The question with Simon Pagenaud, when he made his full-time return to open-wheel racing at the beginning of 2012, was not “if” but “when” he’d score his eventual first victory.
When James Hinchcliffe, and later Takuma Sato, beat him to that inaugural triumph earlier this year, there were faint question marks. How could a guy – and team – that was the biggest thorn in the “power teams’” side in 2012 go to relative also-rans not quite in winning contention through the opening part of the season?
If there were any doubts, they were quashed Sunday with Pagenaud finally breaking through in his . This one owed as much to strategy as outright pace, but in the last stint of the race, Pagenaud needed to push like mad to maintain his advantage.
Pagenaud’s Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team opted to start Sunday’s race on Firestone’s alternate red tires, and was able to get rid of them after the caution-filled first half of the race. From there, Pagenaud could afford to run on the blacks the rest of the way with little dropoff.
The No. 77 HP Honda was a handful on Saturday but the team, led by team manager Rob Edwards and engineer Ben Bretzman, made the necessary changes to turn the car around overnight.
“Yesterday was difficult, but they worked really hard,” Pagenaud said. “My engineer Ben, Rick they were looking through everything, the data, trying to understand what we were missing. I think they went to the hotel at midnight, came back early this morning. They all looked pretty tired, but they said they thought they found it.
“When I jumped in the car for the warmup, it was much better, much improved,” he added. “They made some even bigger changes for the race. The car was incredible for the race.”
Pagenaud ran in the top three until his first pit stop and although he dropped as low as 10th, he snuck back to the lead pack once the second pit stop cycle shook out. While leading at the end, after his stops were complete, he had to maintain focus and not lose sight of the goal.
“They fixed the front wing and we were back out in contention,” Pagenaud noted, since his front wing was damaged in the lap 28 first-turn pileup. “From that moment on, I was like, ‘Just go for it, let’s see what happens.’ We gained a position almost every lap and used the push-to—pass again. We found ourselves in the lead by having such a fast car. Once we were in the lead, it was easier to push and do qualifying laps after qualifying laps.”
For Pagenaud, a four-year sojourn into sports car racing and a variety of other part-time opportunities never squashed his dreams or quests of A. returning, and B. winning in IndyCar. The win came in his 39th career open-wheel start; he also won a Formula Atlantic race at Edmonton in 2006, the year he won that series championship.
“I’m 29; I started racing when I was eight,” Pagenaud said. “My goal was either Formula One or IndyCar. It’s 21 years of hard work, trying to make my dad believe I could make it happen. Then (I had to) have sponsors helping me throughout the young years of my career, then have people like Sam (Schmidt) and Davey (Hamilton) believe in me when I was doing sports cars.
“The last two laps I was quite emotional in the car. It was difficult to stay focused. But it worked out. When I crossed the finish line, it was a sweet moment.”