The team-mate dilemma facing IndyCar's title protagonists

IndyCar legend Rick Mears says a title fight between Will Power and Josef Newgarden requires each to “be smart about it”, especially since their opponents from Ganassi are just a handful of points behind. He spoke to Autosport about the impending finale

The team-mate dilemma facing IndyCar's title protagonists

The first rule of racing, as we all know, is never take out your team-mate, and it would take no more than two minutes to come up with a dozen examples when that was ignored with spectacular consequences. The rule becomes magnified when the drivers are frontrunners, magnified some more when the pair are fighting over a championship, and then becomes a colossus of an issue when their opponents are so close that a misdemeanour could lead to the loss of that championship.

That’s the situation for Will Power and Josef Newgarden as we head to the final two rounds of the 2022 season. Last Saturday night, we saw Josef Newgarden take full advantage of the best strategy to deliver his fifth win of the season – and Team Penske team-mate Will Power suffer as a consequence of the wrong strategy and come home sixth. In terms of Penske vs Ganassi damage limitation, it wasn’t a disastrous weekend for Power, in that he finished just ahead of Marcus Ericsson, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou. He doubled his margin over Dixon (14 points), is now 17 points ahead of Indy 500 winner Ericsson and his margin over Palou is out to 43.

But he now has feisty, determined, super-confident team-mate Newgarden just three points behind him. One slip-up, be it in-cockpit, on the pit stand, or on pitlane, will swing this championship in favour of the other. And if they each hit a hurdle, it opens the door for Dixon and/or Ericsson to grab Ganassi’s 15th drivers’ title…

How does a driver deal with such circumstances? Well, Rick Mears, Team Penske’s driver advisor par excellence, has experience of battling his Penske team-mates for both titles and race wins, and coming out on the positive and negative side. That’s not surprising given the quality of drivers that Roger Penske attracted from 1978 through ’92, the Mears years – folks like Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi. Yup, Rick always had a good yardstick by which to measure his own performances.

But he was always the cleanest of drivers – something that can be confirmed by any of his peers – and made exceedingly few errors, so racing someone from within the same stable wasn’t something that gave him a great conundrum.

The three-time champion and four-time Indy 500 winner says: “The way I looked at it, I might be a little more careful, not wanting to make a mistake with a team-mate – but then I didn’t want to make a mistake with anybody, because the odds are that in that situation, I could take myself out too, and I can’t win the championship if I take myself out. So my plan was to not get in trouble, period, and make sure I got to the finish line, no matter who I was running against.

“If it was a team-mate I was up against, I did have to think about the team – I don’t want to destroy the chances of our organisation being able to win, whether it’s me or my team-mate. What can outweigh that, and it’s in the back of your mind all the time, is that the team-mate is the guy that I’ve gotta beat. That’s just normal for us as drivers. As I’ve said for years, beating your team-mate is job security!

Rick Mears, Team Penske Chevrolet

Rick Mears, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“But when you’re near each other, it’s important to remember the big picture, and that your team owner probably doesn’t care which of you wins, just as long as one of you wins. I had races where if my team-mate was all over the back of me, I wasn’t going to hold him up. I wasn’t going to just let him go, but if he gets to me and I see he has the opportunity, then three-quarters of the way down a straightaway, I might breathe the throttle a little and let him get a bigger run at me. Then if he makes the move, I’m not going to move over on him and start banging wheels: I’m going to let him go in a way that minimises time loss for both of us, because I know, likely as not, our main rivals are running strong just in front or just behind.

“And if he doesn’t take the opportunity to pass, then it means he’s not fast enough to pass so I don’t need to worry about him. Hopefully I can make my tyres last better than him running in my dirty air, so I can pull away from him later in the stint. But to your point, yes, the thing to remember is that you’re both racing for a team and so you’ve gotta be smart, and accept that there’s times when you have to give up a little of your ego. So fighting is different with a team-mate.”

