Over the last few years, in conversation and in writing, there have been times when I’ve described Simon Pagenaud as puzzling, troubled, enigmatic, lacking confidence and one of those guys who needs everything au point with his setup in order to give his best.
I’ve also opined that when he is at 100 percent, he has few peers. We saw that in 2016.
He doesn’t regard it as one of his greatest drives, but I have never been more impressed with him than at Barber Motorsports Park in 2016. In the closing stages of a race he had dominated, he was baulked by traffic and was then clumsily nudged into a sandtrap by Graham Rahal. The Penske driver had the presence of mind to keep his foot down, skate through the gravel, emerge and rejoin the track, and what we saw for the next few laps was the epitome of controlled aggression as he rocketed back onto the tail of the RLL car. He harried Rahal into damaging his front wing on the rear of a tail-ender, passed him and sped to victory. It was no surprise to me that Pagenaud continued to strike the right blend of pace and consistency for the remainder of the year, amassing five wins and claiming the championship.
He would have retained the title in 2017 had he not been mugged for victory at Gateway by Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, who went on to take the crown. That season did produce Pagenaud’s greatest pole position, however. At Toronto – only a one-minute lap, remember – he not only outqualified his nearest rival by over 0.3sec, he also outpaced his super-quick teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power by over half a second.
But the arrival of the universal aerokit for 2018 saw Pagenaud’s form become patchy. Obviously he looked strong when he conquered the IMS road course in the wet in 2019, and drove flawlessly to win the Indy 500 two weeks later – no surprise there, since he and race engineer Ben Bretzman often honed the best Speedway setup among the Penske gang. But he went winless in both ’18 and ’21 and there were too many days when, relative to his teammates, he was nowhere. Given that he had already conquered the championship and the 500, it surprised many that Pagenaud spurned the opportunity to remain at Penske but in prototype sportscars – a discipline in which he had always excelled. True, he would have spent this year consigned to LMP2 in the World Endurance Championship, but he’d have still been a Penske pilot and therefore would race the Porsche LMDh car in 2023…
Pagenaud instead went for the Meyer Shank Racing option whereby he gets to continue in IndyCar – at 37, he could have six or seven more years in him – and there’s the chance to race an MSR Acura in endurance races. That’s paid off already, with victory in last month’s Rolex 24 Hours… and one suspects that next year he’ll be racing an Acura/Honda Prototype at Le Mans. In that light, Pagenaud’s move to join former Penske teammate Castroneves in the Jim Meyer/Michael Shank-owned team looks like a shrewd move. Yes, it will be the first time that the squad has run two full-time entries in IndyCar – Castroneves joined former MSR driver Jack Harvey for six races last year – but Pagenaud is confident he and the team can take full advantage of its technical alliance with Andretti Autosport.
Pagenaud and Castroneves sat atop the times on Day 2 of testing at Sebring. True, Andretti Autosport and Penske were absent, but Ganassi’s armada was present, and while one must make the usual caveats of each car’s fastest lap potentially being set with differing fuel levels and tire life, still the times suggest that MSR is very strong. As ever, Sebring’s 1.7-mile short course offers IndyCar teams the best chance to test on a bumpy, street course-style track.
“The track of course changed throughout the day,” Pagenaud tells Motorsport.com, “and that’s what we could check – how the car responds to changes in temperatures and winds. We had very tricky conditions so it was nice to see how the car was evolving and how we were able to make changes for the conditions at the time. So was it representative? Yes, because that’s what we’ll have to do on race weekends – adapt to changing grip levels.
“Now, was it representative of how the car is going to behave in, say Long Beach when it’s getting super-hot? I don’t know. But I know that we have pace and we know how to adapt.”
From a personal point of view, Pagenaud’s speed was important too, because he’s arriving at MSR-Honda after seven years of Penske setup philosophies, Chevrolet power-delivery traits, and trying to make chassis and engine performance mesh in a way that yields the fastest time over a lap, a stint and a race. Invaluable experience, of course, but it would have been understandable if Pagenaud, after just two tests, was struggling to feel at one with his new mount.
“It’s difficult for me to express too much about it because I don’t want to betray anyone at Chevy and I respect them and all the success we had, but essentially this car is quite different to drive,” he confirms. “Teams work hard at making the best use of the powerplant they have with their chassis setup and yes, the setup is drastically different to what I used to run with Chevy and Penske.”
Is that “drastically different” in the positive sense?
“Drastically different philosophy, I would say. Both ways work. But I was talking to my engineer Garrett [Mothersead] because I have been shocked some changes that he makes that work really well but didn’t work well for me in the past. He said, ‘If I run a simulation of a track, I can find you 10 different setups that will all give you the same speed.’ Interesting. So far it’s been a package that really works well on the car and with the Honda engine.”
Given that Mothersead’s recent seasons at Andretti Autosport were spent with Marco Andretti and Zach Veach, he’s become known for trying to build his driver’s confidence with a setup that doesn’t feel knife-edge. Now with a 15-time race-winner with 10 complete IndyCar seasons in his résumé – something Mothersead relishes, as he stated here last month – he must be happier to let the driver steer setup direction. But that’s not necessarily what Pagenaud wants.
