Perhaps the best performance of Simon Pagenaud’s rookie season in the IZOD IndyCar Series came at Iowa Speedway. The Frenchman had a poor qualifying effort and had to start 25th on the grid for last year’s Iowa Corn Indy 250, but managed to charge through the field and come home fifth – an impressive feat for a driver that had only done a handful of oval races in his career at that point.
“In our first year at Iowa Speedway, it took us some time to understand what to do with the race car,” he recalls. “In the race, my engineers hit the sweet spot though and the car was really nice to drive. I was able to be aggressive and we made up a ton of ground. I was running in the top-three at the end, so I learned a lot that day.
“I figured out how aggressive I needed to be to succeed here and I hope to do the same this weekend.”
Pagenaud comes to Iowa looking to get back on form after following up his maiden IndyCar victory in the second Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit race with 13th and 12th-place finishes at Texas and Milwaukee respectively. It will be interesting to see if he’s quick off the trailer and can save himself from having to come from the back of the field like he had to last year.
Learning the right amount of aggression at Iowa will be useful for him, but he knows that must be tempered with a constant focus. Iowa has drivers rattling off laps every 18 seconds and going over bumps that have become a part of the high-banked short oval’s character, making for a tough challenge.
“You pretty much spend the whole time in the corners in Iowa,” he said. “There are a lot of bumps, so you have to stay very focused on your line. There’s not really any downtime to think about anything else. You’re just trying to be proactive on the car’s behavior and keep your car as straight as possible when you cross the bumps.”
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More Indianapolis 500 winners have driven to Victory Lane on Firestone tires than all other tires combined.
The synergy and history between Firestone, parent company Bridgestone and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing short of legendary.
MotorSportsTalk has compiled some very interesting facts about the relationship between Firestone, IMS and the Indy 500:
* Firestone has issued tires to all teams in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 that will carry names of all the drivers who have won the 500 on Firestone rubber inscribed on the sidewalls of the tires.
* Other names included in the sidewall inscriptions include Louis Meyer (the first driver to drink milk in Victory Lane), and Mario Andretti (Voted Driver of the Century).
* Firestone produced over 5,000 tires with the commemorative Indy 500 sidewalls to be used during the month of may for practice, qualifying and the historic race itself on Sunday.
* Firestone has accounted for exactly two-thirds of the wins at the Indy 500 – 66 of 99 races contested to date.
* Firestone has won the Indy 500 in 1911, 1913, 1920 through 1941, 1946-1966, 1969-1971, 1996 and 1997, and 2000-2015.
* Firestone has carried more drivers to Indy 500 wins than all other tire manufacturers combined. Goodyear has won 29 races, BFGoodrich won two, Michelin won one and Palmer Cord Tires won one.
* The first winner on Firestone rubber was also the first winner of the Indy 500 – Ray Harroun in 1911.
* Tires will also carry red and white Firestone “F shield” logos that are unique to the Indy 500 and indicate which tires will go on which side of each race car: red for right side and white for left side tires.
* Firestone Racing joined the IndyCar Series in 1996 and has been at every race since. It competed vs. Goodyear for four years (1996-99) until becoming the exclusive tire provider for the 500 in 2000, a position it has held ever since.
* Firestone became the Official Tire of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 in 2002. The current contract for both of those roles runs through the 2018 season (originally extended in Dec. 2012).
* Firestone also sponsors the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. It is also the Official Tire of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
To say Simon Pagenaud is a thinking man’s driver is an understatement.
The French driver has one of the most analytical minds in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It seems like he’s always thinking, always figuring out different scenarios, trying to outthink his fellow competitors.
He’s certainly had a lot to think of recently. He’s riding a three-race winning streak. He’s part of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary celebration.
But right here, right now, Pagenaud has just one race on his mind. As far as he’s concerned, Belle Isle next week is 10 years away, while Texas the week after that is 20 years away.
And don’t even ask Pagenaud if he’s thinking about winning the IndyCar championship.
The only thing on Pagenaud’s mind is winning Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Frenchman’s career, it would also extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 17 Indy 500 victories.
“I’m thinking about the race itself, statistics are after the race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “It’s hard on the last lap if you think about it! I’m always focused on the task itself. Prepare the best we can and try to win.
