Success in the Triple Crown of motorsport is once again in the headlines as Fernando Alonso aims to complete his trifecta with an Indianapolis 500 win this weekend.
However, you may not realise that the two single-seater elements in the equation – Indy and the Monaco Grand Prix – may be a lot more similar than you think despite appearances.
Over Alonso, there’s one driver in the IndyCar field who wants, needs, and deserves a 500 title more than most; and it’s Josef Newgarden.
People in Europe may be left scratching their heads at how a two-time IndyCar champion by the age of 28 in Newgarden could possibly be underrated. But in the States, he’s still one step short of being fully accepted as a great, perhaps due to the lack of a 500 success.
In 2019 though, Newgarden added a new weapon to his arsenal, and that’s his race engineer Gavin Ward (below left).
A Canadian, Ward moved to the UK in the early 2000s having seen an advert for a university course at Oxford Brookes University on the Arrows website, and for his third year, bagged an internship at Red Bull. He was immediately placed on the test team and then moved into the full-time race squad extremely quickly – Red Bull helping to pay his fees for his last year of university.
Starting in brakes and then moving to electronics, Ward very, very quickly moved up the ladder, also working on the first F1 seamless-shift gearbox to be introduced full-time. He then stepped up to be Mark Webber’s performance engineer for three seasons, and then one year with Daniel Ricciardo, before moving into aerodynamics where he was a direct report to Adrian Newey and designed front wings – probably the most important aerodynamic object in F1 – among other pieces.
Someone who rises through the ranks that quickly is clearly intelligent and motivated, in a path which has not been unlike Newey’s. Except Newey started in IndyCar and Ward’s ended up in it!
After progressing through almost every area of car development at Red Bull, Ward decided it was time for a change and moved to Penske spending a year shadowing Brian Camp – Newgarden’s previous engineer – in 2018. He then took the reins last year.
That went to plan, as the pair won their first race together at St Petersburg, and took the title at the first attempt. In another first, the year signalled Ward’s full debut on ovals as an engineer and he’s really taken to it.
The fact that the pair’s first oval event together was the Indy 500 is not insignificant!
In an exclusive interview, The Race asked what is the biggest thing for an engineer in giving the driver the package needed to be successful at Indy. And Ward made an unusual but eloquent and well-justified comparison.
“Well I think that the thing that jumped out to me about Indy, which is really interesting because you know you talk about triple crown and you talk about Monaco,” he explains to The Race, having been part of the race team that set-up Coulthard for Red Bull’s first F1 podium in the principality in 2007 (below).
“I’m lucky to have won a few Monaco Grands Prix and both the venues have one thing in common is driver confidence. It is such a driver confidence game, and for different reasons.
“In Monaco, you’ve got barriers everywhere so you need to be able to not see the walls. Webber used to say, ‘Come Q3 the walls disappear!’ You don’t even know that they are there, kind of thing. But you need to be confident there.
“And at Indy, it’s such a confidence game because you need to be flat and it’s different, you know it’s different in terms of the speeds and the consequences are higher about Indy. But both events have this, you have to build up to them the right way.
“So you’ll see in Monaco, there’s some drivers are always fast on Thursday. And then they often crash and then the weekend is ruined. I mean, frankly, you lose the rhythm there or if you write your car off, you might miss a session or you can just get behind, you know.
“And it’s the same thing in Indy as if you’ve got to build up the confidence in the car and what you can do there so that you don’t make a misstep.
“You see people that do and they struggle to recover. So the big thing from a race engineering point of view is trying to give the driver as much confidence as possible during every session, to keep that rhythm flowing.”
Everything in the build-up this year points to Newgarden being a contender.
While the duo didn’t quite have the car to fight for the win last year, they fought at the front. And in 2019, they have qualified 13th, nine positions better than the second Penske car as the Chevrolet-powered teams struggled to match Honda in qualifying trim.
That means Newgarden is in prime position to capitalise and is one of the best-placed cars to do it. All four of Penske’s cars have shown prodigious race pace in practice and Newgarden is in the cat/bird seat as he starts much higher than his stablemates.
In fact, although the points don’t really reflect it, Newgarden has the pace to fight for the title as well as a win at Indy. Scott Dixon won the first three races, but Newgarden scored a podium at Texas to start strong. However, ill-timed cautions ruined his chances at the Indianapolis road course and the first Iowa race.
He dominated early from pole in Road America before a stall in the pits and then a rare late mistake locking up into Turn 1, while in the second race – strategy once again went against him. Following that caution mishap in the first Iowa race, he drove angry and absolutely destroyed the competition in the second race, which means he heads into the double-points round 53-points behind Dixon in third with 103 available this weekend.
“It’s funny, this year if I looked at the job Joseph and I have done in terms of putting fast race cars together, I think we’ve probably done a better job than we did last year!” says Ward.
“I think we’ve had good performance and we’ve been really consistent.
“You know, there’s been some little slip-ups that we could have done better and there’s been some misfortune, you know, caution flags and little car problems that have bitten us a little bit.
“So we haven’t had quite the same amazing start points-wise but there’s no race that we’re going to now that I actually can see a reason why we can’t win, you know, or win from pole for that matter, on performance and on merit.
“So, yeah, it’s been a challenging start.”
The next chance to “win on merit” for Newgarden and Ward is at Indianapolis. While Alonso hopes for the Triple Crown, Ward will be keen to steer his driver to victory instead, and kickstart his own effort to take one of motorsport’s most prestigious titles.
Ward made very clear to The Race that he is happy at Penske and not going anywhere soon – neither is Newgarden, he’s signed through at least next season – but outlined his bucket list for the future.
“Indy 500 is top of the list, I’m not going to lie,” he says.
“But you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, setting your whole self-esteem on the result of one race.
“So we just focus on trying to do a better job than we did last year and hopefully the results will come our way.
“But the Indy 500. I kind of have a dream of trying to win the Triple Crown as a race engineer, that’s been the thing that I’ve wanted to do for a number of years. If I can get the Indy 500, that’d be awesome, and maybe someday if an opportunity comes up, try and do Le Mans. I’ve been trying to do that.
“I’ve got Monaco…”
Perhaps his lessons gleaned in the principality of Monaco are much more relevant to the vast open spaces of Indy than you might think, and besides from Alonso, it might make Ward the next person to watch in a hunt for the Triple Crown.