“Obviously I have a lot of experience in this series with these cars and we’re using it to our advantage,” he says, “and obviously Helio has a ton of experience. But I’m really forcing myself to let Garrett lead as much as possible because he is very methodical. I really enjoy the way he works. He’s gets down to the little details that add up to make speed. I worked with Ben for so many years and now I’m seeing someone that works a little differently and I’m trying to grasp what difference that makes, what advantages that gives us.”
Mothersead said after his first test with the Pagenaud/Castroneves combo that the Brazilian veteran gets on the throttle earlier and more aggressively exiting a turn, whereas the Frenchman attacks the corner-entry more vigorously. Pagenaud himself agrees and believes the MSR car’s handling “allows me to unleash myself”, whereas “Helio can deal with no matter what – he finds his ways! Helio’s back at 100 percent; he’s someone to watch this year.”
Whatever the differences in their technique, the pair produced very similar lap times at Sebring. They were both, however, just over a quarter-second off the best effort of semi-teammate Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport, whose flyer admittedly came in more favorable conditions on Monday. But Pagenaud sees only positives from pooling data from six cars whenever race weekend time constraints allow the AA and MSR to take full advantage of their partnership.
“We’re competitors on track but definitely Andretti Autosport supports us on the technical side,” he explains. “It’s a very interesting system and I’m discovering it as I go. I went to the Andretti trailer on Monday, and I felt awkward after racing against them for so many years and suddenly being right in the middle of their discussions. Being able to use their information is very useful. But I also think I bring information to them, so that makes it a good balance, and I’m fascinated by the system.”
Photo by: IndyCar Series
One of those areas where Pagenaud could prove hugely beneficial to the AA-MSR collective is on ovals – a type of track that both Herta and Alexander Rossi have cited as being a weak point for Andretti in recent years. While Pagenaud’s most recent win, at Iowa in 2020, owed much to good fortune (after the bad fortune of having his car fail in qualifying and being relegated to the back), he has also set pole positions there and has also been fast at Gateway. And this is all on top of his aforementioned excellence at Indy.
“I hope I can help, yes, but it’s difficult to say because we won’t be on an oval until Texas,” Pagenaud observes. “At the Indy open test [in April] I’ll get a feel for what I’ve got underneath me for the 500. I know what I need for that race, I know how it feels to have a strong car. But what I need for the Speedway might not work for everyone on the team, there might be some differences, like there were for Helio and me when we were teammates at Penske. But certainly I can give some direction but also be open-minded and buy into their setup philosophies.”
Indy is probably the only oval event at which the seven drivers (Marco Andretti has been confirmed in a fifth AA entry for the 500) will actually have time to make drastic changes according to team direction and driver preferences. The rest will require the teams to roll off the trucks with strong setups, and Pagenaud is very optimistic that MSR and Mothersead can do that.
Pagenaud has been reunited with Castroneves, and Simon believes the Brazilian veteran is back to his best.
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He observes: “I think Garrett has such a good understanding of his driver, very attuned to what his driver needs. He’s constantly trying to understand me. For example, when I say I have understeer or oversteer on a particular corner, he’s always trying to scale it – whether it’s bothering us and hurting lap time or if making it better could affect us negatively on other corners and therefore slow us down on the lap overall. So he’s building his database on me and understanding what I need, and I think that will help him decide well ahead of time what kind of setup I need for the Speedway or any of the ovals.”
He’s on a voyage of discovery right now, but there’s no denying Pagenaud is as positive-sounding as when he commenced his full-time IndyCar career in 2012, or started at Penske in 2015, or embarked on his title defense in 2017. Maybe it’s partly down to that Daytona triumph with Castroneves and MSR’s full-time IMSA drivers Oliver Jarvis and Tom Blomqvist last month. Despite being a whole different discipline, he says Meyer Shank Racing’s Rolex 24 triumph has given everyone a boost.
“They had won Daytona before, but the momentum from this latest win… you can feel it in the atmosphere,” he says. “You can feel everyone is so eager to bring their A-game in IndyCar. It’s a really great vibe right now, and Mike Shank allows his people on the team to flourish in a very nice way. These kinds of results has given them all a ton of momentum.”
Had Castroneves not driven MSR to victory at Indy last year, and had Herta not looked so strong for MSR’s tech partners Andretti Autosport throughout the 2021 season, many would assume Pagenaud’s move for 2022 was driven merely by blind faith and dogged determination to remain in open-wheel racing. But instead he was able to build those two very clear positives into his calculations, and in light of his testing form, should we consider him a dark horse for IndyCar championship?
“Dark horse?…Hmmm, yes, I would like to be seen that way,” he responds. “I don’t have any expectations because I don’t know what the expectations should be. Neither do I want to set myself expectations because it’s the wrong way to look at it mentally. I want to be sure we, as a team, stay ‘in the moment’ as much as possible and push ourselves to extract the best out of what we have each session, each day.
“Easier said than done because expectation always lurks around the corner! I see ‘expectation’ as a bad word because it can create a mental disturbance. For example, in the test I stayed in the moment as much as I could, just thought about how do I manipulate the car to go fastest around this corner, that corner, that corner, and put it all together. Then at the end of the day, there we were, fastest.
“I’m hoping that if we stay focused on all the things we need to do each session, each day, there will be more nice surprises like that this year.”
Pagenaud believes “100 percent” that Daytona glory with Castroneves, and IMSA fulltimers Oli Jarvis and Tom Blomqvist has given MSR momentum.
Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images