Mears knows all about that. After being just a tendon and a brilliant surgeon away from losing one of his feet in the Sanair shunt in 1984, Mears’ return was part-time in 1985, inevitably focusing on tracks that didn’t require heavy braking. Mears being who he is, he finished on the podium in his second race back, took pole at his third race, and then took pole and victory at his fourth, in Pocono, backing this up with a runner-up finish on his next outing. A second win should have been feasible at Phoenix at the season’s penultimate round and final oval of the season: Mears had tested the Penske-tweaked March 85Cs and left him convinced he’d have a rocketship.

"I like the fact that Will can be dropped anywhere on the grid and most days he’ll find his way to the front. That’s a great chance to show how strong his race craft is" Rick Mears

But given his spasmodic schedule in 1985, he wasn’t in the running for the championship whereas his veteran team-mate Al Unser was. So when Penske elected to take only two cars down to Phoenix, for Sullivan and A.N. Other, The Captain asked Mears if, despite his productive testing at PIR, he would mind standing down for 'Big Al'. Mears must have been heartbroken to relinquish such a strong opportunity after his productivity and progress in the test at Phoenix’s little one-miler, but saw the big picture from Team Penske’s point of view, and stepped aside. Unser duly took pole and ran away with the race. Three weeks later, at the season finale, 'Big Al' beat his son Al Unser Jr to the championship – by a solitary point.

It’s hard to see how Power and Newgarden can be quite so generous given that they’re near-as-dammit neck-and-neck in the title race, but should one suffer a disaster in Portland – an opening lap crash, for instance – and the other, along with Dixon and Ericsson, enjoy a great day, team spirit is strong enough within Penske that the unfortunate one will try to assist his team-mate in bringing the title home for the Captain’s crew in the final round at Laguna Seca. There won’t be team orders, as such; there won’t need to be.

Still, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Most race fans would prefer to see a four-way battle for supremacy at the finale – or even five-way, if Palou wins Portland and his four title rivals drop out early. That’s hard to imagine, but who would rule out anything in such a ridiculously close season as this?

Assessing the Penske pair, Mears understandably has little to criticise in either Power or Newgarden in 2022, but there’s a substantial caveat. He is disinclined to compare a driver’s form from one year to the next because “so many circumstances can influence results and form”.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, podium

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, podium

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

As he explains: “You take any race weekend, and you don’t know how good that guy’s car was, how good the tyres were, whether they hit traffic in qualifying and had to come from a long way back… Because if someone spins in front of you on your qualifying lap and ruins your day so you start 12th or 15th, that’s something that can happen anywhere, but it has a much bigger knock-on effect on your race if it happens at one track than at another. Like I always say, you need Lady Luck on your side, however good your car is.

“But I also think more about what the cars are doing than what the drivers are doing, maybe because of the quality of drivers that Roger employs. I feel that if we get the package right for them, any of our drivers can get the job done, but of course a driver and his work with his engineer plays a substantial part in how good that car is on any given day.”

He therefore plays down the whole topic of Power’s mental reset before this year, that has seen the 2014 champ rolling with the punches, keeping his equilibrium when Fate has tripped him in qualifying, and racking up 10 top-four finishes.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that Will can be dropped anywhere on the grid and most days he’ll find his way to the front,” says Mears. “That’s a great chance to show how strong his racecraft is. And if that’s down to a change in his approach in the car, well, good for him. I could never do that – and believe me, I tried! What I am, I am – so it really impresses me if someone can change like that.

"But if people say Will has altered his attitude when things go against him – well, that’s what we call mellowing! Seriously, I think his results this year, the reason he’s leading the points, is that maturity of knowing that all he can do is give his best in any situation, and not thinking about wins or poles that have slipped away.

"Wherever you are in the pack, it’s all about extracting everything the car can give you on this day. And I think the knowledge that he’s got a good car and a good team around him also helps. Like his drive at Mid-Ohio, from last to third, was a hell of a thing. He was aggressive – as you have to be on that track to make anything happen – and he stood up in the seat and did it. His car was stable under braking and he took it to the limit.

