obviously Josef was in the championship hunt, but that was balanced by Scotty [McLaughlin] being a rookie and Simon [Pagenaud] being a big question mark. In the races, for various reasons, a lot of things just didn’t go our way, be it strategies and cautions, a couple of reliability issues, and so on. It’s not as if in 2021 we were completely lost or took too long to come up to speed: we still got five poles and three wins.”

Ruzewski’s assessment sounds very similar to Newgarden’s at the time – the stats belied Penske’s potential. However, he can’t deny the team’s stepped up in ’22.

“Did we recognize there were still things to polish up? Yes, 100 percent, and so absolutely we have improved this year,” he says. “First and foremost, was Indianapolis. We learned a lot, because we acknowledged a large portion of where we went wrong in 2021. Now in ’22, the interesting thing is that although we still weren’t stellar in May, I’ve done the stats and we increased the average speed of our cars by over 2mph from last year to this. Unfortunately, Carpenter [Ed Carpenter Racing] and Ganassi improved their cars by 0.7-1mph so we still didn’t match them, but we made significant gains, and arguably the Andretti and Rahal teams went back by 2mph.

“Last year – basically from June, through the rest of the season and through the off-season – our focus was on Indianapolis, but in doing that, we tightened up all of our other areas, too. When our Porsche sportscar program started, we had some people – Jonathan Diuguid [McLaughlin’s 2021 race engineer] among others – exit the IndyCar program and we went down to three IndyCars, but we promoted some people from within, hired some new people to fill some voids, and we put an added effort into engineering to grow from within and reallocate some of our resources.

“I would love to tell you there was one thing that has helped us this year deliver the results that our pace has promised, but it was actually a culmination of a lot of little things. And the good news is that we’re just starting to hit our stride now. If you put people in new roles within the team and also bring in new people, then getting them all fully comfortable and coordinated isn’t something that happens overnight. But now I think we’ve got to that point where we’re seeing the difference those potential improvements pay off. Some of the recent IndyCar races, where I do feel like we’ve been the dominant team, is us hitting our stride, and I believe we can keep building on that and carry our momentum as a team.”

As well as technical staff moving across to learn, test, tend and fettle the gorgeous new Porsche 963, the Penske’s IndyCar team also suffered a couple of significant losses last winter. Gavin Ward, Newgarden’s race engineer 2018-’21, departed for Arrow McLaren SP, while Pagenaud joined Meyer Shank Racing, a team that has a technical alliance with Andretti Autosport. In other words, two highly intelligent and diligent champions went off to feed Penske learning into two of Penske’s strongest rivals.

“Yeah, that’s always a concern,” agrees Ruzewski, “because you can’t make them un-learn. Unfortunately I don’t have that Men in Black pen-camera to erase their memories! So when they leave, that’s a disappointment, but at the same time you’re always aware that’s a possibility. However, that can’t stop you from always having an open book with your drivers and your personnel to get the most out of them, because as soon as you’re guarded, the situation becomes unproductive, so you can’t let the chance of someone leaving the team affect how you all work together.

“That said, if you had the means to get a dozen setup sheets from the various teams, you would probably find more commonalities than differences in most cases, so then you have to ask yourself, ‘Well why’s this team performing well and this one isn’t performing so well?’ It’s obvious that setups and technical knowledge alone aren’t the only differences between the teams: as anyone will tell you, racing success is very much about the complete package. For instance, you’ll have seen people leave Carpenter to join another team, and those teams aren’t now fighting for pole at Indy but Ed’s team still is.

“So… it’s not just about setups, and it’s also not just about buying a bunch of high-quality individuals and expecting them to immediately click as a team. You have to build a team and build a culture and mindset around it.

“And then there are things that are different from team to team. Damper programs are one of the things that do differentiate teams, and we do the time and we do have a lot of knowledge in that area. Is ours better than others’? Everyone has their own thoughts on it, but you develop your packages around something. So what might work on our cars might not work on another team’s cars.

“So, as much as it concerns me when someone leaves and takes knowledge to another team, it more concerns me that we spend a lot of time developing processes, and when people leave here, they start similar processes at other places. It’s both flattering and upsetting – but it’s also inevitable.”

Heading into these last three races, with Power and Newgarden lying first and fourth in the points standings, separated by 22 points and two Ganassi drivers, Ruzewski sounds confident but not cocky about Team Penske’s chances.

