INDIANAPOLIS – Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship last year. It was the first championship of his IndyCar career. Now, that he’s a champion, how much pressure will there be to repeat? The aerokits had a freeze in the offseason, and he’s entering his third season with Team Penske. He should dominate again right?
But, do those expectations bring extra pressure? Do the higher expectations of now being a champion change how one races?
Pagenaud don’t think so.
“It doesn’t really matter if you were a champion this year or in the past, you kind of have to deal with the situation the best you can and understand that you need to be the best performer that weekend,” Pagenaud told me in an exclusive interview with Race Review Online. “When I’m on the race track, I don’t really think of being a champion from the year before. I just try to bring my A-game.”
The Frenchman is always cool, calm and collective. That’s one of many reasons as to why he’s so good at his profession. Just look at last weekend in St. Pete as an example. He wasn’t in the top five of the speed charts in practice like he normally is. He even qualified 14th in his No. 1 Chevrolet. Honda’s were surprising everyone and showed that they had a vast improvement from the season past. With all that pressure and being the defending IndyCar champion, he could have caved.
But, he didn’t.
Pagenaud, 32, always had that smile on his face. He never showed much stress even with them searching for speed. He looked no different than he would have last year. Then, being cool, calm and collective, he finishes second at St. Pete for a second straight year.
With how he and race winner Sebastien Bourdais did so though, it drew some criticism around a few of the drivers in the paddock. Don’t get me wrong, the criticism wasn’t slanted towards either driver, they’re very well liked in the paddock. It was geared towards an IndyCar rule. Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe feel like IndyCar should think about switching up the rule about closing the pits when the yellow flag comes out. They don’t feel like they should lose their advantage of being up front for an ill-timed caution.
I get that.
Early in the race at St. Pete, Hinchcliffe and Dixon were running 1-2. They were part of a handful of drivers that had yet to hit pit road for their first stop of the race. Several other cars, Bourdais and Pagenaud (both started towards the back) already did hit pit road. See, that’s a strategy that you see teams try in the Verizon IndyCar Series. If you start really 10th on back, why not short pit and get your service done early, and then if a caution comes out, and the drivers up front haven’t pitted yet, guess what, you’re in front of them.
That’s why Hinchcliffe and Dixon were so perturbed after the season opening race last weekend. They did have an advantage. They started up front and earned their top two spots in the running order. But, Lap 25 happened and a debris caution flew. The field bunched up, and Hinchcliffe and Dixon had to pit. Pagenaud and Bourdais benefited the most and were now 1-2 after.
There wouldn’t be a caution the rest of the race, meaning that Lap 25 yellow flipped the field and set the fight for the finishing order.
Is that fair though?
“There’s different ways to look at it obviously,” Pagenaud told me. “If you’re leading, you want the pits to be open so you don’t lose your advantage right. Where I was at St. Pete, and where Sebastien (Bourdais) was, the beauty of IndyCar is that you can start last and win the race. Do we want to change the show?
“In the end, we need to be entertaining to the fans. To me, the race at St. Pete is what IndyCar is all about. We’re not Formula One. If we want to fight against them, it might be a difficult fight. Our formula right now is working really well and I don’t see anyway to change it. I love IndyCar not just because I have to promote it, I really love it. It’s the racing center. Our formula is fun to watch because you never know who’s going to win. It’s not about the best car or the best team every day. It’s more so about the best strategy and some times a bit of luck. I think it’s a great formula.”
I agree with Pagenaud on all of the above. It’s the same for everybody. Hinchcliffe and Dixon could have short pitted earlier themselves. Pagenaud, said they had that situation come up last year when they were leading races and they would short pit so it wouldn’t happen to them.
“Last year when we were leading races we pitted early sometimes to protect ourselves,” Pagenaud continued. “It’s a strategy in the end. It’s always fair. I think the formula is great.”
I asked him about the potential of a Virtual Safety Car, but Pagenaud wasn’t in favor of that move “because it doesn’t allow for great racing.” His mindset is, and I agree with him 100-percent, is that “people want to see restarts, they want to see fights on track with passing.” The VSC wouldn’t give that.
