Three’s Company; Four’s A Crowd

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One of the more infamous implosions in recent IndyCar history took place less than a month ago, when Juan Montoya let the Verizon IndyCar Series championship slip through his fingers. You can do all the summarizing you want to by saying if double points hadn’t been awarded…blah, blah, blah. The thing is, Montoya and Team Penske should never have been in a position to allow a mistake in the double-points finale take them out of the championship.

There have been many theories tossed about on how or why this happened. I have my own that no one else seems to share; and that is – Team Penske essentially bit off more than they could chew by adding a fourth car for Simon Pagenaud.

Don’t forget, as recently as 2013 – Team Penske was a two-car team, with AJ Allmendinger running a handful of races in a third car. Prior to 2010-12, Team Penske had never run three fulltime cars in consecutive seasons. Before 2010, the last time The Captain ran three fulltime cars was in 1994, when Al Unser, Jr. was brought in to team with Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. By the start of the next season, Little Al was the defending champion and Tracy was at Newman/Haas.

Probably the only reason there was a third Penske car added in 2010 was due to the tax evasion trial of Helio Castroneves in 2009. Helio’s status for 2009 was unclear, so unemployed and former KV driver Will Power was brought in as a backup in case Helio was unable to drive. As it turned out, Castroneves was out of the car for only one race – the season-opener at St. Petersburg. When Castroneves was acquitted the Friday before the next race at Long Beach, the prepared Team Penske pulled a Verizon sponsored third car out of the transporter and quickly prepared it for Power, who proceeded to put the new No.12 car on the pole and finished second.

For his efforts, Power was given a few more races in 2009, winning at Edmonton -before breaking his back in a practice crash at Sonoma. Having witnessed his talents firsthand, Team Penske didn’t want to let Power get away in 2010. Verizon sponsorship was secured for a third car at Penske, to go along with the other fulltime team of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. From 2010 to 2012, Will Power won fourteen races. In that same time period, Castroneves won five times and Briscoe won twice. The two more established teammates combined won half as many times as Power.

It should be noted, however, that with all the gaudy stats of Power in that time frame – there were no championships. Dario Franchiitti won the championship for Chip Ganassi in 2010-11, while Ryan Hunter-Reay won the crown in 2012.

For a variety of reasons, Briscoe found himself without a chair when the music stopped at Penske for 2013. The Captain had scaled back to their normal two fulltime cars, leaving Briscoe on the outside looking in. Under the two-car system, Helio Castroneves finished second in the championship to Scott Dixon, while Power finished fourth despite winning three races.

The general consensus after the 2013 season was that Penske would remain a two-car team for 2014. Then they dropped a bombshell on the racing world by signing the brash (and unemployed) Juan Montoya to the team. It seemed like a stretch, since Montoya had not driven an Indy car since 2000 and no open-wheel type of car at all since2006, when he drove for McLaren in Formula One.

Many, myself included, found this to be a curious move. Not only had Montoya been out of open-wheel cars for so long and was getting a little long in the tooth; but he didn’t seem like the prototypical Penske driver. Mark Donohue, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, the Unsers, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and even the sometimes contentious Will Power; all carry or carried the mantle of the Penske brand very well. I wasn’t sure that Montoya would fit that mold. Plus, Montoya sometimes has the reputation of not being a team player. At Team Penske, it’s practically mandatory that you will be a team player.

But Montoya proved all of us naysayers wrong winning a race, and earning three additional podiums on his way to a very respectable fourth place finish in the points. Power won the championship, Castroneves was second with Ganassi’s Scott Dixon in third. All three Penske drivers finished in the top four, with Dixon being the only one preventing a Penske sweep of the top three positions. Needless to say, 2014 was a very good year for Team Penske. All that eluded them was the Indianapolis 500, where Castroneves was beaten at the line by Ryan Hunter-Reay.

The two big prizes in free-agency for the 2015 season were James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud. Most did not have it on their radar that Team Penske would expand to a four-car team for the first time in their history and take one of those drivers, but that’s exactly what happened. Perhaps it was the excellent results from 2014 that convinced then they were capable of pulling it off. Whatever the case, Team Penske created a fourth team and made room for Simon Pagenaud to campaign a fourth fulltime car in the Penske stable.