“As for Will’s mental approach, I think there are still times when he 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. That’s a major plus. 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. I’m wasting effort on the wrong thing.

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet, pit stop, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet, pit stop, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“So simply 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.”

Power’s closest opponent right now is no less impressive.

Although Newgarden won the championship in both 2017 and 2019, this writer feels that the best year of the Tennessean’s career to date was 2020, a year he fell short in the luck department but was usually relentless and error-free on race days. This year, too, he’s arguably been the best driver of the season – five wins, and a certain sixth getting away from him in the second race at Iowa – yet may end up missing out on the crown again.

Given his previously stated caution over comparing a driver’s year-to-year form, Mears won’t let such bald terms as number of wins decide who he thinks is the best driver of 2022. But Mears nonetheless agrees that Newgarden will be a better driver this year than two years ago, so he’s at the very top of his game.

"On the speedways, I think Scott’s confidence is still growing. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of when Will first joined us: he can run quick right off the bat, has no problem in getting up to speed. But the racing element of it always takes a little longer" Rick Mears

“That’s what we do – try and improve year after year,” he says, “so a top driver is naturally going to have gotten better since 2020. Josef is, without a doubt, one of the best talents out there and he’s continually learning from all the influences around him as well as gathering experience for himself. After three or four years in my career, I really thought I knew what was going on, and after just another season of running, I would look back and realise, ‘Heck, I didn’t know what was going on a year ago’. Same again the next year and the next. One day I realised that the time that finally stops happening is when I should quit.

“So I’m sure Josef is aware that there’s always something to learn, no two circumstances are ever identical, so he’s a better driver than two years ago, a better driver than when he first joined us, a better driver than when he came up from Indy Lights.

“But he has to keep improving like that and taking those lessons onboard because the main guys he’s up against are learning at pretty much the same rate. You look at the depth of the talent that’s out there now, between teams, engineers and drivers, and everyone using pretty much the same stuff; to be able to consistently run at the front, you’ve got to be damn good. And that’s Will and that’s Josef, but obviously there’s a few others, too, and that’s why you see so many guys in the hunt with two races left.”

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

One of those drivers mathematically in contention is the third Penske driver, Scott McLaughlin, whose improvement from rookie to sophomore is greater than that of any IndyCar driver in recent memory. Considering he came from Supercars, the greatest touring cars in the world, with far more power than grip, and had no previous open-wheel experience, his 2021 performances were already impressive.

But they weren’t impressive to McLaughlin himself, who bent himself to the task of self-improvement last winter and opened the season with pole and victory at St. Petersburg. Mears has been left deeply impressed but not surprised, and feels it’s only McLaughlin’s (relative) lack of oval miles – in particular, race miles – that has prevented him from being up with his team-mates on the points table.

“On the speedways, I think Scott’s confidence is still growing,” says Mears. “In a lot of ways, he reminds me of when Will first joined us: he can run quick right off the bat, has no problem in getting up to speed. But the racing element of it always takes a little longer – it requires more laps, more variety of situations in dirty air. ‘This is how my car runs behind two cars in a line, this is how it is behind two cars side-by-side, how does it affect my car on old tyres, how will it feel on turn in, at the apex, at the exit?’ and so on. You only learn that through experience, and it’s going to vary from track to track and depends on how your car is handling that day.

“But the best drivers keep that in their memory and use it next time, and then it becomes instinctive, and that helps their confidence grow. And in Scott’s case, you can almost watch it grow as each oval race goes by. There’s a way to go, but he’s getting there, very, very quickly.”

And even if he can’t win the title, McLaughlin could have a crucial role to play in fighting the Ganassi drivers and helping one of his team-mates prevail. However it gets resolved, the 2022 IndyCar Series championship battle will be remembered as one of the classics.

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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