USA TODAY US Edition
IndyCar finale features Simon Pagenaud and Will Power as the only realistic title contenders,
Simon Pagenaud and Will Power understand the importance of give-and-take.
They exemplified why it can be especially important as teammates racing in close quarters at high speeds for the most valued of all prizes. They had been teammates, friends and rivals as younger men and rekindled all three relationships when a program was created by owner Roger Penske to bring Pagenaud aboard the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most successful team in 2015.
And now they reach the final race of the season at Sonoma Raceway as the only statistically viable drivers who can win the championship. And Penske gets his title in the 50th anniversary of his team. Everyone got something from the compromise that had to take place on the track.
In July at Mid- Ohio Sports Car Course, Pagenaud, the points leader who was enduring back pain sufficient to require prerace epidurals, was contesting Power, who had closed to second in points by winning three of the previous four races.
There was the immediacy of Power, the 2014 series champion, attempting to maximize a midsummer rampage and atone for missing the first race of the season. They had been simply rivals in 2014, when Power muscled Pagenaud — then with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports — into the tire barrier in Long Beach in the second race of the season.
It’s doubtful they were running this calculus as they plied Turn 11 at Mid- Ohio, but they understood who they were aside and what the present and future consequences could be, in their own bids for a championship and in the estimation of an owner who provides drivers tools and in return expects an elevation of the team as individuals elevate themselves. Power relented. Pagenaud passed him after a restart on lap 66 of 90 and won for the fourth time.
Now, Pagenaud holds a 43point margin as he seeks his first title. Power can win a second championship despite having missed the first race with concussion-like symptoms and has the benefit of a double-points race at a venue where he has won three times. But it’s unlikely they both would have reached Sonoma as title contenders if they had wrecked each other into the grass at Mid- Ohio. By avoiding that troublesome incident, they set up the finale as an assured Penske coronation. And there is no way to know the possible internal repercussions of such an incident.
“It’s much harder than fighting somebody else (for a championship), because there’s the rivalry inside the team,” four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais said. “It can be a bit toxic sometimes. If there is an incident at some point, which we had (in 2004 with Newman/Haas Racing teammate Bruno Junqueira), then you just have to work with the person. Depending on whose responsibility it is or if it’s a non-responsibility or a shared responsibility, the dynamic of the group can be pretty affected. It’s not easy.”
But Pagenaud and Power seem to be succeeding. A dearth of incidents this season only helped.
“To work together, you need to be somewhat respectful of each other,” Pagenaud told USA TODAY Sports. “I respect him. He’s a great guy. We’ve known each other so long. We’re going to be teammates for a while, too, so, I think it’s possible to have a good relationship within the battle.” Power concurred. “I think the older you get, the less you kind of worry about personalities and all that,” Power said. “You do your business. You don’t weigh too much on emotional stuff between people. It obviously doesn’t matter. You get out on the track, and the best guy is going to win. It’s as simple as that. Whoever does win, good on ’em, because they deserve it.”
That’s a crucial conciliation, because internal strife festers, Bourdais said, when one team feels wronged. Except for somehow working through problems, he said, there is just one other proven way to sort out team chemistry and rivalries.
“I think it detoxifies only when
one clearly gets the edge on the other,” Bourdais said. “I mean, you see it going back and forth between (Formula One drivers Nico) Rosberg and (Lewis) Hamilton. It was the same between (Fernando) Alonso and Hamilton and (Alain) Prost and (Ayrton) Senna. Intra-team rivalries are very hard to manage. It’s just the way it is, and that’s why some teams just decide to have a No. 1 and a No. 2, because it’s much easier.”
Team Penske doesn’t operate that way, though, which has created a situation in which the team will have had a driver leading the standings for 43 of the past 44 races after Sunday. Each of Penske’s four drivers has at least tied atop the standings in that time.
“You’re not going to get the caliber of guy you want in that other car if you tell him he’s going to run second,” Penske adviser and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears told USA TODAY Sports. “(Penske)’s got to keep it a pretty open book, but on the other side of it, having teammates is what keeps you digging.
“Your teammate is the guy you want to beat. That’s job security right there.”
Organizational culture helps mitigate internal strife, even as rivalries such as the one between Helio Castroneves and retired series champion Gil de Ferran have occurred.
“(Pagenaud and Power) are professionals. They all get along well,” Mears said. “And this team won’t let that go very far, whether it’s drivers, whether it’s mechanics, engineers, whoever. Somebody comes in and stirs the pot, and somebody will set them straight quick, because that’s how a cancer grows.
“This organization is very good at nipping things before they get very far.”
As Power and Pagenaud, much to Penske’s delight, get to “have a go” at Sonoma with a team title ensured, numerous teammates will begin the same nettlesome process in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup beginning Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Of the 16 eligible for the title, 14 will have a teammate in contention. Among them are Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
“Teammates are tricky,” said Keselowski, who said he thought diligence helped him maintain a sound relationship with Logano. “They’re very important to your success as a whole, because they move the whole company forward. And, as someone once told me, ‘You can’t sink half a ship.’ If the ship is taking on water, you’re in the ship with it.”
The current IndyCar title contenders were rivals from their origins as teammates together, when Power was the native face and lead driver of the Team Australia Champ Car team and Pagenaud the 2006 champion of the developmental Atlantics Series for the same organization. That rivalry, said team owner Derrick Walker, was natural and not unusual compared with any similar relationship.
“Simon was perhaps in his career a little bit behind Will in terms of experience,” Walker told USA TODAY Sports. “But at the same time, they were fierce competitors. Just as they are now, they drive each other, push each other. I think, also, it’s hard for a driver to really be big pals with a guy who (they) see has a lot of capability, and that goes for both of them.
“They both recognize each other’s skill set. And you can be friendly to a point, but it’s war out there.”
Pagenaud’s $2 million prize money from the Atlantics title allowed Team Australia to elevate him to a Champ Car program with Power in 2007. Pagenaud studied Power’s technique and data to improve, Walker said, and Power was soon reciprocating. Power won twice and finished fourth in points, Pagenaud eighth. There were natural abrasions when they began contesting the same space.
“There were close encounters where there’s a bit of a verbal afterwards,” Walker conceded. “They’re drivers.”
And they’re teammates. But this weekend at Sonoma, they’re chasing the same reward.