OPINION: Take Will Power at his word

OPINION: Take Will Power at his word

IndyCar

OPINION: Take Will Power at his word

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Surtees leads Bandini in Mexico, 1964 (LAT archive)

At the 1964 Formula 1 finale in Mexico City, there was a three-way battle for the World Championship between Jimmy Clark (’63 champ, driving a Lotus), Graham Hill (’62 champ, in a BRM) and Ferrari’s John Surtees. Unreliability through the season had left Clark at a deficit in the points race, but given the speed of himself and the Lotus 33, he went to Mexico City as most people’s favorite to retain his crown, even though he needed to win the race, with Hill finishing lower than third. Surtees needed to finish second or first to overhaul Hill, but even so, Graham could clinch it if he was to grab third.

Come the race, Clark (as usual) disappeared into the distance, with fellow front-row starter Dan Gurney comfortably ensconced in second, but behind them at quarter-distance there was a battle royal over that crucial third place, between Hill and Surtees’ teammate, Lorenzo Bandini. The Italian, not in the running for the title himself, could help Surtees’ championship chances if he could beat Hill to the final step of the podium. He had no chance of beating Clark, but Bandini fought tooth and nail with Hill. Just before half-distance, he tried a chancy move down the inside at the Mexico City track’s hairpin, slid wide and knocked Hill into a spin which ended in a grass bank, which damaged the BRM’s exhausts. The Englishman got going but repairs to the car caused him to lose two laps, and he wound up finishing 11th. Meanwhile Clark’s engine seized on the final lap, allowing Gurney to win the race and Surtees the title.

Hill, who was often one to speak his mind, retained his dignity, disgruntled though he was. There were no suggestions of a Ferrari “dirty tricks campaign,” no suggestions that Bandini had deliberately spun the BRM. Quite simply, the young Italian had made a small error of judgment that had big consequences. The whole matter was over within a day although Hill, rather amusingly, sent Bandini a book on driving lessons for Christmas!

I wish we lived in such innocent times now, where people can believe that a driver could make a mistake without malicious intent.

At last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore, Will Power screwed up: he collided with Scott Dixon on the run down to Turn 1, having failed to look in his mirror when he pulled out to pass Sebastien Bourdais. About one second before Power pulled his Verizon Team Penske No. 12 car to the right to pass Bourdais’ Dragon Racing entry, Dixon had pulled the same maneuver on Power, and by now had the Target Chip Ganassi Racing No. 9’s front wing endplate beside the rear “bumper” of Will’s car. The pair made contact which sent them both sideswiping into the wall.

That’s what I saw.

Then Power’s car limped back to the pits, its driver bewildered, having not felt the car-to-car contact. He was trying to reconcile himself with the thought that he’d actually lost control of the car in a straight line on cold/dirty tires and had an accident by himself. On being informed that he had clipped another car, that of Dixon, his eyes turned from mystification to disbelief and then upset. Next, Scott walked into pit lane, furious not only at the shunt but that his car had been craned away, rather than returned to the pits for repairs. Power, still strapped into the cockpit of No. 12 while it received its repairs, tried to beckon Dixon over as the Ganassi driver strode past, but Scott urgently wanted to speak to IndyCar’s technical director Kevin Blanch. “Dude where’s my car?” might not have been the Kiwi’s exact words, but that was the gist.

That’s what I understood.

Then, after the race, there was Power’s post-race interview. Here was a driver who appeared genuinely mortified and also embarrassed when he saw the replay.

“I had no clue he was there and I feel terrible for him,” Power said. “I was just staring at Bourdais’ back. I’d got a good run on him and was going to go up his inside, and Dixon obviously had the same run on meI didn’t even think to look in my mirror.I just feel bad for him. I know he’s in the championship hunt, and that’s just a bad thing to have happened. I was just trying to win the race, trying to pass Bourdais, because we knew he wasn’t going to have to stop, so we wanted to get in front and gap him.

“I can’t say anything except I’m just so sorry’ to Scott. He’s not going to want to talk to me, but man, absolutely not intentional, I didn’t know he was there. Just a very bad situation.”

That’s what I heard, what I saw, what I understood And I have no idea how anyone could lay any different interpretation on the course of the events.

Yet since then, there have been people snarling and sniping that Power deliberately wiped out his teammate’s championship rival. It couldn’t have just been a misjudgment on the driver’s part. No, it had to be Power’s vicious streak or something planned by that desperate megalomaniac Tim Cindric and carried out by a ruthless kamikaze. There had to be a conspiracy!

