Rookies get all the attention at Indianapolis. And then they become sophomores, where they’re now wiser fools and more grown up.
Simon Pagenaud’s among the crop of second-year drivers at Indy, and the Frenchman’s undoubtedly more comfortable this go-around in the No. 77 HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Honda. For one thing, this race last year wasn’t just his first Indianapolis 500, but also his first oval race – ever.
“We’ve come such a long way since Indy last year,” he explained during the Indy 500 media day on Monday in Milwaukee. “My comfort level is there with the way the racecar feels. Last year the team was very conservative with me and I hit my stride slowly. I wasn’t very comfortable yet.
“But after a few oval races, I saw I got up to the task pretty quick. Now we found a setup exactly right for me. It’s a bit aggressive. It suits me really well.”
One of Pagenaud’s greatest assets is his ability to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. He had the tutelage of veteran Townsend Bell a year ago in the SHM stable, but now has a rookie teammate for the full season in countryman Tristan Vautier, and a last-minute addition with Katherine Legge in a third car for the 500.
The additional efforts in the Schmidt team aren’t a distraction to Pagenaud, as he’s focusing on his setup first and making sure that setup can transfer to his teammates if need be.
“The essential thing is finding a setup that suits me,” he said. “And I guess it must be really good, because we put it on Katherine’s car and she was flat in four laps! It highlights the good job they’ve been doing.
“It’s a bit of a stretch to have three cars, and it’s very different to last year. But the team is well focused on the goals and what we’re doing. I’m working with Ben (Bretzman), Tristan with Allen (McDonald), Katherine with an Indy Lights engineer (Chris Finch). It doesn’t change much, so long as we don’t get distracted.”
Although Honda’s lacked the outright speed compared to Chevrolet thus far this month, Pagenaud isn’t worried because of the projected gains it’s looking to find on Carb Day. Additionally, Pagenaud’s pace is close to the longtime Honda flag-bearer, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, so that’s an additional boost. No pun is intended given the cars will have the turbo boost reduced back to 130 kPa on race day after an increase to 140 kPa, an additional 40 horsepower, for qualifying.
“I think we’re really happy with it. We’re pretty close to the red (Target) cars, so I think that’s a very good indication of how the team has been working,” he said.
“We all hoped we’d be further up the grid but have a great hope for the race! Honda is always very good for long races. You saw Dario won from being last last year after the first stop. As long as the car is good and it is, I feel confident.
“The nice thing about our car, the balance is so nice. We can be fairly aggressive. The trick part about the Indy 500 is to pick the right level of downforce.”
Seasoned IndyCar observers know Pagenaud and the HP’s team’s ability, and a good run on Sunday will go quite a ways to building his stature outside the bubble.