DJR Team Penske Can Be Champions, But Not This Year
Since Team Penske bought the controlling share of Dick Johnson Racing in 2015, there has been high expectations on the renamed DJR Team Penske.. So far they've failed to meet those expectations, yet Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard are third and fourth favourites respectively for the 2017 championship. Realistically They haven't even won a race yet. Roger Penske himself has stated that the goal for this year is race wins and preparing a Mustang for 2018. He never mentioned the championship. So what does the future hold for DJR Team Penske?
On paper, it seems inevitable that DJR Team Penske will be a powerhouse team. DJR is the third most successful team in ATCC history, after Triple Eight and Walkinshaw. Team Penske is among the greatest teams in American motorsport, across IndyCar, NASCAR and Trans Am. They even had a short stint in Formula 1, remaining the last American team to win an F1 race. That history gives DJR Team Penske a lot to live up to, and a lot of potential to actually live up to it.
But it’s easier said than done. Before the Penske buyout, DJR was in deep financial trouble, having been burnt by sponsor and management fallouts. Supercars rules also prevents the team from leaning too heavily on Team Penske’s US resources. Aero design could be competed in the US. Engines could be built there too, but it would be an unnecessary logistical challenge. Volvo engines in Sweden, but that's because Garry Rogers Motorsport are unable to build their own engine , are Supercars intellectual property and cannot leave Australia or be built overseas. That leaves Penske to contribute money and R&D only. With the Mustang a possibility for 2018, there may be more opportunity for the latter than there has been so far.
DJR Team Penske debuted at Adelaide in 2015 with a single car driven by Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose, who had been absent from V8 Supercars for nine years, made the top 10 shootout, but he felt that the results that followed weren't good enough, and believed he was holding the team back. Ambrose elected to temporarily stop driving, and Scott Pye returned to the car. Ambrose's temporary break turned into a retirement from full time driving. The decision run a single car with Ambrose and even Pye was a mistake that may have set them back a year. Ambrose had not driven a V8 Supercar in nine years. Asking him to be the sole driver of a team still developing its car was too much. Pye, whilst being vastly more experienced in the current generation cars than Ambrose, was still at the start of his career and lacked the experience a team in Penske’s situation needed. A Pye/Ambrose two car team would have fared better.
Throughout 2015, a great deal of work went into improving the team’s performance. The facilities at Stapylton, Queensland have been massively improved through Penske’s investment. Team Principal Dr Ryan Story says that having been in survival mode as DJR, they have now caught up to the other teams. But it's one thing to have all the resources, another to use them effectively.
Last year, Fabian Coulthard was recruited to drive the second car, and his engineer Phil Keed followed him from Brad Jones Racing. On-track performance improved dramatically at some circuits, but they were still off the pace at others. Performance on the soft tyres has been blamed for this lack of consistency.
Like everyone else they will have to get used to the new “faster” Dunlop control tyres. This may alleviate or worsen their soft tyre difficulties, it depends on how quickly they can adapt to the new tyres. It may be an opportunity to leapfrog Triple 8, Walkinshaw and Prodrive with minimal effort, or it could set them back. Coulthard and Pye were 12th and 15th last year.
Coulthard will be joined by Scott McLaughlin this year, one of the most talented drivers in the field. Triple 8’s former technical director, Ludo Lacroix, has also joined DJR Team Penske. His role has not been confirmed, but he is likely to be technical director.
With two massive recruitments like McLaughlin and Lacroix, how will they go this year? Not as well as some people think. You can't just hire McLaughlin and Lacroix and expect to go from also-rans to champions overnight. Craig Lowndes couldn’t do it when he moved from Prodrive to Triple 8. James Courtney couldn’t either when he went to DJR in 2009.
Coming off DJR Team Penske’s 12th and 15th last year, a championship from either McLaughlin or Coulthard would represent an unprecedented turnaround in performance. Jamie Whincup finished second in 2007 before winning his and Triple 8’s first championship in 2008. Marcos Ambrose, Russell Ingall and Garth Tander all finished in the top four before winning their first championships. Racing for Walkinshaw’s HSV Dealer Team, Rick Kelly went from eighth to first from 2006. But he won that championship on luck, consistency and in the end bad sportsmanship, rather than on outright speed. James Courtney went from seventh to first at DJR in 2010, but he was held back in the previous year by three DNFs and poor results early in the year.
It would also be an incredibly short time for a team to win its first championship. It took Triple 8 six years to win theirs. Walkinshaw needed seven to win their first with Holden. Prodrive took 13 years after taking over Glenn Seton Racing in 2003.
Ludo will certainly help improve the car speed, but it will take time. Ludo was at Triple 8 when they started in V8 Supercars in 2003. Their first team's and driver's championships were in 2008, though Craig Lowndes should have won in 2006. It was three years before they were championship contenders, and they had an easier time of it than DJR Team Penske are having now. Lacroix will have to spend some time learning about the package that DJR Team Penske have now, and then take time to develop and implement his own ideas. Being an aerodynamicist, the biggest gains from hiring Lacroix won't come until they have a new car, and that won’t happen until 2018 at the earliest.
Triple 8 team Manager Mark Dutton described Lacroix as a good teacher. In time he will improve the performance of the entire engineering staff at DJR Team Penske, just as he did at Triple 8.
It could also be too much to expect one man to make that much of a difference in one off-season. Adrian Burgess was Triple 8’s team manager from 2011 to 2013. He was poached by Walkinshaw in 2014, who hoped he could deliver them the same results. That is yet to happen. It depends on the culture and work ethic of the entire team. Time will tell if DJR Team Penske are more like Triple 8 or Walkinshaw, if Ryan Story is a Roland Dane or Ryan Walkinshaw.
Altough he reported feeling comfortable in the car at a recent ride day, McLaughlin will need time to adjust to the way DJR Team Penske operates, which is very different to GRM, and he'll need to get comfortable in the car. At GRM he had four years of having the car set up exactly how he wanted it. His performance compared with teammates Alex Premat, Robert Dahlgren and David Wall lead to GRM focusing on him. He won't get that level of favouritism at DJR Team Penske.
Performance gains in a championship like Supercars, with many control parts, tend to be incremental and that’s what will hold them back. Beating the smaller teams is easy for a well funded, moderately large teams. Finding the incremental improvements to get ahead of the top teams is much harder. Particularly when they have a new driver with different preferences and a new technical director who will have their own way of running the development program.
All the ingredients are there for the team to be successful and win races, but it will take time for everything to work. It’s likely that they will win races, but the wins will come later in the year. A championship is too big an ask. If anyone is going to beat Triple 8 to the driver’s championship this year it will be Chaz Mostert, Mark Winterbottom or Will Davison. Building a championship winning team takes time, regardless of how much money you put into it. Penske’s year will be 2018 at the earliest.
It’s not impossible for DJR Team Penske to win the championship next year, but history is heavily stacked against them. By the time Lacroix and McLaughlin settle in, and start having an impact, Triple 8, even Prodrive and BJR will be ahead of them. But they will catch up and start winning races by the end of the year. The championship will have to wait until at least 2018.