When Simon Pagenaud first tested on the newly redesigned Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014 ahead of the inaugural GMR Grand Prix, the circuit had a familiar feel.
The 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit had a very technical feel – precise braking points, 90-degree corner angles. He always liked that sensation because he grew up on those types of tracks.
During that test, Pagenaud had flashbacks to the 13-turn, 2.317-mile racetrack he cut his teeth on back in his native France, Circuit Val de Vienne. The similarities were uncanny for the then-Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports driver, and he latched on immediately.
“I grew up at a racetrack that’s quite similar in terms of driving technique, that racetrack was only 20 minutes from my home, and that’s where I learned to drive a car,” Pagenaud said. “I was very well suited to (IMS) because it suited my driving style and therefore it was working together very well. I felt at home right away. I didn’t have to search too far on my driving side to produce lap time. Those are the fun times in racing.”
Pagenaud went on to win that inaugural NTT INDYCAR SERIES race on the IMS road course after starting fourth and leading six laps. He racked up two additional wins, in 2016 and 2019 with Team Penske, and shares the track record three wins with his Penske teammate Will Power.
For Pagenaud, his exceptional craft on the IMS road course, even six years later, is all about home.
“I think it stays in your roots, and it’s what shapes you through the driver that you become,” Pagenaud said. “So, when I go (to the IMS road course), I don’t really have to think too much about my driving. I just do it. I think for those reasons it’s working out pretty well.”
In addition to Pagenaud’s three wins, he has one pole, six top-10 finishes, 68 laps led and an average finish of 6.1 in seven starts on the IMS road course. One would think those numbers are at the top for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES on the circuit, but Power is right there.
In seven races, including July’s GMR Grand Prix, Power has four poles, five top-10 finishes, an average finish of 8.1 and 210 laps led in addition to his three wins.
These two Team Penske drivers have become the dominators of NTT INDYCAR SERIES racing on the IMS road course. Together, they have led 278 of the 581 laps, which is nearly half of the laps completed in seven races.
Both drivers labeled the course as a “European style” track because of the smoothness and grip of the surface, and the safety features and facilities of the track.
For Power, the IMS road course is a change from the fast ovals and street circuits on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule, and he enjoys that. And when Power, the 2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, enjoys something, he’s inherently good at it.
“I enjoy it because it’s different from everything else we do,” Power said. “I would say it is kind of technical. It’s not the hardest track in the world because of the consistent grip level and the very smooth braking zones, but there is technicality to it, because pretty much all the corner sequences are complexes, so there not just one straightforward corner, they have a corner leading into another corner, and that adds technicality to it. I kind of enjoy that compromise.”
As for the age-old question: “Why are they so good here?” That’s a complicated one.
Pagenaud attributed a lot of his success on the IMS road course to Team Penske. He said the organization shines on smooth, European-style racetracks like this one. He believes that puts the team at an advantage over the field when preparing to race at Indy. Plus, Pagenaud said he and his Team Penske teammates, Power and Josef Newgarden, are at their best when they can search a high-grip racetrack for speed.
Power said he believes his success at the track boils down to his qualifying, an area of mastery. Power has 60 INDYCAR poles, just seven shy of tying Mario Andretti’s record of 67. Each of Power’s wins on the IMS road course have come from the pole.
“For me, generally if I qualify on pole at that track, we have a great shot of winning, and that’s been the case for me every time except this last one,” Power said. “I can’t really put my finger on why that is the case, but some tracks favor you a little, maybe it’s the way the strategy works out, maybe it’s the fact you can use your raw pace.
“Each one has been a different circumstance, to be honest, but yeah, you see different drivers win multiple races at different tracks. The Indy road course has been one of those for me.”
Power won the pole for the GMR Grand Prix in July and led a race-high 28 laps. But pit strategy and pit road issues prevented him from winning for the fourth time on the IMS road course in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. The win also would have given Team Penske six consecutive wins on the IMS road course, a rare feat in INDYCAR.
Instead, Scott Dixon cruised to his second win of a so-far dominant season. Dixon has four wins and leads Newgarden by 72 points with three races remaining.
But ask Power, and Dixon’s 2020 win tally should be three.
“When you look back at that race that Dixon won, it was just pure luck,” Power said. “Newgarden and myself were in the very front, and if the pit stop sequence went as per normal, we would have come out at the very front.”
Pagenaud rallied from a 20th starting position to round out the podium in third, while Power finished 20th.
Even though next weekend’s INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR will be held in much different conditions than July’s race, Pagenaud said he expects experience to pay off, especially in a season that has been defined by a lack of on-track testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both drivers are optimistic they can take their strong runs from July and replicate it in October.
“You can take a lot from July, and from Mid-Ohio, too,” he said. “The whole year, because we haven’t had any testing. This car has changed. There’s been a lot of adjustments throughout the year that we’ve had to do through races with no testing. It’s been an interesting year, and definitely past experiences are going to help the weekend coming up. Definitely very important to use that information.”