For the fourth time in the last five years, Will Power heads into the final round of the IndyCar series this weekend with a chance to capture the championship.He’s finished runner-up on all three occasions so far. But he approaches Saturday’s race with a strong lead in the points, making this his best chance yet to secure the title which was repeatedly eluded him.
Indeed if this was last season, Power’s 51-point lead over Penske team mate Helio Castroneves would mean he had the title virtually locked up. But as this weekend’s finale at Fontana is a 500-mile race it offers double points, with a maximum haul of 104 available.
That means Castroneves is very much in the running, and three other drivers are mathematically in contention: Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon. Realistically, as anyone who places 33rd or higher takes at least ten points, the latter two are almost certain to drop out of contention as soon as Power starts the race.
But Power knows all to well how quickly fortune can turn against a driver in a championship showdown. Two years ago he went to Fontana 17 points ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, but crashed while overtaking his rival, and it was Andretti driver who scooped the championship.
The brutally high speeds at the Auto Club Speedway – where IndyCars have in the past hit mind-bending average lap speeds in excess of 389kph (242mph) – make it a venue where drivers can take nothing for granted. Last year only nine cars were still running at the chequered flag, five of them on the lead lap.
But significantly, they were led by Power, who has shaken off the tag of being a driver who could dominate on IndyCar’s road and street courses, but never seemed entirely comfortable on an oval. Perhaps it helped that he went into last year’s race without the pressure of a championship contest – not a situation he will enjoy this year, even if he does hold a strong points advantage.
Castroneves’ oval credentials are not in doubt – he is a three-times winner of the Indianapolis 500. But while many rate victory in that great race above winning the IndyCar championship, it remains an accolade which has eluded him despite spending a decade and a half with a top team like Penske.
He has won just once this year, in Detroit, but consistent points-scoring had him in the lead of the championship as recently as three races ago. But he’s been out of the top ten in the last four, which has handed the initiative to Power.
Meanwhile Simon Pagenaud continues to impress with Sam Schmidt’s smaller team. Fifth as a rookie in 2012 and third last year, Pagenaud has repeatedly highlighted his credentials as a driver who deserves the backing of one of IndyCar’s top outfits. But he goes into the final race as a clear outsider for the title, and has never so much as led on an oval never mind won.
This weekend’s race rounds of an earlier than usual end to the IndyCar series, as its management strive to enhance the profile of the series by reducing the time between races. It should mark something of a watershed as well, as the intention is it will round off the last season with identical-spec cars, which has been the case since Panoz cars dropped out of use eight years ago.
Next year’s race at St Petersburg in March is supposed to see the overdue introduction of aero kits, which will add variety and new development opportunities to the Dallara DW12 racer in its fourth year of service.
Whether that comes at the expense of the close races and championship IndyCar has come to take for granted remains to be seen. Saturday’s crucial race will be the ninth year in a row the title has been decided at the last race.