Texas in March, and Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power have just finished 1-2-4, delivering Team Penske's 600th win across all motorsports. Here the drivers are accompanied by Tim Cindric, Roger Penske and Ron Ruzewski.

Texas in March, and Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power have just finished 1-2-4, delivering Team Penske's 600th win across all motorsports. Here the drivers are accompanied by Tim Cindric, Roger Penske and Ron Ruzewski.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

“I feel our team’s strength is that in the technical group there are no big egos,” he says. “That has been my focus as team manager – to help foster that build-up into a cohesive group.

“I think Chevrolet has made huge strides, too, and they have been trying very diligently. [Ilmor’s] Andy Gryczan is super-passionate and super-driven and he was taking us in a good direction, and then the addition of Ray Gosselin gave Andy the tools he needed to focus on getting the integration right between the teams and Chevrolet. It was a pleasant surprise how polished a product they delivered to us.”

Even were Penske drivers to finish 1-2-3 in the championship – a huge ‘if’ considering 150-plus points are on offer, and there are three Ganassi drivers within 33 points of top spot! – Ruzewski admits Penske would still be left collectively with an itch to scratch in 2022.

“That would be an amazingly satisfying season, but there will still be an undertone of ‘We need to do better at Indy.’ Our expectations are so high and that place is so special… If we look back at the years when we won Indy and the championship, those are the years that give most satisfaction. But I really think we’ve had cars that can win at almost every race this year, sometimes potentially dominant, especially in the races since June. So it would be nice to see that rewarded with a championship.”

The Ganassi angle

Dixon leads Ericsson in the GP of Indy. Later that month, one would feel immense deflation, the other amazing elation.

Dixon leads Ericsson in the GP of Indy. Later that month, one would feel immense deflation, the other amazing elation.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Chip Ganassi’s drivers have won the last two championships, and three of the last four, and following his remarkable Indy 500 triumph, Marcus Ericsson led the points table for several rounds. But Ganassi’s traditionally strong championship performance that sees Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou in second, third and fifth in the title race has been less overt in 2022 than that of Penske. The bald fact is that CGR has scored three wins to Penske’s seven, 11 podiums to Penske’s 16.

However, you don’t have to dig too much deeper to understand why, despite these apparent deficits, CGR remains so strong in this fight: it’s been about maximizing what they have and minimizing bad days, something which Chip has drilled into his drivers, race engineers, strategists and crews for decades. So while we have raved about Power finishing in the top four at 10 of the 14 events held so far this season, he has also had four results outside the top 10, three of which were 15th or lower. By contrast, Dixon has enjoyed only four top-four finishes, but two of those have been wins and he has finished outside the Top 10 only once. Admittedly, that was a biggie – his 1mph pitlane transgression at Indy dropped him to 21st – but the rest of the time he’s been classic Dixon. It’s a different kind of consistency to Power’s but no less effective.

Ask Ganassi’s ever-contemplative managing director Mike Hull – also Dixon’s ace strategist – why IndyCar’s title battle has reverted to IndyCar’s two legendary teams slugging it out once again, and he hesitates to directly criticize either Andretti or McLaren.

“What makes teams good in any form of motorsport is how well prepared they are for the meat of the season,” he says. “It takes a certain effort by everyone in your building, including all those who you don’t see at the racetrack, to help prepare your cars. And it takes a lot of personnel planning, logistical planning, parts preparation and advance planning – a lot of forecasting – to prepare for those back-to-back race weekends that we have soon after the enormous mental and physical efforts that go into the Indianapolis 500. The 500 wears a lot of people out, it can wear out your spare parts, your delivery system, and so on. I think that teams with very experienced personnel are better able to deal with that – albeit still with their tongues hanging out! – because they they understand how to operate without any loss of performance, post-Indy.

“It’s not that Andretti or McLaren aren’t ready for that, but…”

Hull leaves the sentence hanging. No need to complete it; the stats bear him out. Andretti Autosport has taken three of its six Indy wins in the last decade, during which it has won zero championships. In that same time frame, Ganassi has acquired five titles, but Ericsson’s triumph in May was CGR’s first 500 win since 2012. As for AMSP, it finished second and fourth at Indy this year but is still evolving, still too young (in McLaren’s current form) to have triumphed in either the 500 or the title race.

