MOORESVILLE, North Carolina — Real world engineering is being applied to the virtual world of iRacing at Team Penske and that has helped the team claim two-straight 1-2 finishes in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.
Team Penske star Will Power and his race engineer David Faustino have been together nearly as long as Power has known his wife, Liz. The two have worked together every season since 2007. Power met Elizabeth Cannon in 2006 and the two were married on December 17, 2010.
Faustino, however, knows Power as well as anyone. Since 2007, the only season Faustino has not been Power’s engineer was in 2009, when the driver was a part-timer at Team Penske. At that time, Helio Castroneves’ availability was uncertain because of tax evasion trial in Miami. Once he was acquitted, Castroneves returned to his ride. Power was given a partial season deal at Team Penske and has been a full-time star with the team beginning in 2010.
Power is a longtime user of the iRacing platform and has been one of the most impressive drivers in the virtual racing IndyCar Series. He finished third in the iRacing opener at Watkins Glen, second to Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin at Barber Motorsports Park and fourth at Michigan International Speedway in the virtual realm.
As an organization, Team Penske’s drivers have finished in the top two positions at Barber (McLaughlin winner and Power second) and Michigan (Simon Pagenaud first, McLaughlin second).
Team Penske, however, does not have a unified effort in the sim racing world.
“Our team hasn’t required us to do anything,” Faustino told NBCSports.com in an exclusive interview. “We haven’t had any pressure from our team officially to do any of this. We don’t have any official program going on here. It’s been up to each driver and engineer to decide on their level of participation.”
This has developed because of the close relationship the team’s drivers have with their engineers.
“It grew organically from the drivers,” Faustino continued. “It took us engineers a bit by surprise. Our drivers have been touch and go on different levels with what they do with video games and iRacing and things like that. We didn’t have anything going before this. There certainly wasn’t any uniformity. Quite honestly, the drivers reached out to us individually.
“I got a call from Will Power to take a look at it. I personally had never played iRacing. Come to find out, one of our engineers, Ben Bretzman (Pagenaud’s engineer), has been an iRacing user since 2007. We all had different levels of experience. It started there. Drivers contacted us and asked us for a hand.
“The first event at Watkins Glen was pretty simple. It wasn’t an oval with spotters, and you can crash out easy. So that is how it started.”
The willingness for Faustino, Bretzman and others is a strong display of how IndyCar drivers will look for any possible advantage to get an edge on the competition.
“That is how it really started,” Faustino continued. “At Team Penske, we didn’t have any virtual programs going. Some other teams were already using it, like Arrow McLaren SP. We saw them posting videos on YouTube. The drivers realized they could take it seriously and then it was the Domino Effect, ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do.’ They see somebody out there at a higher level and they want to take their game to a higher level.
“They are looking for every little advantage in any realm.”
At an actual NTT IndyCar Series race, the engineer’s role is very important. He gathers all the data, works with the driver in team debriefs, formulates a race setup, communicates that to the mechanics, who then prepares the cars to the engineer’s specifications. During the race, he keeps track of what strategies the competition is utilizing and formulating fuel strategies for their driver to use.
In the virtual world, there is less data for the engineer to work with, but they can continue to relay valuable information to the driver.
“If I’m available to help Will, I’ll see what he needs,” Faustino said. “Sometimes he will call me and ask if I can spot for him for an hour. If it’s more of a race prep, we’re look for things like how many laps we can run on a tank of fuel and put together a basic strategy and approach to it.
“The races to this point have been interesting because they have been a little bit fabricated with the Barber caution being predetermined and not calling cautions like they would on ovals. It’s hard to think with your real racing head at the moment. I’m getting my head around it. That’s been the involvement and preparation level. It’s pretty basic at this point.”
IndyCar drivers and their engineers work together throughout the week leading into the Saturday races that are televised on NBCSN. The more information they receive in advance helps better prepare them for the Saturday showdowns.
“For Michigan, we had to determine if we are going to be flat-out or a pack race? Will the tires degrade? I haven’t been participating in that part,” Faustino said. “The first few days of the week, drivers that are willing to work on it do their own thing. I tend to get involved when they have it sorted out by Thursday and do a practice race on Thursday and a practice race on Friday. I’ve been logging into those and collecting some info and writing down lap times and things like that. I’ve been participating in the race formats, and that is one hour in practice, a short qualifying, and then the race.
