To say that Simon Pagenaud is a rising star is an understatement. Being that he has only been in the series 2 years, by definition that kind of makes him one, but if you delve into the numbers put up by the Frenchman, he is more than a rising star. He is a championship contender. With his confident attitude and being calm when need be and attacking when need be, he has what it takes.
He returned to the IndyCar series last season after a 3 year hiatus after losing his ride when the Champ Car World Series folded and his team did not make the crossover. During that time, Pagenaud took up sports car racing in both the American Le Mans Series for Honda/Acura as well as Peugeot’s factory Le Mans Prototype program where he finished 2nd at the 24 Hours of Le Mans driving for Peugeot and won 9 times and captured a series championship in 2010 driving for Highcroft Racing.
Immediately upon his return to IndyCar driving for Sam Schmidt, Pagenaud became competitive almost instantly, but was very humble about what he was presented with.
“I had been racing sports cars for five or six years, and hadn’t been in an open wheel car for a while. I was questioning myself on how competitive I would be. Deep inside I knew there wasn’t any reason why I couldn’t be competitive. Everything I learned in driving in sports cars would pay off.”
In his first race, he qualified in sixth, but had to start in 16th due to a 10 place grid penalty. He battled back to finish in 6th. At Barber he grabbed his first top 5 finish and Long Beach, he led 26 laps and battled down to the bitter end with Will Power to finish second. It was that race that gave Pagenaud the confidence he needed to ride the wave of momentum.
“That’s where we realized we had it and I could drive the car as well as anyone else,” he said. “Confidence went up and much elation went up in the team and myself and from that moment on we knew we could challenge for wins.”
Pagenaud finished the season 5th in the standings and took Rookie of the Year and his stats really made you take notice. He also pulled off an unthinkable move on a restart at Baltimore where he went from 7th the to lead. With 4 podiums and 9 top ten finishes and only 1 DNF, Pagenaud quickly made a name for himself and was looking for more in 2013.
“I took it as far as I could take it in 2012,” he reflects. “I think we managed to set up the car really well very quickly and that was an advantage and I tried to drive as hard as I could.”
The season started off with a DNF at St. Petersburg, but he quickly rebounded with 4 straight top ten finishes heading into the Detroit doubleheader. The in the first race of the weekend, Pagenaud struggled with the car and finished in 12th place.
During the night, the HP crew made some changes to the cars setup that payed off the following day as the car came to life.
Pagenaud went from being a mid pack car to a front runner. He avoided the lap 28 carnage and took the lead as the dominant Mike Conway pitted and managed to build up enough of a cushion to make his final pit stop and stay in the hunt. He took the lead with 12 laps to go and never looked back to take his first win.
“It’s funny because I didn’t become superman overnight,” he said. “We just managed to do what we needed to make the setup better, and it worked out.”
“It’s one of the best moments of racing when you have a bad day, you go and talk to your engineer and he fixes your issues and you win the race the next day.”
Along with his first career win, it was a long awaited first win for his car owner Sam Schmidt. Schmidt is a warrior and a survivor and has spend the last 13 years since a near fatal accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000 building a team from the ground up, and for a team that isn’t one of the big three to be a championship contender is huge.
“I feel very honored to give him his first win,” said Pagenaud. “Sam gave me my opportunity in IndyCar, which was my dream and I was able to fulfill his dream to win his first race.”
His second win at Baltimore really showed what a hard charger as well as a smooth driver Pagenaud really is. Pagenaud started in 3rd place and ran a smooth race the entire day and like Detroit avoided the multiple crashes to stay in contention. On lap 69 Paegenaud pulled off a whale of a pass in turn 1 on Marco Andretti and all the while Sebastian Bourdais pulled a banzai move on Pagenaud, but Pagenaud managed to retake the lead a corner late despite banging wheels with him. He held on for the final 7 laps to take the win.
The win at Baltimore kept Pagenaud in championship contention heading into the Houston doubleheader where he finished 4th and 6th, but it wasn’t enough to stay in contention for the championship.
Pagenaud ended the season 3rd in points and had a season much like runner up Helio Castroneves, which was very consistent and finished 17 of the 19 rounds.
One strength of Pagenaud’s is that he is very well rounded and has adapted well on the ovals as well as the road and street circuits. He was strictly a road/street circuit specialist and had never raced on an oval before returning to IndyCar, but Pagenaud has embraced the challenges of oval racing and has proven to be competitive on them as well.
“It’s a discipline I really enjoy,” he says. “I discovered that in the 500 last year which was very shocking. In the meantime, I realized I needed to make my car suit myself because as a drive you can’t adjust on the oval. I realized that if I could keep the car underneath me I was confident. Once you have confidence, you can push.”
Part of the reason why Pagenaud has come right out of the box and be competitive in IndyCar is attributed to his tenure in sports cars. He did developmental work with Honda/Acura for their LMP programs and had 2000-2001 CART Champion Gil de Ferran as his teammate. The developmental work consisted of working on all components of the race car in a series that has nearly unlimited technical freedom.
Also, in of itself, being a teammate to de Ferran helped Pagenaud. Not only de Ferran’s technical knowledge and preferences meshed well with Pagenaud’s, but having a teammate as renowned as him helped Pagenaud grow into what he is today.
“Gil was very open about everything that he acccomplished in his career, I managed to learn a lot about him. We spent a lot of time talking about things like mechanical balance and aerodynamics. It was incredible how much I learned from him.”
Heading into next season, a championship is not out of the question for Pagenaud. With this season being better than 2012, his great charisma and talent behind the wheel coupled with the chemistry Pagenaud has with team manager Rob Edwards and engineers Ben Bretzman and Nick Snyder, it is the perfect combination.
“The first year was interesting learning new things, the second year was about making it happen and I think the third year is about polishing all the little details,” he said.