Really? To me, the kind of people who level such accusations are revealing much about their own low ethics. They would do that, therefore they assume others would, too.

Sure, Power drives for Team Penske while its other driver, Helio Castroneves, is this year locked in a championship battle with Dixon. But to think that Will would deliberately sacrifice a great chance to win the race in order to torpedo his teammate’s title rival is ridiculous. As ridiculous, in fact, as the belief that at Sonoma, Travis Law, one of Power’s crew members, risked his own health and/or career by purposely walking into an accelerating racecar. Team owner Roger Penske doubtless inspires great loyalty among his employees, but come on!

I’m not being naive here. I’m well aware that Power, like many top drivers, has a ruthless streak. He’s not one to turn the other cheek if he feels he’s been wronged, and he’ll rub wheels and bang sidepods with anyone who treats him in similar manner. But his ruthlessness is to win races, not sabotage others. And anyway, there’s a hell of a difference between ruthless and reckless and between helping your teammate and deliberately engineering an accident. I’ve watched several of the current crop of IndyCar drivers trying to intimidate opponents, but deliberately drilling them? Rarelyand certainly not for the sake of their teammate!

Some may assume that I’m cutting Power some slack because he’s one of the top drivers, and I suppose there’s some truth in that. I confess that when an ace like Power, Dixon, Dario Franchitti or Ryan Hunter-Reay screws up, I tend to think their previous record carries some weight. If a guy wins one race then crashes out of the next (think James Hinchcliffe at Iowa, then Pocono), I have a lot more sympathy than for the driver who never crashes but who’s permanently two seconds off the pace and who will never break into the top 15. Equally, if a top driver in any category of the sport has his qualifying lap ruined by a clueless backmarker, I tend to care rather more than when roles are reversed. The difference between qualifying first and sixth on the grid is of greater import than the difference between 21st and 26th.

But the main reason I’ll defend Power’s honor is because I trust him and take him at his word. In eight years, I’ve not once known him to lie, not once heard him fail to own up to an error he’s made either on the track or in the engineering room. Everything he’s told me tallies with what I’ve subsequently found out from other sources, either within the team or outside of it. It cannot be emphasized enough how rare it is to find such total honesty in racing.

Sometimes Power will be initially reticent, or may preface his insights with, “Obviously you can’t publish this” but always he regards it as vital that the story is accurate whether it’s in his favor or not.

For example, back in 2010, during practice for the Indianapolis 500, Power had been getting a bit frustrated by the fact that he was regularly a little off the speeds turned by teammate Castroneves, and admitted that the No. 12 team could not find where that last mile-per-hour was bleeding away. Then, one day they thought they found the problem. “There’s a slight manufacturing difference between Helio’s rear wing and mine,” explained Power. “Just one of those quality control issues. Anyway, our wings are stalling out at different speeds, and I don’t think on that track it’s gonna be possible to make up the difference.”

From anyone else, this might have sounded like an unusual and inventive way for saying, “My teammate’s got a better car than me, that’s the only reason why he’s going to beat me in qualifying.” But Power’s not like that and never has been. The following morning, the phone rang again. “You know that thing I told you about the rear wing? I think it’s bollocks, mate. Me and Rick [Mears] have just been going over the data again, and Helio’s taking a slightly different line on the exit of Turn 2 and turning in at a different point in 3. I think that’s where he’s gaining.”

Power could have gone on letting me think Castroneves had a superior car, but no; once he found the truth, he corrected himself, corrected me, and gave credit where it was due.

He’s also very good at separating judgment of his rivals’ abilities from his personal opinions of them  again, a rare trait not only in racing but in life itself. For example, it’s no secret that Power and Franchitti have a mutual distaste that seems as permanent as the Michael Andretti vs. Bobby Rahal rivalry. Certainly since Sonoma, their thin veneer of cordiality has been stripped away, maybe never to return. But Will’s respect for Dario’s talent is immense he was well impressed with the four-time champ’s pole lap at Long Beach this year, for example and he does not seek to score off him nor blame him when it’s not called for. It would have been easy for Power to stir the pot following his failed last-lap passing attempt on his old rival at Toronto this year, when Race Control initially sought to exclude Franchitti from third place. Instead, Will admitted that his move was 50/50, he’d outbraked himself given the bumpiness and dirt on the inside line, and that Dario had done nothing wrong.

