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Opinion

Why Will Power is IndyCar champion and how he changed …

…but not that much. Power delivered his second IndyCar title eight years after his first, by retaining his old skills and gaining a couple of new ones. David Malsher-Lopez explains why the Penske-Chevrolet ace still has what it takes.

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet celebrates winning the championship

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet celebrates winning the championship

Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

So Will Power has done it. The fastest IndyCar driver of his generation has nailed his second championship, eight years after his first. The man who scored five wins in 2010, six in 2011 and both times failed to clinch the title, has been victorious in 2022 with just a single win to his name… along with eight other podium finishes and three more top fours.

That’s made him hot property, too. Everyone who matters knows Power’s current Penske contract is up at the end of 2023 and that he’s still got ‘It’. In fact, he’s proven to have more than one ‘It’ because he’s added remarkable consistency to his still renowned pace. That’s why at least four IndyCar teams and one IMSA team have made enquiries about his plans for 2024 and beyond. Of course, Will won’t be speaking with them until he’s allowed, bound by the terms of his current contract. (Newer drivers take note…)

Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine Power in anything other than a Penske; team and driver have formed a remarkable partnership that has produced 38 of his 41 wins and 62 of his 68 poles. But still, a couple of the team owners sniffing around him are both eager and persuasive, each of them convinced that having one of the five or six aces in the IndyCar pack is all his team needs to make it a regular winner.

Power’s single-minded devotion to winning the 2022 title meant this lethal weapon of a driver sometimes slipped on the safety catch, refrained from going for long shots. He was less gung-ho in the style of a Tom Sneva and Bobby Unser, instead showing the clinical big-picture thinking of a Rick Mears or Al Unser.

But let no one describe it as a new analytical approach. The ability to analyze every facet of his craft has been a trait of Power’s for over a decade and a half. Brandon Fry, his first race engineer at Walker Racing, laid the foundation, and when Fry moved on, Derrick Walker found Dave Faustino for 2007 and formed a match made in heaven. Aside from 2009, a year in which Faustino remained with KV Racing but Power had a part-time ride with Team Penske, the pair have been inseparable. And to this day, Power can bench-race with Faustino for hours, Will asking Dave how he can improve his driving, Dave asking Will how he can give him a better car.

In terms of media attention, this side of Power used to be subsumed by the derring-do on track, the heart-on-sleeve interviews, the barely contained – sometimes uncontained – rage when Fate or fools upended his efforts. All that stuff attracted more viewers, more clicks. Few appreciated and even fewer saw all the hard work.

This was the year that Power decided to ensure that endeavor was converted into something tangible for all time. In 2014, his first title was about proving himself to himself – and others – thereby exorcizing the demons that taunted him after his near-misses in 2010, ’11 and ’12. But in 2022, Power kept insisting that he was just having fun and that he didn’t feel pressure; he already had a championship and an Indy 500.

What he meant to say was that the pressure now came from a different source. This title quest was about rewarding his #12 crew members, many of whom had been his loyal soldiers in battles for race victories and pole positions, but had yet to experience the joy of winning a war. Without wishing to make him sound as altruistic as Bernie Webber from The Finest Hours, he wanted his crew to feel the satisfaction of posing with the prestigious Astor Cup at Laguna Seca.

 

So how hard was it for Power to suppress the urge to try and win everything and instead focus on winning the big thing?

“Look, from a championship perspective, every time you get a podium, that's not the day you're looking back on,” he said. “You're looking back on the day you finished 19th, like at Road America. They're the days that lose championships. Top threes don't. We got a lot of them this year. Any time I got a top four, I was pretty happy.

“But in the past I would have been really pissed off, when your teammates are winning. That was a big change. It's like, ‘I don't care. I'm going to weather the storm while they're having a good run.’ That in itself is a mental change. I'm not getting pissed off with a top four, where before I would have been seething!”