Like the previous year, I had my doubts. I had no doubts about Pagenaud’s driving ability, nor did I not think Pagenaud would fit in as a Penske driver. Unlike Montoya, Pagenaud was very affable and was a sponsor’s dream. I knew little about his ability to get along with a teammate, however – since the only time I saw him with a teammate was Mikhail Aleshin in 2013. But overall, I felt like Simon Pagenaud would be a good fit at Team Penske – just not in the fourth car.

Roger Penske’s team was used to running three cars and apparently had the resources to pull together a crew from time to time; when they hired Montoya. For the vast majority of this decade, they were used to the dynamics of running three cars, no matter who was in the cockpit. For the first time ever, they would now be juggling the logistics and assorted problems with a fourth car. Is it possible that mighty Team Penske bit off more than they could chew? Suffice it to say, it was an ambitious gamble.

Four cars seems to be the breaking-point for most teams. Chip Ganassi has had trouble doing it effectively. Yes, Scott Dixon won the championship this season and they ran four cars, but how competitive were the other three? Tony Kanaan finished eighth and Charlie Kimball was twelfth in points. Sage Karam and Sebastian Saavedra showed a few flashes while splitting time in the No.8 car, but they also toiled mid-pack for a good part of the season.

Michael Andretti is the only owner that has consistently pulled off running four fulltime cars. From 2004 to 2011, Andretti-Green Racing/Andretti Autosport ran four fulltime cars. They won championships in 2004, 2005 and 2007 doing so. From 2008 until 2009, the team ran into some lean years, by their standards. Instead of counting championships, they were counting races won. After winning championships in three out of four years from 2004-2007; Michael Andretti’s team won only seven races from 2008-2011. That also includes the disastrous Indianapolis 500, when two of their five cars failed to qualify.

Their fortunes turned in 2012, when they scaled back to a three-car team and won the championship. Coincidence? When they went back to a four-car team in 2013, Marco Andretti was their highest finishing driver in fifth. Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe finished seventh and eighth respectively. EJ Viso, who did not start the final race, was fifteenth.

At the 2015 opening race at St. Petersburg, all my notions about Team Penske taking too much on seemed to be disproven. Juan Montoya won the race, leading a four-car Penske sweep of the top-five finishing positions. After winning the Indianapolis 500, Montoya had two wins (one with double-points) and two additional podiums. His points lead appeared insurmountable. But after Indianapolis, Montoya didn’t score another podium until the penultimate race at Pocono. In fact, Team Penske as a whole, failed to score another podium until Pagenaud finished third at Mid-Ohio. The second half of the season set the stage for the massive collapse for Montoya at Sonoma.

Roger Penske is known for having the best prepared team in the paddock. But I’m wondering if he and Tim Cindric underestimated how overwhelming a four-car team can be. It’s hard to think of Roger Penske not thinking something completely through, but is that what happened? The logistics and all of the moving parts of four cars can be overwhelming on their own, but when you throw in managing the chemistry and the dynamics of a fourth car and more importantly – a fourth ego; well, that can be a recipe for disaster.

Years from now, when the experts of the day are analyzing what went wrong for Team Penske in 2015; it’s my opinion that they will look at the decision to expand to four cars as the culprit for Juan Montoya not winning the Astor-Challenge trophy. Am I wrong? Time will tell.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Three’s Company; Four’s A Crowd”

  1. Petr Sedina Says:

    Montoya has never been team player, not in this year´s indycar series nor in formula one many years ago. He left formula one because of this problem. He is an excellent driver, however it is not enough to become champion of all season.

  2. Montoya is a talented driver and is anything but a team player.
    He rarely knows when to keep his mouth shut and is an arrogant pot stirrer. … RPR bit off a bit more than they could chew, but make no mistake, By his own impatient hand Montoya and Montoya alone is responsible for his loss of the championship. .. And if I was Will Power, it is very likely that I would have yanked a painful knot or two in Montoya’s noggin’ for that Boneheaded move he made …

  3. David Rinehart Says:

    Penske has lost 6 of the last 7 championships at the end of the season. Not sure you can blame this year on a 4th car. For a lot of reasons, Penske can’t seem to close the deal at the end of a season.

