Wednesday, November 16, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2016 Season

We have finally made it to the final IndyCar Wrap-Up and it is the championship winning Team Penske. The team won nine of 16 races, took the top three in the championship and went 4-for-4 in putting drivers in the top ten of the championship.

Simon Pagenaud dominated wire-to-wire
Simon Pagenaud
The Frenchman's 2016 season began with an impressive second-place finish at St. Petersburg, a race he could have won if it had not been for a shuffle of the order on pit strategy. He repeated his second-place performance at Phoenix but unlike St. Petersburg where he was up front all race, Pagenaud started tenth and through a few passes and great pit stops he found himself on the podium. He jumped to the lead at Long Beach on pit stops and kept the lead on a controversial pit exit. Scott Dixon gave him a run for the victory but Pagenaud held on. Barber marked the second consecutive week with a fierce battle, this time with 2006 Atlantic Championship rival Graham Rahal. The American took the lead but in lap traffic Pagenaud fought back and after Rahal clipped the rear of Jack Hawksworth, it was smooth sailing for the Frenchman.

Pagenaud kept up the great run of form in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis where he dominated again from pole position. The wave crashed during the Indianapolis 500 but it wasn't in a spectacular fashion as Pagenaud's engine had a misfiring issue and lacked the speed of the front-runners. He had to coast home a lap down in 19th. In the first race from Belle Isle Pagenaud led 35 of 70 laps but when he selected the conservative pit strategy, he lost out to the drivers who ran flat out and despite playing it safe Pagenaud ran out of fuel dropping him from seventh to 13th in the final few corners. In race two, Pagenaud led the first 40 laps from pole position and while he got shuffled back during the pit cycle, he managed to finish second.

The second half of the season looked to have started great for Pagenaud at Road America. He was fast and looked to be the only guy who could challenge Will Power but the same engine misfiring issue he had at Indianapolis caught up with him at Road America and he went from a podium to 13th. He started on pole position at Iowa but had nothing for Josef Newgarden but stayed at the front ending up in fourth. Pagenaud had a lackluster day at Toronto but finished ninth. Mid-Ohio saw Pagenaud on pole position again and he led the first 16 laps but a caution dropped him to the middle of the top ten as a few cars stopped laps prior to the caution. He found himself behind Power after the final pit stop but made a daring pass after the carousel to put himself in position to inherit the lead once Conor Daly stopped and pick up his fourth victory of the season.

Entering the final quarter of the season, Pagenaud had yet to put a wheel wrong but at Pocono he started 14th and was mired in the middle of the pack most of the race until he got into the barrier exiting turn one, his first retirement since the 2015 Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Just when it appeared the championship may have been slipping from his grasp, Pagenaud rallied for a fourth at Texas after it appeared he would finish a lap down in the back half of the top ten. At Watkins Glen, Pagenaud jumped Power on a pit cycle and instead of trying to charge to the front, he sat back and made it difficult for Power. Power tried to go off strategy and ended up having an accident. Pagenaud cruised to a seventh-place finish. Pagenaud entered the finale with a 43-point lead. He won pole, he led 76 laps and Power's race was spoiled by a mechanical issue causing him to slow on circuit. Pagenaud won his fifth race to cap off his championship season.

Simon Pagenaud's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 1st (659 points)
Wins: 5
Podiums: 8
Top Fives: 10
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 406
Poles: 7
Fast Sixes: 9
Fast Twelves: 10
Average Start: 4.00
Average Finish: 6.125

Will Power gave it his all but fell short of his second championship 
Will Power
After writing Simon Pagenaud's section, it kind of feel Pagenaud's season is intertwined with Power's. Power won pole position for the season opener at St. Petersburg but had to sit out of the race because he wasn't well from anything from an inner-era infection to a concussion after an accident in Friday practice. He returned for Phoenix and without passing a car on track went from ninth to third thanks to tire punctures and great pit stops. He started sixth at Long Beach but couldn't get to the front to battle with the leaders and settled for seventh. At Barber, he had a hard fought battle with Josef Newgarden for third and ended up being knocked off the podium with a late pass by the American.

