Could Penske's aversion to team orders at Portland prove costly?

OPINION: Team Penske decided not to enforce team orders in the penultimate round of the 2022 IndyCar season at Portland, where Scott McLaughlin beat points leader Will Power to victory. In denying its best chance of the title a chance to extend his advantage over Scott Dixon, Penske has made itself unnecessarily vulnerable to an attack by Chip Ganassi Racing in the Laguna Seca finale

Could Penske's aversion to team orders at Portland prove costly?

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 car to cause a virtual safety car that would help Max Verstappen’s cause. As Tsunoda stated on Thursday at Monza, rumourmongers should “scan the MRI and see what's wrong”.

Then, Mercedes was heavily criticised for allowing George Russell to pit during a later safety car period while Lewis Hamilton was left out on used medium tyres. That removed the senior Mercedes driver’s buffer, allowing Verstappen on fresh softs onto his tail and to easily reclaim the lead at the restart. But even if Russell had stayed out, the outcome would likely have been the same. Verstappen was going to win either way. 

A far more debatable failure to apply team orders occurred 5,000 miles west, later that day. Scott McLaughlin, still clinging by his fingernails to IndyCar championship contention, was allowed to retain his lead at Portland and win from his Team Penske team-mate Will Power, who is leading the points race.

By finishing ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing rival Scott Dixon and well ahead of third Penske driver Josef Newgarden, Power now heads to Sunday’s finale at Laguna Seca with a 20-point lead. This 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 Power to clinch his second championship. A very different prospect.

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

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.

Lundgaard aced the start to take second from a cautious Power, meaning Penske didn't have a chance to swap the order until later in the race

Lundgaard aced the start to take second from a cautious Power, meaning Penske didn't have a chance to swap the order until later in the race

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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 0.19s behind McLaughlin and 0.11s behind Newgarden, the latter of whom also admitted to a crucial mistake on his flyer.

Power still started on the front row because Newgarden had a six-place grid penalty for an early engine change. On Sunday morning, there was a team meeting in which Roger Penske emphasised teamwork, a unified approach, collaboration, and so on. 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. If it wasn’t stated in bald terms, then it was open to interpretation…

Power couldn’t burn up push-to-pass boost trying to pass McLaughlin, both because the latter had far more available having led almost the entire race, and because Power needed it as a defensive tool for whenever Dixon launched an attack

Whatever, McLaughlin couldn’t help anyone except himself in the opening stint. Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard made an excellent start third on the grid and took advantage of a careful, championship-savvy Power at Turn 1 to claim second. That meant 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 first opportunity came for Penske to make a switch as Dixon's Ganassi team-mate Marcus Ericsson ended his long first stint and pitted.

The Penske management didn’t take the opportunity, perhaps not feeling the urgency. Dixon was running only 10th, having progressed from 16th on the grid. 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 of his team-mates or neither.

After the second stops, Newgarden was up to fourth and Dixon eighth, but after the third stops, Dixon was a net sixth. His third and final stop had come on lap 78, and had prompted the top four – McLaughlin, Power, Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) and Newgarden – to pit a lap later.

McLaughlin was delayed behind O'Ward's team-mate Felix Rosenqvist, who was on an out-lap, when the Kiwi was on his in-lap. Power trimmed his deficit to the leader from 3.8s to 2.5s, the Penske pair barely more than a second apart as they left the pits. But with O’Ward only a second behind Power, McLaughlin couldn’t cede the lead right away.

After the third round of pitstops, the close presence of O'Ward behind Power initially would have made a switch difficult

After the third round of pitstops, the close presence of O'Ward behind Power initially would have made a switch difficult

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Four laps later, Power was still within a second of McLaughlin and O’Ward was dropping back, clearly lacking Penske pace. 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 made room but was still edged over the kerb, 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. In his attempts to hold off Alexander Rossi, both were delayed and Dixon snuck past into 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 the Mexican to cede 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.

Now Power couldn’t burn up push-to-pass boost trying to pass McLaughlin, both because the latter had far more available having led almost the entire race, and 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 tyres, which again would make him vulnerable to Dixon.

For Power to get ahead, he needed his team to be smart and order his team-mate aside. It wouldn’t have been pretty and would have caused a clamour among those who forget this is a team sport. 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.

McLaughlin was allowed to keep his win, much to the bemusement of Dixon

McLaughlin was allowed to keep his win, much to the bemusement of Dixon

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Dixon then went on to explain that Ericsson and now out-of-contention Alex Palou 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.”

Consider that pot nicely stirred.

Now, the ambition within McLaughlin is as strong as in either of his team-mates, 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.

Power desperately wanted to end his 2017 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

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 mould… 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 informed Penske that until the end of the year, he would try and help his team-mate 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 team-mate 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 team-mate’s error, Power nonetheless stayed behind as the Colombian tried in vain to gain one more spot and turn the points situation in his favour.

Power has been accustomed to playing the team game for Penske down the years

Power has been accustomed to playing the team game for Penske down the years

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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, who 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 team-mates 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 favour one team-mate 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.

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.”

The 2014 champion has had a laser-like focus on the championship this year, kept the big picture in mind at all times, and on at least three occasions consolidated what he had rather than over-striving 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 in working towards his ultimate goal.

If Penske team management had demonstrated similar rational thought in Portland to maximise the #12 team’s advantage going into the finale, it 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 media including Autosport regarding team orders weren’t especially 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…”

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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 in Portland would have been fine. In fact it would have been the only moral thing to do, for the team can’t favour Power over Newgarden, who came home eighth in Portland.

Will Penske president Cindric (left) come to regret not swapping the order to consolidate its advantage over Dixon and Ganassi?

Will Penske president Cindric (left) come to regret not swapping the order to consolidate its advantage over Dixon and Ganassi?

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

But last Sunday it effectively gave Dixon 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, as Pulp Fiction teaches us, only hurts; it never helps.

If Power misses out on the title by fewer than 10 points and it goes instead to Dixon and Ganassi, there will be feeling that it might just have been preventable

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 feeling that it might just have been preventable.

Penske has lost nine of the last 14 championship battles to a Ganassi driver. It will be anxious to change the record this weekend. 

Power has 20 points in hand over Dixon heading to Laguna Seca as he seeks to end his long wait for a second IndyCar title

Power has 20 points in hand over Dixon heading to Laguna Seca as he seeks to end his long wait for a second IndyCar title

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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