Rick Mears told me: “I think there are still times when Will gets bothered by certain things, but what’s changed is that he then gets rid of it quicker than he used to; he won’t let it nag away at him. In my career, I said that if someone cuts me off in Turn 1, I want to be over it by Turn 2, because if I’m not then it means my focus is not where it needs to be. Watching Will from the outside, I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t let things eat away at him for long. He’s more, ‘OK, what just happened is bad, but it’s done now, let’s make the best of the next opportunity?’ In my book, that’s the right attitude to have.”

It is. And another attitude that has served him well is one he developed back in his Walker days – the ability to improve by unflinching reflection on how he could do better in any given circumstance. Even when discussing two-car accidents that are obviously the fault of the other driver, he qualifies his version of the event with a “but maybe I should have done something different.”

This came to mind after the one occasion this year when he did let his anger drag on, at Road America. In the early laps, rookie Devlin DeFrancesco tried an overambitious maneuver that punted the #12 Penske-Chevrolet into a wall. Power pitted and rejoined but was too far back to achieve much, and by the end of the race his extreme irritation had not dissipated, so he was eager to give his assailant a piece of his mind. But he calmed down even before the pair chatted. A day later, Power sighed, “It’s done now; getting angry isn’t going to get points back. We move on. Plus, Devlin’s a rookie, he was just going for it. Quite a nice kid actually.

“And anyway, we shouldn’t have been back there [in the pack]; that’s on us – or maybe me. We need to look into that qualifying run.” Now that’s a typical Will Power payoff line.

The morning after he clinched his title, Power repeated the “Getting angry doesn’t help” sentiment to explain his more chilled demeanor across the whole of 2022, adding: “I feel way less desperation because I don’t need to achieve something. I just love the craft, enjoy getting it right, and I love the competition.”

But rest assured, Power has not gone soft in his 40s. Some of his top-four finishes, such as at Barber Motorsports Park or Mid-Ohio, were the result of stirring comeback drives, where his race craft appeared flawless, where he could make even his fellow aces look flat-footed. And after proving to himself that he and his car could do that, there was thereafter a certain degree of serenity should he find himself in the bottom half of the grid again.

Power charged from 16th to fourth at Barber, although the reason for his lowly grid position still puzzles him.

Power charged from 16th to fourth at Barber, although the reason for his lowly grid position still puzzles him.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“Yeah, that’s true,” he said. “You look at how Dixon has done over the years. This series can really favor qualifying badly, because 1) you end up with fresher tires from not getting all the way through to the Fast Six, 2) you can cue off everyone else, and 3) the pits close under yellow, so if you pit early and there’s then a caution, you’ve got the undercut and gained a bunch of track position.”

Of course the highlight of Power’s season was his victory at Detroit. After getting held up on his qualifying run he charged hard from 16th, was leading by Lap 14, and thereafter his pace was such that he relinquished top spot for just two laps following his first pitstop. Then in the final stint, he demonstrated a skill at which he has long been supreme in the IndyCar field – looking after his tires while going fast. No other driver that day could have run 20 laps on Firestone’s fragile alternate tires while moving that rapidly.

And for those still wondering if his consistency this year was a result of an unwillingness to ‘take it to the edge’ – one of the typical giveaways that a driver is nearer the end of his career than the start – it’s worth pointing out that he delivered five pole positions this year, and there would have been two or three more, but for the vagaries of fate. In fact, only twice were he and Faustino left baffled by a lack of pace in qualifying, when it’s just man and machine racing the track and the stopwatch.

“We’re going to do a deep dive into Barber and Road America,” said Power. “It was weird. At Barber, we were losing two-tenths on the straights, and I wondered if it was because I went in the gravel and so we got some brake rub. When Chevy pulled the engine out, they dyno’d it and it was fine. But honestly, those two tenths wouldn’t have been enough to get me through so… yeah, strange one that.

“And then Road America we were understeery. Maybe we didn’t take into account – or not enough for that particular day – the Cooper tires that the Road To Indy boys use. I think Indy Lights switching to Firestone next year could really help all of us, because there’s gonna be more compatible rubber down on the track. We’re down to the last hundredths with this car; the game’s just too finicky to get through to the next stage of qualifying with just an average car. That’s why I still love qualifying: you have to maximize everything.”