“You say it’s three vs. three at the top of the championship table, but it used to be two and two, or even one and one,” observes Hull. “That just shows the level of preparation required and the level of manpower at these teams have ramped up considerably. I know at Chip Ganassi Racing we work hard to be ready for any eventuality, and try to always understand cause and effect and help that guide us in predicting what to do next.”

While Penske has had to apply a lot of human resources to its Porsche prototype project, that’s still nascent: you could argue that Ganassi’s task has been harder. CGR dived into IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship last year with a Cadillac DPi-V.R, expanded this year to two entries, and simultaneously is preparing and testing Caddy’s LMDh/GTP car for IMSA and Le Mans 24 Hour campaigns in 2023. There’s the Extreme E series, too. Oh, and of course it has retained a four-car line-up in IndyCar. So much for that crisis in finding top-quality staff to operate all these cars: from the outside it appears the mighty Ganassi operation has hardly skipped a beat.

“Oh, we have,” corrects Hull immediately. “Internally, we had our personnel issues, no question about it. We’ve had issues with personal crises, health and sickness, COVID, and so on, but we’ve managed. But we have people who are willing to work in more than one direction when asked. At times we’ve brought people back on the road who haven’t been there in a while, moved people internally when we’ve had to.

Hull:

Hull: "We have very unselfish people working for us… It’s not just about managing people, it’s having people who are prepared to take ownership of their product."

Photo by: Gregg Feistman / Motorsport Images

“I think the answer really is that we have very unselfish people working for us who understand how important it is to be teammates. Like every other company today, not just motorsport, it’s not just about managing people, it’s having people who are prepared to take ownership of their product. We have plenty of people like that in our team and without them we wouldn’t be lucky enough to have achieved what we’ve achieved so far this year. The thing is, if we don’t win, we don’t like it, so we work really, really hard to win, and that attitude starts with the owner and passes right through the system.”

One of several common traits between Ganassi and Penske is that there is a high degree of emphasis on both the Indy 500 and the championship, and CGR have had that balance nailed better than anyone for the past three years. Despite having the best cars at the Speedway in ’20 and ’21 (whatever the results show), Ganassi found yet more speed in ’22. Four of its cars qualified in the top six, all looked supremely ‘comfortable’ in race trim and all five led laps – a total of 163 of the 200…

As Ruzewski alluded to above, balancing the emphasis in development between a title run and motorsport’s marquee event isn’t easy, but the philosophy behind it is easy to understand.

As Hull explains: “Chip says it well: He says that if you win the Indy 500 it will change your life, and when a team of people wins the Indy 500 it changes the team’s life and it changes their culture. You’ll have noticed that a driver who has won the Indy 500 and the championship will be introduced in public first as an Indy 500 champion. It’s a huge thing, no question. We’ve been blessed to win the Indy 500 multiple times [five] and the IndyCar championship multiple times [14] with multiple drivers. And what we had done for a long, long time is put great effort into the Indy 500 and treated it as a very important race, but one that is part of a series of 16 or 17 races.

“Then we watched Penske, right in front of our eyes, create a system internally – we think we understand what they do! – where they had a group of people who worked just on the Indy 500, and a group of people that worked on the rest of the series. We weren’t doing that; we were devoting all our attention to an entire series of races, with the Indy 500 as a very important part of that. So a few years ago, after Penske kicked our ass at the Speedway, we decided to restructure ourselves so that we could do both. And it culminated this year with our performance there. I think we’ve proven we can focus on the 500 and the championship.”

We like to talk about how close IndyCar is – 20 cars covered by one second in qualifying, or whatever – and that’s true. From race to race it is amazingly competitive. But over the long haul of the 17-race 2022 championship, there are only two teams in it. Again. And this year, remember, marks the 10th anniversary of anyone other than a Ganassi or Penske driver capturing the IndyCar drivers’ crown. It’s clear that Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP require a lot of work to evolve into anything other than occasional winners. And that, in turn, serves to highlight that for now, the third tier and lower remain bit-part players, their triumphs memorable principally for their infrequency.

It's weird to think that Chip had to wait 10 years between his fourth and fifth wins in the 500.

It's weird to think that Chip had to wait 10 years between his fourth and fifth wins in the 500.

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

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