I have to apologize in advance for the lateness of this post. There was so much controversy and drama in the aftermath of IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT, and so many other surprises in the top five, that I didn’t do a proper look at winner Simon Pagenaud’s race, and for that matter, a detailed look at his 2013 season.
That’s an oversight that needs to be corrected.
For years, Pagenaud has been IndyCar’s star-in-waiting, a driver destined for greatness and championship contention if he hit the right opportunity with the right team. He’s coming close, now, with HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports in the No. 77 Honda and engineer Ben Bretzman.
As his second full season in the IZOD IndyCar Series nears a close (third overall, counting his 2007 Champ Car rookie campaign), now’s a good time to do an analysis of how the Frenchman occasionally known as “Jean Girard” has emerged as a title sleeper for the last three races.
- 2012: 15 starts, 4 podiums, 6 top-fives, 9 top-10s, 63 laps led, 1 DNF, 11.2 qualifying average, 3 Firestone Fast Six appearances, 5th in points
- 2013: 16 starts, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 4 top-fives, 11 top-10s, 39 laps led, 1 DNF, 12.5 qualifying average, 1 Firestone Fast Six appearance, 3rd in points
On a purely statistical breakdown, those numbers in year two fail to measure up to year one. But I’d expect with three races remaining he can eclipse his first-year stats because the Schmidt team appears to be hitting its stride from an engineering side in the last part of the season. Pagenaud called Baltimore the best combined weekend of the year between himself and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rookie teammate, Tristan Vautier.
“This weekend I think was probably our best weekend as a race team with two cars,” Pagenaud said right after Baltimore. “Allen (McDonald) was very experienced on Tristan’s car and Tristan was very fast straightaway here. So we started with same setup. We went different directions. One direction was better. We kept going in that direction and we improved both cars at the same time.”
More than outright pace, Pagenaud’s consistency and lack of mistakes has served him best in the first two years. Save for points leader Helio Castroneves, Pagenaud has secured the best finishing record with 15 of 16 races this year in the top-13; he’s always maximizing his result on days his car might not have the measure of a Ganassi, a Penske or an Andretti. And with two wins in the most chaotic races of the year, he’s seized the opportunity when it’s come to him.
Where they’re not quite there yet is qualifying. Entering Baltimore, Pagenaud, shockingly to my eyes, had not made a Fast Six appearance yet this year. He had only the 12th-best qualifying average of full-time drivers. With that now in the bank, and Pagenaud as one of only a handful of drivers with Houston experience (he raced there in both Formula Atlantic and Champ Car), I’d expect the No. 77 car in the top-five there all weekend.
- 2012: 5 starts, 1 top-five, 2 top-10s, 16.8 qualifying average
- 2013: 5 starts, 3 top-10s, 13.8 qualifying average
Pagenaud ranks third in road and street course points (311 to Scott Dixon’s 326 and Helio Castroneves’ 315) and a respectable ninth in oval points with 120 in only his second year ever racing ovals. Come the 500-mile finale in Fontana, Pagenaud is a sleeper for success as he’ll now have three 500-mile races under his belt and knows how to pace himself from his endurance racing background.
Qualifying on ovals isn’t imperative, but Pagenaud has improved on these disciplines this year. He’s also one of six drivers getting some laps in at a Firestone tire test on Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; IMS and Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway are far from identical layouts but additional track time never hurts.
Simply, Pagenaud kept his head while others around him wilted. It was a controlled race with opportunistic moves at the right time.
Pagenaud’s Lap 69 will go down in history as one of the race laps of the year, if not the last several years. It began with a perfectly-timed maneuver on Marco Andretti into Turn 1, followed by holding off Andretti’s repass attempt in Turn 3, and then an excellent level of gamesmanship in forcing countryman to Sebastien Bourdais at the outside of Turn 8.
“I’m not going to open the door. I’m going for a race win. I need this for the championship,” he said about the Bourdais battle. “But always clean; I want to always say, he’s a good friend, he’s very clean, and we both race and we both race for different teams and when it’s time to go for the win, you go for the win.”
CAN HE WIN THE TITLE?
Pagenaud is 70 points back of Castroneves and, like fellow Honda driver Dixon, in a spot where he has absolutely nothing to lose over the last three races. But like Dixon, he needs Castroneves to fail to finish one if not both races at Houston to have a realistic chance.
Closing that number of points can be done, though. Dixon’s three-race win streak earlier this year from Pocono to Toronto vaulted him from 92 back of Castroneves to just 29 back (332-240 after Iowa to 425-396 after Toronto 2), a gain of 63 points. And that was with Castroneves finishing in the top-10 in all three races.
Add a sprinkle of bad luck for the Team Penske driver and it could well be a three-horse race for the 2013 IndyCar title, yet.