“Let’s say it’s 9-10 hours a week that I’ve been involved. It’s a fair commitment. You couldn’t ask for it during the regular racing season for sure.
“Our drivers are pretty good sim racers and that is why they are leading the championship. We are helping them out a little bit, but we’re not putting too much rocket science to it. We’re just helping them out.”
Faustino realizes the likeable Australian sometimes has a fiery personality in the heat of battle. Power has displayed that in the virtual world as much as in the real-racing world.
Two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park, he was caught on audio calling IndyCar legend and standup man Scott Dixon “a wanker” when he got in his way.
Unlike actual IndyCar competition, Power is a longtime iRacing user. Dixon is not.
“Will is pretty honest and he says what he thinks,” Faustino said. “At that point, in the sim racing world, he doesn’t have a spotter. In that world, right now, the software tools that are available are so far back from what we used at the track when we are piped into the IndyCar feed, it’s hard for even me to understand when someone pitted and what lap are, they on. Scott Dixon probably had no idea that Will was racing for a win there because he was struggling with his car.
“I think this is really good practice. I’m really new at this and don’t know what this will do in the future here as far as take things to another level. It’s good practice for Will, getting upset and getting his head back and staying cool and practicing going through the racing emotions is really interesting. We can agree and disagree, the things we do for a real race.
“The biggest difference is drivers can talk to each other and that brings up another level of conversation that people need to watch out for. I actually think that has been some of the best qualities of it in its current state is increasing the communication between drivers, engineers and strategists in a platform that is somewhat realistic to how you might talk to each other.”
Faustino envisions the day when real racing returns that the iRacing Challenge can turn into an offseason series. But where that goes remains undetermined. If IndyCar races deep into October or even early November, the offseason will be short, and drivers and crewmembers may have personal commitments during that time frame.
“It depends on how much time or what the format is,” Faustino said. “We have Thursday night or Friday night races, that could be cool. I think it depends on what the drivers want as well, whether they want to take some time off or not be on a schedule, that’s another thing. I can certainly see doing more of it in the future, though.”
Because race engineers are able to do much of their work on computers, they are able to continue certain projects in the real world. However, without crew members at the shop, those projects cannot be applied to the car until everybody returns to work.
Also, certain projects have been halted while teams manage the budget.
“Our mechanics can’t do anything, but the engineers can,” Faustino admitted. “I think we are all chipping away at it. We are having meetings and discussing projects.
“It has created difficulties. We aren’t spending money right now. Roger (Penske, the team owner and owner of IndyCar) has a lot of people to look after and company policies have been put in place. We are getting some work done, but not able to run at 100 percent here. We are definitely down on productivity.
“Everyone can prepare further down the road, but the preparation doesn’t have much backbone to it. We haven’t done much testing with the aeroscreen. We’ve only run the car a few times. Straight-line testing, wind tunnel testing, shaker testing, R&D – all of it has been ground to a halt, stopped, canceled. We can’t use actual simulators. I think we can get ahead on somethings. A lot of it is general management, bookkeeping and approaches. We were all eager to learn about the car and had a lot of testing planned for after St. Petersburg. We were going to race St. Pete, then go to Barber and Richmond and get a fair amount of testing.
“There aren’t any teams out there that have a fair amount of testing yet with the car and the aeroscreen.”
One very positive aspect of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge includes the visual aspect of the aeroscreen. Fans and drivers are getting used to the radical appearance of the aeroscreen because of the highly realistic views.
“I think they have done a really good job with it,” Faustino said. “It’s a game and when you are in the game, it’s one thing. But the job they have done making it look like a television production and the color schemes and the in-car cameras is pretty impressive.
“When I was watching Will’s in-car, he was running down a straightaway behind somebody. When you are dead-on center on somebody and looking at their gearbox, you can’t see it anymore because the windscreen bar is in the way. Then, when you are cornering, you can’t even tell the windscreen is there.”
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Faustino and Power have had more time to work-out. Both are avid cyclists. They have hit the road, pedaling away to stay in shape and enjoy the North Carolina spring.
It also helps them maintain their sanity.
“Before the race on Saturday, we were at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte running around on the trails,” Faustino said. “We’ve had some pretty good weather here and have been lucky. You also have to get the driver out of the house, too, instead of sitting in the race sim.
“Sometimes, they are blending from the real world to the fake world and I have to get them back to reality at some point.”