Al Unser Jnr's arrival at Penske has been nothing short of startling. But are some of the other teams perhaps making life a little easy?
Al Unser Jnr is having a year that already ranks among the greatest in the history of IndyCar racing. With nearly half a season still ahead of him, Unser has a very real chance of surpassing the record of national championship wins in a year – 10 – held jointly by his father and AJ Foyt.
Every race enthusiast blessed with the gift of sight and the ability to work a stopwatch has long recognised Junior as being several cuts above about 98 per cent of the IndyCar competition. Like the great ones, Al never looks like he's going fast, and though he rarely puts together that single, ultimate qualifying lap (in the past anyway), over the years he has repeatedly proven to be both a supremely aggressive racer and a master tactician.
But even Al's most ardent supporters have to be surprised at the way he's dominating the 1994 PPG IndyCar World Series. Apart from a fortuitous win at Indianapolis, he's earned every other victory and run away with most of them. And a funny thing happened once Al found himself working in the peerlessly professional environment of Penske Racing: he earned as many pole positions in half a season as he had in the previous 11.
There's no question that much of Al's success stems from a happy convergence of events, one that brought him together with the best team in IndyCar racing at a time when he had reached a plateau at his former place of employment, Galles Racing. Much of the credit for that has to go to Roger Penske. Penske had the combination of vision and resources to recognise that in Unser he had a driver who could lead the team into the next century, the logical successor to Mark Donohue and Rick Mears in the pantheon of Penske drivers.
But to do that Roger had to bite the bullet and run a three-car team, adding Al to a line-up that already featured Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Most teams would have been happy to have either the evergreen Brazilian or the sizzlingly quick Canadian. Not Penske. He was not alone in recognising that Fittipaldi's career won't last forever, nor that Tracy might never completely settle down.
Only Penske, however, has the resources to field three identically, indeed usually perfectly, prepared '94 Penske-Ilmor Ds for three bona-fide championship contenders. And as has become legend, of course, only Penske could do that and run a parallel programme to develop the Mercedes Benz 209 for the Indianapolis 500.
But as good as Unser is, as good as Penske is, their brilliance only tells half the story of the 1994 season. Adrian Reynard aptly summed-up the other half of the story in the paddock at Detroit when he said "If you have one team operating at 100 per cent efficiency and the rest of us at 95, it makes that other team dominant."
And as much as the 1994 season will probably go down as the year of Unser and Penske, it also ought to go down as a year of infamy for most other teams. There's no question that the '94 Penske is a superior car to the Lola T94/00 and the Reynard 941, no matter which powerplant the Marlboro cars are using. But Newman/ Haas Racing was downright ineffective through the several weekends in June, with Mario Andretti struggling and Nigel Mansell, either because he was focused on his return or non-return to F1 or because of his disenchantment with IndyCar racing following the idiotic fashion in which he was knocked out of the Indianapolis 500, has been for long stretches just a shadow of the man who took the 1993 IndyCar series by storm.
Once again Bobby Rahal finds himself fighting an uphill battle in uncompetitive equipment, with the gutless Honda V8 replacing the Rahal/Hogan chassis as his personal albatross, while Michael Andretti and Ganassi had failed to live-up to the scintillating form they showed at Surfers Paradise until their victory in Toronto on July 17. The rudderless Budweiser/King's season has been a trainwreck, with Scott Goodyear quite a non-factor, and Dick Simon seems bent on tearing down what had been developing into one of the better second division teams in the sport to Raul Boesel's displeasure. Rick Galles is in the early stages of rebuilding his team and Jim Hall Racing continues getting perhaps less bang per buck than any other team in the business, with the exception of Bud/King.
Indeed, the list of overachievers is a short one. Certainly Robby Gordon has matured faster than anyone could have hoped under the tutelage of Derrick Walker and engineer Tim Wardrop, although the performances of team-mates Mark Smith and Willy T Ribbs have been extremely disappointing. Likewise, Jacques Villeneuve has blossomed in the professional atmosphere at Forsythe-Green Racing, courtesy of Barry Green and engineer Tony Cicale, and Bryan Herta – sadly injured in Toronto – has emerged as a real corner in the often-turbulent setting of Al Foyt's team.
The Hayhoe, PacWest and Bettenhausen teams have had their moments. Jimmy Vasser started the season in fine fashion with three top five finishes in four races for Jim Hayhoe, but has since been snake bitten; PacWest Racing has suffered the sort of up and down season one might expect from such an ambitious two car start-up programme, while Tony Bettenhausen Racing has at last found the reliability to enable Stefan Johansson to show his stuff. Unfortunately, it took them a year to get their '93 Penske fully sorted out and now it's no match for the '94 model.
Obviously it's going to take quite an effort for anybody to overhaul Unser in the points battle, and Fittipaldi and Tracy are certainly the best positioned to do so. Mansell seems to have pulled himself out of his June funk and will (almost) certainly win a race or two in the months ahead, while Michael Andretti, Ganassi Racing and Reynard may be back on an even keel after Toronto. Honda's progress has been painfully slow (especially to Rahal and team-mate Mike Groff) and, frankly, it's a bit of a reach to see them winning in 1994 despite the fact that Bobby's driving as hard and as well as ever.
Of course Gordon, Villeneuve and perhaps Vasser could pull off a surprise, but Robby, Jacques and Jimmy are a year or two away from being able to challenge Unser. Fittipaldi and Tracy on a consistent basis. And as history has repeatedly shown, there are no guarantees the Walker, Forsythe-Green and Hayhoe teams will ever be a match for Penske Racing. Just ask Carl Haas and Paul Newman, Bobby Rahal and Carl Hogan, Rick Galles, Chip Ganassi, Jim Hall, Dick Simon. D P