Simon Pagenaud sees the glass as half full. His results during the 2018 IndyCar Series season weren’t what he expected – especially when viewed through the successful lens of 2016 and 2017 – but Pagenaud sees the good in 2018 and plans to apply it to the near future.
“I wouldn’t say 2018 was disappointing,” Pagenaud said during a recent test at Sebring International Raceway. “It wasn’t up to my expectation or the team’s expectation, for sure, but at the end of the day we had a strong second half of the year. We finished sixth in the championship after a really tough start. Going over the whole season in detail, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. We raced very well, the guys did a fantastic job in the pits, and we basically tried to understand this new car. We’re still learning it.”
Learning the new universal aero kit continues for every team and driver in the series as the focus shifts from the recent past to the future. Pagenaud and his Team Penske crew made measurable improvements as the new kit was introduced and the season progressed. After two discouraging races at Detroit in June, Pagenaud and his No. 22 Chevrolet turned competitive, finishing among the top eight in each of the remaining nine races.
“We now know where to focus better,” Pagenaud said. “It’s just been a tough acclimation to this new car, and that’s it. It’s very competitive, and we had a bad start to the season. Once you have a bad start, it’s hard to recover. From Detroit on, we actually scored well. There were quite a few races I should have won, but I made mistakes. Overall, we showed improvement.”
Included in the second half of the season were runner-up finishes at Texas and Toronto, along with fourth-place finishes at Gateway and Sonoma. For lead engineer Ben Bretzman, the recovery offered hope.
“There were some good things that happened near the end of the season,” Bretzman said. “We sort of sat back and tried to collect what that was over the past few months and make sure that we understood it. … We’re trying to take the things we learned between Toronto and Sonoma and a couple of other tracks. We’re trying to do things a little more scientifically and make sure we understand it and try to improve it even further.”
One constant – Pagenaud’s reliability – carried over in 2018 from previous years. He recorded just one DNF – a first-lap crash at Long Beach in April – and finished better than he qualified in seven of the 17 races. It wasn’t like 2016, when Pagenaud won five races en route to the championship, but he’s chosen to focus on the positive elements of 2018.
“Quite frankly, I’ve moved on,” Pagenaud said. “I understood why we didn’t have the competitiveness we had in ‘16 and ‘17. Some of it was the change in the car, but other than that, the racing was really good. Our race craft was really good, maybe even better than it was in previous years. You just have to use the good points and the bad points and understand and move forward. That’s what we’re doing.”
The good points occurred more frequently as the 2018 season progressed. Among them were several strong charges after uncharacteristically poor performances in qualifying. At Elkhart Lake, Pagenaud drove from 14th to seventh. At Mid-Ohio, he went from 17th to eighth. At Portland, he started 22nd and raced to sixth place.
The new kit, designed to reduce downforce and make the cars more difficult to drive, was demanding for many IndyCar Series teams in 2018.
“It’s just different,” Bretzman said. “It’s different than what we were used to for Simon and what he wants for his driving style. In some instances, he was comfortable with it. In other instances, he wasn’t. We were trying to learn the nuances for it at different racetracks. We know when we go back to those places, we’ll be even stronger. We raced really well, it just took us most of the weekend to get to where he was comfortable in the race. Now it’s about taking all of that race information and focusing on what those pieces were and putting it all together.”
Aside from some minor changes in mechanics, the No. 22 crew will remain essentially the same in 2019 – veteran Kyle Moyer as strategist, Malcolm Finch on data acquisition and Trevor Lacasse as chief mechanic – with Pagenaud, meticulous and detail-oriented as ever, leading the way.
“Simon is very driven,” Bretzman said. “He wants to do well, but I think he enjoys it more than anything. It’s his passion to really understand it all and try to be the best at it. His approach is all about that. He puts a lot of work into it. It’s not an arrive-and-drive situation. He works really hard at it. It keeps us on our toes, which helps us keep him up to speed.”
Getting up to speed is the short-term goal; Pagenaud and Bretzman see the first five races of 2019, all road and street races, as crucial elements in the goal of returning to a championship.
“It’s super competitive right now,” Pagenaud said. “One bad step in your march toward the weekend, and you’re going backward. It’s a really tough situation for everybody, but that’s what INDYCAR is all about. We all have the same cars and the same equipment. You have to find little things. It’s all about the details and getting all of those little things just right. That’s what we plan to do in ‘19.”