And that includes the driver. Power will cite St. Petersburg, Mid-Ohio – yes even after the climb from 27th to third – and the second Iowa race as ones in which he didn’t chance his arm in the final stint, unwilling to give away the podium place he already had in pursuit of possible victory. But in qualifying he left nothing on the table. Ever.

“Oh yeah, I don’t hold back in qualifying,” he said. “I give it everything I’ve got, every time. To not do that… well, it’s just not a thing! It can’t be. If you go conservative in qualifying, you’re going to be last. In this series, legit, if you undershoot in any way in qualifying, you won’t go through to the next round. You absolutely will not. I see it in practice sessions. You can hit all your apexes and think you’d done a pretty good lap but if you haven’t given it everything, you come into the pits and find out you’re 17th. It’s crazy.”

Someone who used to work with him (but is now at a rival team and therefore better remain nameless) was particularly impressed with Power’s P1 on the Indy road course in May. He chuckled, “I think we can say he’s still got it, hasn’t he? That one was a bit special. In all my years racing [34], I have never seen anyone who can put together a qualifying lap like Will.”

After equaling Mario Andretti's pole position record at Gateway's World Wide Technology Raceway.

After equaling Mario Andretti's pole position record at Gateway's World Wide Technology Raceway.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

And Mears was blown away by Power’s pole effort at World Wide Technology Raceway.

“Will said he thought he could go flat through [Turns] 3 and 4, but wasn’t sure and went for it anyway,” said the legend who scored 40 poles in his career. “And he left himself enough room to catch it and walk it up the track. That’s a driver who has great feel for the car. What it will do and what it can do.”

“Yeah, I didn’t just blindly go in and see what happens,” Power said. “In practice, I lifted a little on new tires, and thought, ‘Hmm, I’m pretty certain I can go flat through here.’ And so I did in qualifying, but then it bottomed out, because it was lower and rolling more, so that just set it twitching. Otherwise I think it would have been flat. But then the next lap I was two-tenths up coming out of Turn 2, it was amazing, so that allowed me to be a bit more conservative through 3 and 4, knowing the sector I had in the bag, the margin, was going to be enough. And I was the last car to run.

“But yeah, I’ve never been one to just think, ‘Let’s go flat, see what happens!’ There are many factors that go into why I’ll do what I do: it’s never been a crazy thing; you do reason it out and feel it out. But in qualifying on an oval, you are going in blind so it’s more a reactive, not proactive thing. Then in the race it’s more proactive.”

Statistics prove that if you are in a fight for the IndyCar championship, it’s going to involve Dixon, but while Power had longed for a proper championship duel with his fellow Antipodean, it was unlikely to distill to those two alone. At Ganassi, Dixon is teamed with reigning champion Alex Palou and Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, while at Penske, Power is accompanied by the relentless and ruthless two-time champ Newgarden and the shockingly improved Scott McLaughlin. And then there was Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and Alex Rossi to consider, too…

On the subject of fighting with a teammate compared with fighting a respected rival from another team, Power said: “It’s good and bad battling with a teammate. The good is that you can see what they’re running, and you can sometimes even get an insight into what they’re deciding strategically for the race. The bad is that they’ve got what you’ve got and they can get an insight into what you’re planning!

“And you don’t get help from your teammates while they’re still in the running for the championship. If you have fast teammates like I obviously do, theoretically they could make your day a lot easier if they qualify at the front with you – but only if they’re not in the hunt themselves…”

Even before last weekend when he surpassed Mario Andretti to become the most successful pole-winner in Indy car history, Power was in the discussion over who’s the fastest of all time. By winning the title in the manner he did, with the self-discipline he displayed, the record books will also now reflect the fact that Power can win the title race by whatever method he chooses. But he leaves unanswered what his methodology will be next year.

“Look, St. Pete and Iowa 2 – and Mid-Ohio and Toronto if I’d got a proper chance at qualifying – I think could have gone my way, as in, we could have won,” he muses. “But sometimes it doesn’t unfold quite the way you want it to and they ended up seconds and thirds. Well, not Toronto obviously. In another year, it could have gone our way and we get four or five wins. You just have to deal with each situation as it comes up and make a decision about how you’re going to play it.