That’s what’s good about IndyCar racing. It’s the only series in the world right now that any driver from any given team can win on any given race. It doesn’t matter if you start on the pole or you start last, everyone has a shot at winning. NASCAR doesn’t have that. Formula One doesn’t have that. No one does outside of IndyCar. The entire field in the series has a shot at winning at every track no matter the team they drive for. I can make a case for every driver in the field to win on any given race weekend and not have to put much effort in doing so.
With that being said, Honda’s have really closed the gap on their Chevy counterpart this year. Honda only won two races and three poles in 2016, all of which were on superspeedways. With the recent aerokit freeze, I think everyone kind of assumed that it would remain status quo for 2017. But, Honda’s were strong in every session, practice, qualifying as well as the race last weekend on a street circuit at St. Pete. Was that a shock to the defending series champion though?
“I expected them to improve that much yes, Pagenaud said. “Last year they showed a big step of performance in Indy and every year they’ve showed improvement. (Scott) Dixon was really strong in the Sebring test (last month). I personally knew, going into St. Pete, that they were going to be a challenger. Dixon is going to be really strong this year. We’re going to have to work really hard to counter effect that. We’re going to have some serious competition from them.”
Dixon, drives for Chip Ganassi Racing who in the offseason switched from Chevrolet to Honda power. Everyone is talking about how much that move is helping Honda and their resources across the board. The addition of a team like Ganassi only helps Honda improve in every facet, hence the quick improvement from last year to this. What no one else is talking about though is how much that does affect Chevy by not having them anymore too.
“There’s two-ways to look at it,” said Pagenaud. “One way is yeah we’re going to have more attention from less teams now, but the other way is we don’t have as much information, so when there’s a problem, they (Chevy) only have a few cars to reinforce it. We’ve had a great relationship with them with Team Penske and that relationship is only going to get strong now with less cars this year.”
Last year, Chevrolet had 11 full-time entries. Penske had four cars, Ganassi had four, Ed Carpenter Racing had two and KVSH had one. This year, A.J. Foyt Racing’s two car operation came onboard to Chevy, but they also lost all four Ganassi cars and the KVSH entry. Overall, that’s a net loss of three cars for Chevy. Factor that with losing a team of Ganassi’s resources, and Pagenaud is right, yes there’s more resources coming to Penske now, but there’s also not the resources available if something goes wrong, they don’t have the arsenal of fleet to fix it as quickly as just last year.
Pagenaud will still be a title contender in 2017 no matter what’s thrown at him. Which that’s something his native land of France will love. During his conference call last week, there was an unusually amount of French journalists on the call. Even that surprised Pageanud. But, it comes with the territory of having their own hero win an IndyCar championship.
Factor that with French drivers going 1-2 in St. Pete, and you can see why the attention overseas is going larger and larger by the race.
“It’s incredible,” Pagenaud beamed. “You couldn’t write a better story for the French fans. It was 1-2, although I would have loved to be 1st. For the French media (interest from them), it was a big shock. The next day it was a big headline on the late TV news channels. It’s going to make a big difference. It’s booming there right now. It’s one of the sports that are being followed and growing over there. It’s a good thing too. We’re obviously focused on the U.S. and that’s where we should focus, but outside the U.S. it’s growing and picking up interest. I’m very excited about that. It’s fantastic for me personally but it’s also awesome for our sport.”
The last thing we talked about was the physicality of IndyCar as a whole. I don’t think everyone realizes just how much demand is put on these drivers’ bodies each time they strap into a race car. I asked Pagenaud is racing on a street course like Long Beach is actually more physically grueling than running 500-miles and Indy, and his answer blew me away.
“Yes I wish I could read you some data,” he said regarding his health stats from last weekend in St. Pete. “I have some information from my heart beats at St. Pete and I have to tell you, I don’t know many at sports where you can hold that kind of heart rate for two hours. It’s incredible. The more technology we have, the more we discover the kind of athlete you have to be driving these race cars on edge for a whole race. It really surprised me and it surprised my trainer as well. It’s just incredible.
“It’s a very stressful sport. Very demanding. I can definitely say at this point we’re serious athletes.
I asked him if that data would eventually come out to the fans and media to show how demanding these races are, but right now he said that information is confidential to the teams “because it can be an advantage to one driver.” But, he does think it would be “fantastic if IndyCar thought about that and with the technology we have with Verizon, if we can get more data on the human body on how you drive to be revealed to the fans would be very interesting to see.”