Power was spooked by Alexander Rossi at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and left the Australian spinning and falling from the top ten to hanging on for a top twenty finish in 19th. Power's Indianapolis 500 never seemed to go his way. An unsafe release in the pit lane dropped him down the order and he stretched his fuel 36 laps on the final stint to finish tenth. A loose wheel nut caused Power to retire from race one at Belle Isle. Race two saw Power benefit from the race not going off strategy like it did the day before and he ended up victorious.

The good form continued at Road America where Power led 46 of 50 laps from pole position on his way to victory. A late charge got Power to second at Iowa. Power's final pit stop at Toronto occurred simultaneously with Newgarden bringing out a caution. Everyone else had to stop and it moved him to the front of the line. Once he got by James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan made his final stop, Power cruised to his third victory in four races. Mid-Ohio was covered above with the fierce battle with Pagenaud and Power ending up second.

While Pagenaud's race ended early at Pocono, Power's car improved over each stint and with help from better fuel mileage than the Hondas and Ryan Hunter-Reay's engine had a hiccup after he had passed Power for the lead, he went on to lead the final 36 laps and take the victory. At Texas, Power couldn't find any more speed to get him to the front and was stuck at the back of the top ten all race and finished eighth. You could argue he overthought Watkins Glen and ended up in barrier. Sonoma's mechanical issue was the final nail in his coffin.

Will Power's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 2nd (532 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 139
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 10
Average Start: 5.4375
Average Finish: 8.00

Hélio Castroneves had another solid season
Hélio Castroneves
The Brazilian ran at the front the entire day at St. Petersburg only to get passed for the final podium position by Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps. He started on pole position at Phoenix and had a tire puncture while leading entering turn one. He had to coast around back to the pit lane and despite the incident managed to finish 11th. Castroneves started on pole position again at Long Beach but lapped traffic caused him to lose the lead and dropped him to where he would finish, third-place. Barber was a lackluster day as he started and finished seventh.

A timely caution put Castroneves on the podium and he finished second to his teammate Pagenaud in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Things appeared to be going his way in the Indianapolis 500 as he timed a pit stop just before a caution came out and another caution saved him from pitting under green flag conditions to replace a rear wheel guard. However, he could only manage 11th-place as some stretched fuel. Castroneves was the top of the conservative runners in the first Belle Isle race. He finished 5th, over 40 seconds behind Sébastien Bourdais but the top four were covered by 4.7 seconds. Race two appeared to be Castroneves' to lose as he held a comfortable lead but a caution just before his final pit stop dropped him to one of the final cars on the lead lap and he finished 14th.

He blocked Charlie Kimball at Road America but his only punishment was giving up a position to Ryan Hunter-Reay because Hunter-Reay passed Kimball, partially because Castroneves blocked Kimball. He still finished fifth and ahead of Kimball. Another untimely caution after Castroneves made a pit stop cost him a top five at Iowa and he finished 13th. An early flat tire at Toronto forced him to go off strategy and led to a second-place finish. Castroneves made contact with Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio and he finished 15th.

Castroneves had a part in the pit lane collision with Kimball and Alexander Rossi at Pocono and he ended up 19th. He made contact with Ed Carpenter at Texas while running in the top five and it caused him to limp home for the final 25 laps of that race. He still managed to finish fifth and on the lead lap despite that. He went off strategy twice at Watkins Glen and ended up finishing third. He started second for the finale at Sonoma but dropped to seventh in the final results.