“It was only in the last two races where we were thinking risk management, cueing our pit strategy or tire strategy off others.”

Power heads off for one of those almost flag to flag victories at Sonoma in 2010.

Power heads off for one of those almost flag to flag victories at Sonoma in 2010.

Photo by: Bob Heathcote

It has to be that way. Back when he first joined Penske, Power would do his thing, leading, saving fuel, saving tires, and those who couldn’t match his combination of pace and parsimonious use of rubber and E85 would pit… and then, more times than he cares to remember, there would be a caution period. All those who had pitted already were left laughing and the #12 Penske would only be able to stop once the pits opened and the field was bunched, so Power would emerge buried in the pack. It was as if his rivals were being rewarded for being slower and/or less good at fuel saving. But these days, once one of the top dozen drivers pits, it’s usual for everyone to pit in the next couple of laps to avoid the risk of getting caught out by a badly-timed caution.

“Yeah, everyone’s smarter now, right?” said Power. “Not much risk-taking for slightly alternate strategies.

“Man, I regret a lot of how we approached a race back then. I wish I’d just gone super-hard right from the start of a race, forget fuel-save, and built up a huge gap. Because that makes it hard for others to pit before me because that will put them a lap down.

“Thankfully, now, Kyle Novak [race director] does a great job of allowing people to pit if the person that’s caused the yellow isn’t in a dangerous place. So that makes pitting early and then fishing for a yellow not so enticing any more. Like when [Callum] Ilott’s car stopped at pit-out on Sunday, Kyle let everyone pit before he closed the pits, threw the caution and sent the Safety Team out. I think he’s nailed it; it’s a much fairer system.”

It’s that side of Power that leads me to hope he remains involved in IndyCar in 2028 or whenever he retires from the cockpit. He understands and appreciates the meritocracy of racing. He doesn’t look at matters from the perspective of, ‘How can this benefit me?’, but instead with a view of, ‘How can this be made more fair?’ He will study a certain action and foresee short-, mid- and long-term consequences, in the same way that when he looks at things in retrospect, he can produce a chain reaction plotline – “If this had happened, then maybe that would have led to that happening which would have caused this…” etc. Applying that process when reflecting on a lost win will still irritate him – even a dozen years on! – but like he said and like Mears observed, he won’t dwell on it. The only past situations he focuses on now are ones from which he can learn lessons that can be applied in the future.

And when I say focus, I mean it. You can bet that he and Faustino will get to the bottom of the underwhelming qualifying runs at Barber and Road America… and their patchy form on raceday at Laguna Seca last weekend, when Power was strong on alternates in the first stint, strong in the fourth on primaries and weirdly muted in stints two and three. But that last one may not be so much of a mystery. Sorry to say, the variation in what should be identical Firestone sets has been a talking point among drivers for the last two seasons.

Last Sunday, it was frankly sad watching the guy who exuberantly chased Herta for victory at the same track three years earlier now having to be so tentative with the throttle, and getting passed by Newgarden like he was standing still. Sure, Josef was on a four-stop, zero fuel-save, zero tire-save strategy, but the disparity between his and Will’s lap times should not have been that great. Then in the final stint, Power was tripping over Newgarden because now Josef had a bad set, Will had a good set and had his wing setting where it suited him. Suddenly he was no longer just ‘hanging on’.

Given that Power and Faustino are perfectionists, although not to the detriment of their flexibility and the ability to ‘make do’, I suggested that it must be immensely frustrating to have to build in a margin for an unknown variable.

“Yeah, me and Dave were talking about it at Laguna,” admits Power. “We were on the victory stage saying, ‘The variance of tires is just crazy.’ Some of the crew guys were laughing at us – ‘You won the championship and you can’t stop talking about the car.’ They were right: we were debriefing on the race instead of celebrating that we’d won the title.”

It’s almost reassuring to know that Power has evolved but not that much.

The #12 Team Penske engineers and crew members who, like Power said, deserved their reward.

The #12 Team Penske engineers and crew members who, like Power said, deserved their reward.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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