Now that he’s proven himself worthy as a Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Simon Pagenaud is committed to checking off another all-important box on his racing resume.
The Frenchman is focused on figuring out the Indianapolis 500.
The Team Penske driver has been humbled in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” quick at times in five starts but a best finish of just eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Since joining Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske two years ago, the promising Pagenaud has qualified third and eighth for the race, but ended up 10th and 19th.
“She’s been a good lesson of life, for sure,” Pagenaud said Saturday, after a Chevrolet manufacturer test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was postponed to today.
In other words, just like last year’s breakthrough series title, anything worth achieving must be earned. And the Indianapolis 500, as Pagenaud has learned, requires more than just a top-notch team and car. The 200-lap endurance test on the 2.5-mile oval requires a driver to be smart, display patience and continually improve the car to be in the best position at the end. And a little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.
It’s a reality with which teammate Will Power is familiar. The 2014 series champion from Australia is a perennial title contender with 29 career wins, tied for 11th on the all-time list with teammate Helio Castroneves and Penske driver coach Rick Mears. Whereas Mears has won the Indy 500 four times and Castroneves has celebrated three victories, Power is still chasing that elusive accomplishment.
He’s certainly had his share of opportunities. Power qualified in the first three rows for nine of his 10 Indy 500 starts and came agonizingly close as a runner-up to teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015. Power has only one other top-five finish in 2009.
“I have no doubt she could smile on me some day,” Pagenaud said.
He mentions how longtime series driver Tony Kanaan was in the hunt so many times — finishing fifth or better five times — before finally swigging the milk and becoming one of the more popular winners in his 12th Indy 500 start in 2013.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Pagenaud said. “I’m learning the roots of this track. Every year, I come with more knowledge. Every year, I feel more confident. Every year, I feel like it’s getting closer. Every year, I feel like I understand the game better.
“It’s a bit of a maze, but there’s no end to it. At this point, I feel like we’ve got good cars with the best team. Is it going to be this year? Is it going to be next year? I don’t know. But I’m certainly feeling like I’m getting closer.”
Pagenaud, 32, has experienced the thrill of celebrating at the prestigious track. He won his second INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last May. But as every driver knows, and Penske’s record 16 victories remind, the Indy 500 is the prize jewel.
“(At) Team Penske, the 500 is a big highlight of the year,” he said. “We want to regain the crown, so we’re working really hard. The engineers are working really hard at finding extra speed. That’s what we’re here for, validating what they found in the labs basically and trying to get a good direction for the month of May.”
Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing and AJ Foyt Racing are turning laps toward that end in today’s rescheduled test. It’s the second Team Penske test at IMS in nine days.
“It’s an extension of last week’s test basically,” Pagenaud said. “We’ve managed to dissect what we wanted to try, all the items we thought were going to be maybe good for the month of May. Now we’re going into more detail with these items. We’ve peeled off the layers and now we’re more into the core of the fruit, if that’s the right image.”
Pagenaud won five races last year, all on road/street courses. His four previous wins were also on the same type circuits. The reigning champion is still searching for a first oval victory. What better place to accomplish this than Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
“Every time you come here, every time you run on this track, you gain confidence, you gain knowledge about this place,” he said. “It’s such a tricky oval because we run so fast, it’s the fastest place on earth. You run so fast, the car is so much on the edge, aero and mechanical, every little detail counts so much. That’s why we need to be so precise in our developmental side of things, to make the car the best we can with a driver with a lot of confidence.”
He reiterates he’s more relaxed now that he’s won a series championship.
“You know you’ve done it once and you can do it twice,” he said. “I feel more in tune with what I need and where I’m going in my head. Also, I have a better confidence level in my guts. When I have a gut feel, I just feel more confident going for it and I think that could change a lot of things in a good way.”
Pagenaud looks forward to going for it in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28.
“You’ve got to be good throughout the entire race,” he said, “and especially at the end.”