Simon Pagenaud and his Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team have proven that they’re capable of mixing it up for race wins with the IZOD IndyCar Series’ big boys. But can they take a championship from them?
Pagenaud won the series’ most recent race back in Baltimore, but at 70 points behind IndyCar points leader Helio Castroneves, the driver of the No. 77 HP Honda can’t afford to falter in either of this weekend’s events at the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston (Sat., 3 p.m. ET and Sun., 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
However, the Frenchman believes he is in good shape to capitalize upon any mistakes from Castroneves or second-place Scott Dixon in the season’s final doubleheader.
“I enjoy my position right now,” Pagenaud said in an INDYCAR teleconference on Wednesday. “I enjoy it because nobody saw us coming. That’s pretty enjoyable…I’m actually excited to be here seen as the underdog. But I really don’t feel like one.
“I feel like I have all my chances. It’s up to me to drive as hard as possible this weekend and score maximum points to catch up on any of them.”
To get himself into this position, Pagenaud has had an impressive second half of 2013 with a win, two podiums, three Top-5s and six Top-10s in his last seven events.
One wonders how much closer he’d be to Castroneves and Dixon in the standings if he didn’t have a mechanical failure in the season opener back in March at St. Petersburg. But at this point of the championship, you can’t dwell on the past but on the present.
And at the present, Pagenaud is one of the hottest drivers in the paddock.
“The beginning of the season was tough, but it helped us as a team to just focus on what was essential,” he said. “We bounced back. Lately, we’ve been the strongest team, strongest combination with the most points scored in the last three [races].
“We just need to keep going. I think we’re going to keep the ball rolling. I’m just very, very excited right now – so excited, anxious to drive, and I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s very simple for me.”
As for Houston specifically, Pagenaud is one of several ex-Champ Car drivers with past experience racing on the 1.7-mile Reliant Park circuit that will be used for this weekend’s events.
However, that experience only consists of a single start in 2007. That race did go well for him as he finished fifth, but Pagenaud isn’t sure how much help his prior knowledge will be.
“It was quite a while ago,” he said. “I remember the track being all concrete and quite bumpy, which should be similar to Baltimore. I’m hopeful that we’re not going to have to change the HP car too much to be fast.
“…There isn’t much testing on a doubleheader. You want to unload and be fast straight away. I really hope that’s going to be the case so we have a good chance to fight back in the championship.”