Simon Pagenaud’s new path
It’s been an exciting seven months or so for Simon Pagenaud, who, after finishing fifth in last year’s championship moved from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to Team Penske during the long Verizon IndyCar Series off-season. Pagenaud, who initially came to the United States to race in the Atlantic Championship (and won it), moved to Champ Car with Team Australia and then to sports cars when that series folded.
He’s worked with some rather impressive teams and car owners, including Peugeot Sport in what is now World Endurance Championship (WEC), with Derrick Walker at Team Australia and with Gil de Ferran’s eponymous team that ran in the American Le Mans Series and took the LMP2 title with Highcroft Racing. Now he’s with the most successful team in American motor sport and is one of four drivers at Team Penske this year: reigning champion Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya are his teammates.
It’s a daunting change but one the Frenchman has embraced with his customary enthusiasm. “I’m just a kid living the dream and it’s incredible to be here; just driving the car is incredible. The equipment I get is surreal and everything you need at Team Penske you get it.” Pagenaud is especially enjoying the rapport with former teammate Power, with Colombian Montoya (“he’s the poker”) and with the Brazilian Castroneves, who has been a bridesmaid in this series almost as often as Power, who finally won his first title in 2014.
“I feel very confident and I feel like it’s down on me to do my best here. I put the pressure on myself but you come in here and you say, ‘I’ve got to win; I’ve got good equipment’?” Pagenaud doesn’t think that way because he realizes there’s a time frame in which he needs to make the transition from being with Schmidt’s outfit and landing here. “I have a new crew, new people around me – everything I need but it’s all new… we’ll need time to get to know one another,” he says.
While, of course, the four-race winner knows he should win races and should be in position to win a championship, “The first thing I want to do is concentrate on bringing my A game. If I do that every race, I think we will be in really, really good shape,” Pagenaud stressed. “I’m somebody who enjoys doing my job; I enjoy having a team behind me that is so professional. Whether it’s sponsors, partners, we don’t just represent a race team – we represent Roger’s empire. I’m very respectful to see all that and to be part of it.”
Pagenaud and Power drove each other to be successful back in 2007 when they worked together with Walker under the Team Australia banner. “We’ve been teammates but it’s not like we’re best friends. Times when we were pushing each other so hard… those times are reproducing themselves again. I’ve always respected Will a lot but I want to beat him and he wants to beat me, that’s for sure.”
All four drivers realize the opportunity in front of them; they’re all championship contenders, according to Pagenaud. While the battle between this quartet might be fun to watch, Pagenaud reminds everyone not to forget drivers like Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the INDYCAR paddock. “Those guys can be strong. We need to concentrate on the four of us together and try to make our car better and help the others.”
It was difficult for Pagenaud to leave Honda, whose engines he’d driven from the start of his INDYCAR career and go to Chevrolet, Team Penske’s engine choice. Chevrolet, he noted, “Have used me really well; they’ve maximized me. As you know, I’m very technical and really experienced with engine development and they’ve used” that aspect of his talent to perfection in the testing season leading up to this weekend’s season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg.
“The engine is really nice to drive and we’ve had really good testing.” The transition was a bit difficult at first but now he’s accustomed to it after an excellent testing season. “Things behave the way I want them to behave; it’s really good.” Pagenaud did a lot of testing for Honda Performance Development and was the first INDYCAR driver to test that manufacturer’s twin-turbo setup.
Right now it’s all talk as none of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers have made a single competitive lap; all they’ve done is test so any comments are moot at this point. Friday’s forecast calls for showers and possible thunderstorms, the first opportunity to get on track for real. Will Simon Pagenaud’s experience in all conditions hold him in stead once the quartet of Team Penske Indy cars get on the St Petersburg airport/street circuit? We’ll have to watch and see.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit