Those who’ve followed Simon Pagenaud for years, as he’s now been racing in North America for a decade, know his innate talent and versatility.
Yet something weird happened after he entered arguably the best team in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Team Penske, last year: he had his worst season yet on these shores.
It’s not that Pagenaud forgot how to drive, or his longtime engineer Ben Bretzman forgot how to set up a car.
But with the meshing of new parts – as Penske expanded to a fourth car for the first time in history – it produced some growing pains.
It was a new entry, with a new crew, and a new engine and aero package for Pagenaud, who’d been with Honda in sports cars and open wheel from 2008 through 2014. Last year was his first year with a Chevrolet, which made the struggles all the more surprising considering the Chevrolet aero kit had Honda’s number all year.
Pagenaud delivered a 5.2 average grid position, but it translated only into a 10.6 average finish. He scored one pole, no wins and only two podium finishes to end 11th in points, after top-five finishes each of the first three years.
With a year under their belt and a more cohesive chemistry in place, Pagenaud would be the early candidate to be “most improved driver” in 2016.
“Big time,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports at Phoenix when he asked how much better he feels going into 2016.
“I feel like I just need to do my thing. Ben and I have been working for years together, but now we’re comfortable in the Penske system, so we’re just doing our thing and that’s what we did for two days.”
The Phoenix test was a major confidence booster for the driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet.
Pagenaud’s road and street course prowess is unquestioned and last year, arguably his best races came on the large ovals at Indianapolis, Fontana and Pocono.
But it was the short ovals where he felt he still needed to get better. It may only be testing, but Pagenaud seemed to have both the pace in single-car runs and the comfort level in traffic to make that necessary next step ahead of the race in Phoenix on April 2.
Given his teammates Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power were also pacesetters, it was important for Pagenaud to measure up.
“It was awesome, great to get some testing,” he said. “Now, I’m pretty confident in what I need to do and what I need from the car.
“The Chevy package suits me a little better, too. It’s just a matter of understanding everything we have.”
Pagenaud expanded on what else he needs to address going into 2016.
“Yeah, it’s all about execution at the end of the day,” he said. “Superspeedways, we’ll be there, we’re super strong, probably the strongest. Street courses, we’ll be back where we were at Toronto, which means in the front two. On road courses, we should be strong.
“Definitely, short ovals have been our weakness in the past. We’ve worked on that. I wouldn’t say we’re dominant, we still have some work to do, but we’re definitely getting there.”