ST. PETERSBURG – Will Power enters this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with not one, but two targets on his back.
He’s not only the defending race champion, but for the first time in his career he’s finally the defending Verizon IndyCar Series series champion and rocks the No. 1 on his Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
Not that that’s changed him. Far from it.
The Australian, whose mental game has grown by leaps and bounds over the years to match what was already a surreal talent on road and street courses and now ovals, is as poised and focused for the 2015 season as he has been in any of his past years.
“There’s no mindset change. It’s the same intensity as always. You just get after it,” Power told MotorSportsTalk in the run up to St. Petersburg this weekend.
“You go out there and do the absolute best you can do. You’re there to win races. That’s the whole goal.”
While Power’s St. Pete win a year ago should have been a harbinger of things to come – and it was from a title standpoint – he didn’t boast as high a season-win total as he has previously in his career.
After the season opener, Power won only twice more all season, at Detroit race one and Milwaukee.
What used to be a race to five or six wins in a year has since turned into a race to three or four, given the parity and variety in the field.
Each of the last two years, there have been double digit race winners. Meanwhile Power has won three races in each of the last three years; his total of nine in three years is two less than the 11 he achieved with the old car in his first two full-time seasons with Team Penske in 2010 and 2011.
“Unless there’s a big disparity between the two manufacturers, it’s very difficult to win more than three or four races,” Power said. “If you win four, chances are you’re winning the championship.”
Not that Power minds. Last year’s title meant so much, he said, because of the diversity and the fact it wasn’t a walk in the park.
“It wouldn’t be fun otherwise!” he said. “You’ve gotta have tough teammates and tough competition, and it’s way more satisfying doing it against the current field versus a dominant victory or championships. That’s what I love about IndyCar. There’s a different winner any week. It keeps you digging!”
The big question heading into 2015 of course is whether the new aero kits – which produce a much higher amount of downforce – will alter the playing field and skew the competitive landscape.
Power, who’s said in the past he’d prefer a car with more horsepower and less downforce, has actually taken to the new car quite nicely even though it’s got the opposite effect.
“The grip is insane. It was very fast. It’s amazing how much speed you can carry into the corners,” Power said.
“Yeah it’s definitely changed the way you can drive the car. I actually like it. You can drive it a different style. The other car undesteered a lot. This one, you can get it a little bit freer. It’s more grip everywhere, so it’s kind of a nice problem. There’s a slight imbalance, but the downforce will take it over and make the car feel pretty good.”
Power thinks the racing will still be close, although he isn’t sure how the dirty air will affect passing opportunities.
“It will be interesting to see. On paper you’d say there would be less passing because you’ve added more downforce in turbulent air. We’ll see how it plays out.
“The other side of the coin is that the temperatures will drop off even more. If it’s a hot day, the tires will degrade more.
“Yeah it’s gonna be interesting this weekend. This will be the first time we’ve raced close behind other cars.”
The other question Power will no doubt be asked repeatedly throughout 2015 is how he’ll adjust to the four-car dynamic at Team Penske. Power’s 2014 teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves return, but the added dynamic of past adversary Simon Pagenaud as the fourth driver adds intrigue.
Power essentially channeled his inner Taylor Swift when asked, more or less shaking off the prospect that Pagenaud will be a thorn in his side.
“There’s just a lot more information flowing and more to analyze. It’s definitely good,” he said. “Especially with the new aero kit, it’s good to have so many data points.
“All the teammates are really fast too. You still have to get the most out of yourself, and you still have to beat everyone. We do this to win races, not just beat your teammates.”
In the near-seven month offseason, Power said he hasn’t had to perform a ton of ambassadorial or PR duties in the wake of his championship.
He has played unofficial PR man for his comedian brother Damien’s upcoming shows, and Will said if Damien can watch, he’s going to live tweet Sunday’s race – much as he did the Auto Club finale last August.
All told though, St. Petersburg represents the kickoff for IndyCar’s overdue first-time champion’s defense tour. And he knows he has to raise his game to match,
“It’s stupid tight. Nothing’s changed,” Power said. “It’s still good teams and good drivers.
“You can’t leave anything on the table. It’s what makes IndyCar so great.”