Getty Images

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

Leave a comment

MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with this year’s runner-up, Simon Pagenaud. Carrying the No. 1 for the first time in his career, Pagenaud had an excellent encore campaign to his title season of 2016 that in almost any other year would have netted a repeat – but was marginally short at a couple of occasions.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2016: Champion, 5 Wins, 7 Poles, 8 Podiums, 10 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 406 Laps Led, 3.9 Avg. Start, 6.1 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 2nd Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 13 Top-5, 15 Top-10, 187 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 5.3 Avg. Finish

Evaluating Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season is a real challenge. On one hand, Pagenaud turned in a year that, more than 90 percent of the time, should have been enough to defend his title. He completed every single lap of competition, won twice, and was the series leader in top-five and top-10 finishes. Pagenaud was the king of picking up valuable points at nearly every opportunity, and together with longtime engineer Ben Bretzman and strategist Kyle Moyer, executed at nearly every round.

And yet, it was the mere fraction of races when Pagenaud didn’t exert his inner lion from last year that he’ll look back on and realize that was where his title defense was lost, even as he was the best-finishing champion in his championship defense his year since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012.

Three occasions stick out in the latter category and it’s any of these three that could have been enough to erase the 13-point gap. At Texas, Pagenaud drove smartly while most of the field lost its head and finished third – but those were 15 points lost to Will Power, who won. At Toronto, Pagenaud was the dominant Penske driver all weekend from his lone pole position of the year, but he and Helio Castroneves got caught out by Tony Kanaan’s incident that brought out a full-course yellow. He ended seventh, which was his fourth worst finish of the year. And of course at Gateway, he left the door open just enough for Josef Newgarden to barge through, and the resultant 25-point swing as he dropped to third shifted a would-have-been 18-point deficit to Newgarden to 43. Alas, the “what if” game is dangerous to play.

Where Pagenaud excelled this year was in overcoming adversity from qualifying struggles, which was the biggest surprise of his season. The absolute qualifying star of 2016 with seven poles, and an eighth inherited when Power was forced out of St. Petersburg, only managed the one pole this year, along with a 4.7-average grid spot drop year on year from 3.9 to 8.6. Only twice was Pagenaud Penske’s top qualifier – at Toronto and Pocono – and he only made four of nine Firestone Fast Six rounds. Some circumstances dropped him back outside his control, namely the opening two street races in St. Petersburg and Long Beach, the latter where he got a penalty for impeding and started stone last. Pagenaud admitted at the end of the season that sustaining pace and setups was a challenge; by trying to improve what was optimal pace from 2016, the No. 1 team actually took a step back performance-wise.

All that said, minor critiques are easy to overlook in a year where Pagenaud represented IndyCar well as defending champion. His personality came out a bit more, namely in the Team Penske “Penske Games” digital series, with his “hula hoop on a regular day” line even becoming a T-shirt. His two wins were statement drives for his career – Phoenix as he finally won an oval and was ebullient about it, and Sonoma after a brilliant strategic effort to win pushing despite making an extra stop. It was a great season all told, if just that fraction off his 2016 title campaign.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne