New obstacles every week as Team Penske remain winless in 2021
There have been seven different winners in the nine races the IndyCar has hosted so far this year, but none of them have driven for the Penske team.
The lack of wins at this point in the season by the team that is anything but synonymous with the series is more than rare; it’s almost unheard of.
The last time the Penske team failed to secure a victory in the first nine races of a season was in 1999, when they competed in the now defunct CART series. The team had only one full-time entry that year and would remain winless for the entire 20-event season.
Since then, Penske has grown in stature and his program is now one of the strongest strengths in the sport. The team have won the championship in four of the past seven seasons, with only the immense talent of Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon, breaking the record for wins during that time.
So far this season, for a multitude of reasons, the consistently strong team have failed to climb to the top of the podium and have less than half of the events scheduled for the year to do so.
The start of the season has been particularly difficult for 2020 Championship finalist Josef Newgarden, who lost control in the first round of the opening round at Barber Motorsports Park. The ensuing pile-up ended his day before he had a chance to start and apparently set the tone for the months to come.
Thankfully, crashes weren’t the primary concern for the rest of the season, neither for Newgarden nor the rest of the four-car squad, but there were a host of different issues that made one victory remained elusive.
Sometimes this problem has just been a lack of rhythm. At the GMR Grand Prix in early May, not a single lap was led by a Team Penske car despite a hint of good form at the start of the weekend.
In the Indianapolis 500, an event for which teams such as Penske set aside dedicated chassis in the workshop, Will Power barely made the peloton and couldn’t even finish in the lap of lead in part due to a spin entering the pit lane.
As the season progressed, it appeared that Newgarden and Power would each get their first wins of the season, only to then tear them down cruelly in the later laps.
Power was comfortably leading the first race from the streets of Belle Isle, when a late red flag sounded the death knell. While shutting down the car on the pit lane, Power inadvertently triggered a bug in the ECU that caused it to enter a fault state, which would then not allow the car to be turned back on.
The very next day, Newgarden led the entire second race from Detroit, until the tire strategy turned against him and gave Pato O’Ward the victory with just two laps to go.
Then last weekend Newgarden suffered his own mechanical issues which worsened during a late race restart at Road America. A gearbox failure forced the two-time champion to pull away from the lead and limp on the track, unable to shift down gears.
Each problem the team encountered was unique, but each was devastating to the end result. There have been no new winner’s trophies to add to the Team Penske offices since last year.
Speaking after a podium at Road America that was only possible due to his teammate’s mechanical issues, Power expressed dismay at the variety of issues that have gone awry for the team.
“These are all things that are not repeated things, you know what I mean?” Said Power. “It’s not always the same things, so it’s really hard to [fix].
“It was me in Detroit. I had a bug in the system. It hadn’t happened to anyone else, but you’re the one who thinks it really sucks.
“You hate to be the pioneer of things that go wrong and then they fix it. But I just can’t believe how lucky we are as a team right now. It’s impressive.”
The season has not been a complete loss for the Penske team, however, and all four drivers have combined to reach the podium in seven of the nine races contested so far. And those good runs put the team in fourth and fifth in the points standings.
The pilots have also expressed over the past two weeks that they don’t think there is anything the team needs to change in their approach.
But the reality is that anything other than a victory is a loss. Sponsors want to see the cars on their way to victory, team owners want to congratulate their drivers in front of the cameras, and drivers certainly don’t want to finish anywhere but the top.
Even with the drought longer than usual in race wins, the feeling in the paddock is that the team’s bad luck won’t last long. And Penske is not a name that is never far from winning.