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Team Penske has won the last five GMR Grands Prix, and that is a testament to the most successful team in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, including 18 Indianapolis 500 victories.
The only two drivers that have won the race on the IMS road course both drive for Team Penske. Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural GMR Grand Prix when he was driving for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton in 2014, but his 2016 and 2019 wins have been in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet. All three of Will Power’s GMR Grand Prix wins have come in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
The key to Team Penske’s success at Indy, whether it’s the Indianapolis 500 or the GMR Grand Prix, is the team. It begins at the shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, and comes through engineering and preparation of the race car.
“The key point is not only is it the same drivers, but the same engineers that have won all the races, too,” said Team Penske IndyCar General Manager Kyle Moyer. “We’ve always unloaded there very well. We know that it is someplace special because it is Indianapolis.”
Moyer believes the team has a great understanding of what it takes to be successful on the oval and the road course at Indianapolis. Because of its design and smoothness of the racecourse, the road course is a technical circuit that allows rolling speed.
“You have to keep that minimum speed as high as you can, and that is how you get the lap time,” Moyer said. “It’s a track where you can’t make mistakes, but at the same time, you can make movement. You can pass there. Tires degrade quickly if you abuse them.
“With Will and Simon, both win a different way. Will is always fast and always qualifies up front, usually on the pole. Qualifying there is always within a second through the whole field. For Simon, it’s a little bit on the smart side the way he controls his tires and can run very good.”
Moyer believes Pagenaud’s win in 2019 was very calculated as he saved his tires for the right time of the race.
“Last year, the race was in jeopardy, but when the rain came, Simon turned into a superstar in the rain and made it a different outcome,” Moyer said.
David Faustino is Power’s engineer and has played a key role in all three of his driver’s victories on the IMS road course. The engineering data that is shared between all of Team Penske’s entries have also had an impact on two of Pagenaud’s three GMR Grand Prix wins.
“It seems to be for some reason Simon and Will both really click at that track separately,” Faustino said. “I think those are two guys are that in tune with that track and really like it. That drives everything forward, and the team gets to feed off that competition.
“They want to own that event by now. The fact they both won that race the same year they won the Indy 500 is another interesting factoid. They really feed off each other at that track.”
Because of its high grip level in the infield portion of the course, combined with the south short chute, Turn 1 of the oval and the long frontstraight heading into Turn 1 of the IMS road course, engineers are able to “trim out” the car.
If a driver can hold on to a low-downforce setup on their race car, they can be rewarded with increased speed on the straights.
It is also the smoothest track surface of any road course on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
“When that track came about, it was absolutely the smoothest thing we had and required a much different setup,” Faustino said. “That gave us some opportunity. Our guys figured out what the setup had to be.
“Now, we are getting some more common tracks. Portland is pretty smooth and after the repave at Barber Motorsports Park, that is going to be the smoothest track we have once we get back there. At IMS, it required us a much different setup there than what we normally ran at other tracks.”
The smoothness of the circuit increased the difficulty factor in terms of race setup. Engineers and race teams must devise what is known as a “knife’s edge” setup. It’s a very narrow window of optimum performance or a car that struggles in key portions of the racecourse.
Engineers such as Faustino must make a tradeoff in the balance of the car.
“You could run more downforce there and be quicker in the infield and a little slower in the straights,” Faustino said. “The last corner used to be a straight shot, and it made the tradeoff to be a little more even.
“Now, as other series have run there and we’ve run there, the track has degraded a little bit. It’s a little harder to have a trade-off. Over the years, it has gravitated more toward max downforce.”
INDYCAR hits the IMS road course at noon, July 4 for the GMR Grand Prix, followed by the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard at 3 p.m. Both races will be part of a live racing doubleheader on NBC.
The postponement of the race from May 9 to July 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic will create a unique variable for engineers such as Faustino to formulate because the track conditions should be much warmer than past races. When that race is held in early May, it has often been quite cool and even rainy, such as last year’s race.
The Fourth of July in Indianapolis is typically hot with high humidity.
“The heat is going to be a different story,” Faustino said. “It means we’ll have more tire degradation and may make the racing better. That might play into what people choose for downforce and how things go.
“In the past, it’s been so cold there we had trouble to get the tires to work in 49-degree weather. It is certainly something we are working on now as we approach the event.”
As Power’s longtime engineer dating all the way back to the Champ Car series days of the mid-2000s, Faustino has played a key role in many of Power’s standout victories.
Which of Power’s victories in the GMR Grand Prix stands out the most?
“From a racing standpoint, his battle with Robert Wickens was really great in 2018 and then capping it off that same year by winning the Indy 500, to me, that was pretty special,” Faustino said. “They traded tire strategy and had to pass each other throughout the race. That was a really, good, hard-fought battle to win. It wasn’t necessarily a pure strategy thing. Each guy had to deal with a slower tire at some point and hang on to it.
“It was a gritty, hard race for the win, which is always good. When you win one of those, it’s extra special.”
Ben Bretzman is Pagenaud’s race engineer, dating all the way back to when the two worked together at Schmidt Peterson Hamilton and the inaugural GMR Grand Prix in 2014.
Bretzman believes Pagenaud is an extremely smooth driver and proves that on the street courses on the schedule. That smoothness also pays off on the IMS road course.
“Simon is able to find the limit and drive to that limit all the time,” Bretzman said. “Simon practices operating on the edge of adhesion and knows where that is all the time. He can run that course very well and be consistent with it.
“I think it helps that he also has to have good control of the brake pedal and good control of the pitch of the car, knowing how much of the nose is dropping and how much the rear of the car is coming up.”
By having complete confidence in the team and the race car, it allows the driver to focus on attacking the track. The driving styles may be slightly different, but the results are typically the same for Power and Pagenaud in the GMR Grand Prix.
“I think that track has worked for me and Will,” Pagenaud said. “Our driving styles are similar, and we are both up to speed. The way we manipulate the car is very similar. I think that is the reason why it suits our driving style very well. With Team Penske behind us, that helps us with strategy and pit stops.
“It really helps us shine.”