Engineering a Championship Season

November 29, 2016

When the smoke cleared on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season and the math was complete, the numbers showed it to be one of the most memorable and successful in Team Penske’s storied history.

In team owner Roger Penske’s 50th anniversary season in racing, his four-car IndyCar program won 10 of the 16 races and 11 pole positions and finished among the top three 22 times. Simon Pagenaud recorded his first IndyCar drivers’ championship, while teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves finished second and third, respectively, in the championship standings while Juan Pablo Montoya finished eighth.

From the perspective of Team Penske’s four race engineers, the 2016 season will be remembered as a multi-person effort that revealed the organization’s true strengths – unity and teamwork.  

“I’d have to say it was one of our best seasons in terms of the results, but you can’t put aside the fact that we have four of the best drivers trying to put together those results,” said Dave Faustino, engineer for Will Power’s No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet. “In terms of pure numbers and outcomes, it’s absolutely one of the most successful seasons.”

The season began with Montoya’s victory at St. Petersburg and ended with Pagenaud’s championship-clinching win in Sonoma, but the story of the Frenchman’s rise to the top actually took root late in the 2015 season and in an offseason commitment by Pagenaud and his engineer, Ben Bretzman, to making notable progress. Pagenaud then opened 2016 with a flourish, including consecutive victories at Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

“At the end of 2015 and through the offseason, we started to gain ground,” said Bretzman. “We realized we had a really good race car driver here. We had to make sure we got the most out of him. What was going to give him the most confidence in the race car? We built on that. We knew at the end of the offseason that we had exactly what we wanted.”

Likewise, Castroneves and his engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, used the offseason to recommit to the details. While he didn’t win a race in 2016 driving the No. 3 Hitachi/Pennzoil/AAA/Verizon Chevy, Castroneves applied consistency, including runner-up finishes at the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Toronto, to land his third-place standing in the final points.

“His focus this year was even stronger than it has been in previous years, especially in making sure he got all the details right,” said Diuguid. “He was very focused in the practice sessions leading up to qualifying. … His performance at the end of the season got even stronger. This year he really refocused his effort after a couple of difficult weekends and finished well in the final two races. Carrying the momentum into next year is what we’re all excited about.”

For Montoya, the speed was there but results just didn’t seem to follow.

“We had the speed but didn’t have the luck,” said Brian Campe, Montoya’s engineer. “(In 2015) we had the speed and had the luck. There were times this year where he was faster than he was last year (finishing second in the title chase). He was happier with the car and we were progressing in the right direction. Lady Luck just wasn’t with us.”

Understanding the fickle nature of racing was perhaps the most important lesson for the crew of the No. 2 Verizon/DeVilbiss/Hawk/PPG Team Penske Chevrolet. Just as everything went right in Montoya’s 2015 season – including a victory in the Indianapolis 500 – the results in 2016 after the opening victory weren’t as positive.

“You take each race as they come,” Campe said. “The one behind you is over; you can’t do anything to change it. You can definitely learn a few lessons from it, but after learning those lessons, you have to let it go. If you let it fester, it ruins the next race.”

All four engineers pointed to cooperation as the basis for Team Penske’s positive results in 2016. Not only did the four team leaders work as one, so did everyone else on the team.

“You’ve got the super technical aspect of us doing whatever we can as engineers to make the cars fast, and then you have the aspect of all engineers and drivers working together as a group to produce group results,” Faustino explained. “This is by far the best I’ve seen in that respect. Our team working as a group – not just as engineers but as mechanics – has really brought it together very well.”

The most difficult challenge now, especially for Pagenaud and Bretzman, is to repeat what they accomplished in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise/PPG/Menards/DeVilbiss Chevrolet in 2016.

“I think repeating is the hardest thing to do, not just in motorsports but in any sport,” said Bretzman. “Obviously we have the drive to do it, but with this level of competition you have to have a lot of things go your way. Simon is hungry to do it again, and we’ll push him really hard to do it, but the bar is pretty high. … Do I think it’s possible? Yes, it’s very possible. He knows exactly what needs to happen.”

So do the rest of the Team Penske leaders. Josef Newgarden prepares to come on board in the No. 2 car as Montoya rejoins the team for the Indianapolis 500. Like this year, 2017 could come down to a competition among teammates.

“It gives us a huge boost of confidence heading into next year knowing that we have this potential and that we can compete against these other really quick drivers here at Penske,” said Faustino. “It absolutely does, and we’re excited about it.”