  4. Mike Silver Says:

    Once again, a Penske car in a good position to win a title played not to lose instead of to win. Montoya just point raced after Indy just like Castroneves did a couple years ago. I don’t think it’s the fourth car, I think it’s their flawed strategic plan after they get the lead.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    As David and Mike point out above, Penske’s drivers have been coming up just short and having tepid second halves for several seasons, regardless of whether the team is fielding 2, 3, or 4 cars. That’s very curious, but what does it suggest? That Penske is picking the wrong drivers? That Tim Cindric and the crew are not as good as advertised? I really don’t know.

  6. Just the standard Penske season as of late. Myself, I am hoping for a Pagenaud, Power and Newgarden 3 car effort in 2017. Not a popular opinion but I am ready for Kanaan, JCP and Helio to hang it up and get some new blood up there. Sage will take the spot in the A-team Ganassi and we will have some new guys mixing it up.

    Also of note, during the trainwreck years at Andretti, it’s no coincidence that Danica and her parade were there at the time.

  7. The key to team success is having a team. Ganassi had a team, RLL had a team, the last five races Andretti had a team. Penske had four drivers.

  8. I would suggest that a team that had drivers finish 2,3,5, and 11 in the standings and that had their drivers finish 1,2 in the Indy500 had a pretty decent season. Why should that be cause for much wringing of hands?

    CGH drivers by contrast had drivers finish 1,8, 12,20, and 25 and 3,4 in the Indy500. Also a good season, but not quite as good as Penske.

    All race car drivers have a healthy ego, as they should. I don’t think Montoya’s ego is a problem within the Penske team despite the perception that it is. He has won two of the three Indy500s he has entered. I should have such an ego. As the saying goes: “Nothing to see here folks, move along.”

    For any of the teams, particularly the teams with more cars, there is a limited pool of good engineers, mechanics, pit workers, etc. With such a short season, it is difficult to keep those folks employed in the off season when they still have to keep food on the table for their families. My feeling is that this is more of a factor than how any driver’s ego plays into a team’s success or lack therof.

  9. Penske dominated qualifying all year long so speed isn’t the issue. Some of the cars seemed to struggle with race strategy at times. Helio kept messing up more often than not only to have Mr. Penske’s strategy save the day. The other two big hitters just didn’t seem to have it. Pag was basically off all year. I would suggest having superior strategist Mr. Penske call superior driver Will Power’s races. The other strategists have to get better at their job or the organization should find someone else. The pace in the car is there.

    No everyone can win. Ganassi has four bullets that can win. Andretti has four. Sam Schmidt has one. KV has one. Fisher has one. If you don’t bring your “A” game you will sink to the bottom of the grid. The days of two red cars battling two red cars are gone.

    At the end of the day Penske won the Indy 500. Isn’t that all that matters (snicker).

  10. By saying that the Penske guys threw it all away, you give all the other drivers and teams absolutely no credit for getting their act together and improving all year. They’re not exactly chopped liver ya know.

  11. I normally don’t disagree with George here, but I do have to question this thesis of Penske biting off more than they could chew. I need to be convinced that a team that’s overwhelmed could 1. Win the Indianapolis 500, and 2. Be the front runner for the championship right up till the very last race, scoring some pole positions along the way. Those don’t seem to be characteristics of a team juggling more responsibilities than it’s capable of handling.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying George is full of it here. Not even close. What I’m saying is more argument is needed. Can events that impacted Penske negatively be identified and used to evaluate this thesis?

    Take two events as examples of what’s needed. One: Montoya’s – and indeed, all of Team Penske’s – fuel issues at Belle Isle. That can be used as an argument favoring George’s statement. It’s not like Penske to not have their fuel numbers down pat, let alone miscommunicate them, as Helio noted post race. So there’s one point in the argument’s favor.

    But two: Sonoma. Would the collision between Power and JPM really be due to a 4th car? I’d say that this event was every bit the determinant factor in the Championship… but at the same time I find it hard to think it was induced by having a 4th car. That seems to be adequately explained by JPM’s natural aggressiveness than anything else, and that would be a characteristic present on any sized team, one car or a hundred.

    Sure, what I’m getting at would result in a long review of the season. It’d be a chunk of work, no doubt. But it’s the sort of analysis that would be needed to either validate or repudiate the thesis.

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