Hélio Castroneves' 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 3rd (504 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 143
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 7
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 4.3125
Average Finish: 7.875

Juan Pablo Montoya makes his second IndyCar exit
Juan Pablo Montoya
After losing the title on the final day of the season in 2015, Montoya started 2016 the same way he started 2015 with a victory despite having steering issues throughout the latter half of the race. Like his teammate Castroneves, Montoya had a tire puncture while leading and it dropped him from contender for the victory to ninth in the final results. He had a solid fourth at Long Beach and was in the top five the entire race. At Barber, Montoya went from 21st on the grid from fifth, benefitting twice for incidents that sent the field ahead of him scattering and opening lanes for him to make up a half-dozen positions in one move.

He suffered a blend line violation in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but recovered to finish eighth. A spin exiting turn two in the Indianapolis 500 on 64 meant he was the first retirement for the race. Montoya bounced back with a third in the first Belle Isle race after going off strategy while his three teammates tried to play it safe. Race two ended two laps prior to halfway after he clipped a barrier while running in the top ten.

At Road America, Montoya fought from 14th on the grid to finished seventh and had a good battle for Josef Newgarden for a good period of that race. A mechanical issue ended what appeared to be a top five finish for him at Iowa. Montoya hit Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, Conor Daly, Ryan Hunter-Reay and the wall itself at Iowa and he finished a lap down in 20th. He half-committed to going off strategy at Mid-Ohio but aborted it and ended up in a worse position and had to settle for 11th.

Montoya struggled at Pocono but through attrition and perseverance he came home in eighth. He didn't do much better at Texas where he finished tenth. He went off strategy at Watkins Glen to go all-out instead of conserving fuel but a spin ruined what could have been a top five and he finished 13th. He ended the 2016 with a third-place finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 8th (433 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 123
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 9.625
Average Finish: 10.875

I have wanted to do the Team Penske preview since the day after the season ended because it what was the 50th anniversary season of Team Penske and the 2016 roster of drivers mirrored the accomplished of the famed 1994 roster of Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Both seasons saw Penske finish 1-2-3 in the championship. The 1994 trio won 12 of 16 races compared to nine of 16 and Unser, Jr. took the Indianapolis 500 while the top Penske finisher in the 2016 Indianapolis 500 was Power in 10th. Unser, Jr., Fittipaldi and Tracy combined for 29 podiums to the 2016 quartet's 22 podiums. The 1994 group swept the podium on five occasions while the 2016 drivers never swept the podium but put two cars on the podium in seven races. The 2016 crop of characters edges out the 1994 group in pole positions with 11 to ten.

When comparing past and present the past wins 99% of the time because nostalgia kicks in and we believe nothing was better than the past. The truth is they are different and each is impressive in their own right. The 1994 Team Penske came at an era when Penske built its own chassis and it was an era when you could develop an engine such as the Mercedes-Benz 500I. Today, the top and the bottom are closer than they were 22 years ago as engines and chassis are identical. A team can't outspend the others by monstrous amounts in modern-IndyCar. Cars are more reliable than previous years. If anything, Penske's dominance this year wasn't talked about. Each race we entered without an idea who was going to win. That is the mindset we have entering every race. Penske might have had Power, Montoya, Castroneves and Pagenaud but having four great drivers isn't necessarily enough in today's IndyCar where single-car teams and teams that lost a wealthy co-owner two months before the season starts can win a race.

Penske is in a transition phase. Year 51 sees a new American in Josef Newgarden enter to join his championship winning and Indianapolis 500 winning teammates. Montoya will run Indianapolis as he slowly fades to sports cars. Castroneves is 41 and turns 42 next May. Power and Pagenaud have rides at Penske for life. Newgarden is on a leash and after the last few season we have learned that nobody is safe from a sponsor pulling funding out from underneath a team. Even for Penske these are fragile times. When Castroneves takes the path Montoya is on there is no guarantee Penske stays at four cars for that long. On paper, Penske is in prime position to repeat its dominance in 2017 as Ganassi has moved to Honda and aero kits development has been frozen, leaving Honda teams stuck behind Penske.