“When you step into the car, you have to think about how to do the best job you can with your machine. It’s you and your machine, you and your team, let’s get the best strategy possible, make the best pit stops and make no mistakes.
“So you have to be clear-minded and focused on the task. It’s a tunnel vision thing. I’m not thinking of anything else. I’m not thinking about the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, or it being the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“If I was, I tell you what, they wouldn’t work really well. It’s about being in the moment and not thinking about anything else.”
Even with his three-race winning streak (Long Beach, Birmingham Grand Prix of Indianapolis), preparations for the 500 have not gone as well as Pagenaud would like.
“It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who will start in eighth position, the middle of Row 3 on the starting grid. “We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. It’s not been easy to get speed out of the car. We’ve done a good job of trying, but we haven’t found the speed of the Hondas.”
But as concerned as Pagenaud may seem, Penske is more confident than concerned.
“Obviously he’s a hot hand right now and he’s shown how good he is,” Penske said of Pagenaud. “That’s the reason we hired him a year ago.
“I think he wasn’t as happy with his performance in 2015. This is a different race. This race is wide open. It’s a long-distance race. It’s four different corners, lots of strategy.
“Certainly executing in the pits, you saw how good he was last year and bumped into a back marker when he was trying to make a pass there. So I think he’s going to have a great chance. He’s certainly excited.
“John Menard (Pagenaud’s primary sponsor of Menard’s Home Improvement Stores) coming on board is probably one of the great things of the month for us because John has spent a lot of time and a lot of money here over the years.
“(It was) great to see his car in the Winner Circle at the Angie’s road race here a couple of weeks ago. I think (Pagenaud’s) on his way to a championship. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”
Winning the biggest race in the world would also help Pagenaud’s countrymen.
“It’s great news that there’s a lot of interest (in France) in IndyCar,” Pagenaud said. “They’re showing races there. It’s big. There’s also half a large plane coming to the race from my hometown (Poitiers, France).
“I know it’s an American sport, but it’s a worldwide event. The last time a Frenchman won in Indy was 1920. It was Gaston Chevrolet, and I’m driving a Chevrolet! Hopefully, it’s my year.
“What would it mean (if he won)? I don’t know, to be honest. It wouldn’t be a bad time. We’re having a tough time in France right now, so a little bit of joy from the sport would be good.
“It’d be awesome to go back to France with that trophy and that ring on my finger.”
Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr feels bullish about the manufacturer’s chances in the 100th Indianapolis 500, believing all of its cars stand a serious chance of winning Sunday’s race.
Sunday’s ‘500 is a pivotal one for Honda given the occasion and its standing among its numerous motorsport programmes, and is made all the more crucial given its winless start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“We weren’t expecting the outcome of the first few races that we got this year,” St. Cyr conceded.
“We thought we were going to be OK. But obviously when we first came out at St. Pete, especially Phoenix, we had to focus on those, as well.
“I wouldn’t say the beginning part of the season went according to plan. But we kind of know what we have right now and where we’re going with this one.
“We’re working and the other side is working as well to try to improve as much as you can.”
The Honda-powered cars impressed throughout practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appearing to make a significant step up in performance from the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis two weeks ago.
Besides Hinchcliffe getting pole, the Andretti Autosport cars regularly ran quickest through the speed trap with Ryan Hunter-Reay qualifying third, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal has looked strong in race trim.
“The Indy 500 is a major focus for Honda. We really worked hard for 12 months on this particular race,” St. Cyr said.
“We used two of our three allocated boxes from an aerodynamic standpoint on this race. We have a pretty major upgrade of our engine specification for this race.
“As you’ve seen, it’s fairly competitive at this point. Really our whole goal is to get all of our teams with a package that is capable of winning this race.”
And providing such a package is something that St. Cyr believes Honda has achieved.
“It’s pretty great,” he said. “The Andretti guys, the whole Andretti team, all five of their cars, have been fast. They unloaded fast. They typically do really well here. We expect good things out of them.
“The Schmidt Peterson Racing group, all three of them have just had stellar months. You want to give some shouts out to Dale Coyne and those guys who have shown pretty good speed, with people that don’t have a lot of experience running around this track.
“A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato showed something at the end of qualifying. They qualified third in the last group, right? Graham, we expect him to have a real good race, as well.
“All of our teams have legitimate contenders to win this race, so we’re actually really thrilled about that.”