You see, it’s hard not to trust people like that. So when I ran into Power at Baltimore airport last Monday, and we spoke about Dixon, I took his sympathy as genuine. “That poor bastard,” he said. “He’s been so quick recently. And he’s been so unlucky over the past few years, too. I just never thought that one day I’d be the reason for one of his bad results.”

I attempted to throw him a lifeline, pointing out that some people were saying Dixon jumped the restart. “Huh, we all jumped it, I think!” came the retort. “Because of what happened there last year, everyone except Bourdais was hanging back and then getting on the power early to get a run on the guy in front. I mean, yeah, maybe Dixie got on it earlier than me, so that’s why he was pulling up on me, but what he was doing to me was the same as what I was doing to Bourdais. In my opinion, IndyCar’s restart procedure is kind of unfair on the leader who’s a sitting duck, while we all hang back and then charge!”

A couple of days later, but just before he and Dixon finally chatted it through, Power was reflective. “I think Scott will see it wasn’t intentional if he’s watched the replay. I mean, I think the fact that there’s about one second between when he pulls out to pass me and when I pull out to pass Bourdais sort of shows that I wasn’t moving in reaction to him. If I’d been trying to block him, I’d have pulled out earlier. But like I said afterward, I just didn’t think anyone would have a run on me like that, so I didn’t check my mirrors.”

Given the bumpiness of the track at that point and the tiny little mirrors, could he have seen Dixon even if he’d looked?

“Oh yeah,” said Power. “If your right mirror’s full of red, and he’s not showing in your left mirror, you kind of know where he is. No excuses there.”

OK, I said, what about those who say you weren’t moving to block him, and that you were waiting for him to get alongside and then giving him a Michael Schumacher-style squeeze, and to hell with the consequences?

“What? Who’s saying that? No. No way! I would never do that,” said an appalled Power. “That’s the worst thing you could do. It’s dangerous and it’s justwrong. That is so outside my way of thinking. I’m not even in the championship. If you’re in the championship fight, the last thing you want is some wanker who’s not in the fight going and screwing with you. It’s not fair. I hate that this has happened.”

Before you get the impression that Power is one of those guys who’ll mentally and publicly torture himself AJ Allmendinger-style, think again.

“The way it happened is that I hurt the championship chances of the guy who’s fighting my teammate for the championship,” he said, “but that’s just coincidence. If any other car had jumped me, the same accident would have happened but it wouldn’t be seen as such a major deal. I hate that it was Dixie the only thing worse would have been if it had been Helio! Can you imagine?! But the actual mistake itself was a pretty small one. And if you go back and look, it’s not like I have a history of this. When I’ve made mistakes, they’ve not involved other people, you know? It’s not like I hurt other people’s chances. They’re usually spins in practice when I’m seeing where the limit is or trying something different or whatever.”

He paused, let out an expletive.

“You know what, it doesn’t matter what I say, does it? There are people involved with Dixie or Chip or Mike Hull or Dario or whoever that are always gonna think or are always gonna say they think that I did it deliberately. But I know the truth. And if they thought about it logically, they’d realize that there’s no way I would deliberately risk throwing away my own race. All I wanted to do was what I always want to do win the race.

“Sure, I’m gonna help Helio if I can; I’d be prepared to let him through if he was behind me in the closing stages, but by that point in that race he’d had his own problems, I hadn’t seen him, the team hadn’t told me where he was so as far as I knew, there was nothing I could do. My job is to do what Roger Penske pays me for which is to win races, and I had a great shot in Baltimore. I think Bourdais was the only guy who had anything for us over the course of a whole race, so why would I risk that? It doesn’t make any sense.”

No, it doesn’t. Nor would it make sense to expect Power to back down or show any timidity at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston next month. He was mortified by his mistake in Baltimore, because its championship repercussions were out of all proportion to the size of the error. But the longer this simmering tension between Ganassi and Penske continues, the more the three-time championship runner-up claims the moral high ground, because he’s apologized publicly and privately to Dixon and there’s nothing more he feels he can do now.

“I just want to think about the next three races and put all this crap behind us,” Will said on Wednesday. “My job, my loyalty is to Team Penske and I’m paid to race to win so I’m just going to keep my head down and focus on that.”

And would what happened in Baltimore adjust his outlook for Houston, maybe affect his determination?

“If you mean make it stronger,’ then yeah!” was the reply. “Seriously, I’m just sick of all this BS. I just want to go out and bury them all and that’s what I’ll be trying to do.”

And, like I say, take Will Power at his word.

David Malsher is the editor of RACER magazine

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