“Aggressive,” “gritty” and “determined” aren’t words we ordinarily use to describe Simon Pagenaud.
But those descriptors are probably the best three to explain how the Verizon IndyCar Series points leader not only survived the Honda Indy 200 weekend, but thrived in a steely performance that saw him take one pretty big step towards securing his first series championship.
Pagenaud, who ironically made a fill-in appearance at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the late Justin Wilson when Wilson sustained a back injury after running off at Turn 1 in 2011, let slip that he’d had back pain of his own sustained on Friday of this weekend.
The driver of the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet for Team Penske then apparently decided to turn into Iron Man for the rest of the weekend, because what he did from there was extraordinary.
We’ve written a lot this year about what Pagenaud’s wins mean. There was his Barber coming full circle after making his return to IndyCar there in 2011, his three-in-a-row run after the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and where he stood at the halfway mark with this being his title to lose, albeit before some poor luck and mechanical woes cost him some extra points.
Mid-Ohio on Sunday though, might have been a career defining victory.
POLE BOOST PUTS PAGENAUD BACK IN WIN FRAME
On Saturday, with Scott Dixon having been the proverbial pole position favorite and with Pagenaud typically lurking in the third to fifth range but not the out-and-out fastest, a mix of key strategy and typically good setup from Pagenaud’s longtime engineer Ben Bretzman fueled a pole position – Pagenaud’s sixth of the season (and seventh time he’s started first, after St. Petersburg).
The result was yet another confidence booster in a year of them. Pagenaud did the business of outqualifying teammate Will Power for the eighth time in 12 completed races this year. The pole was his first on a road or street course since his Detroit doubleheader pole sweep in June, and first overall since securing Team Penske’s 500th overall pole in all series earlier in July at Iowa.
ATTACK MODE FOR PAGENAUD ON SUNDAY
And then on Sunday, something unusual for him but welcome happened: Pagenaud got aggressive with the race, and potentially the championship, on the line.
Power had gotten back around Pagenaud following the second round of green flag pit stops, but both drivers were the ones pushing surprise leader Mikhail Aleshin, who proved a formidable opponent as he gapped them both by more than 10 seconds.
Once Aleshin fell by the wayside and Conor Daly assumed the lead following the second caution and the final round of stops, the No. 12 crew had again, only slightly, edged Pagenaud’s No. 22 crew.
Power had finished ahead of Pagenaud the last four races with his run of first, first, second and first since Detroit race two.
And losing more points after conceding 90 to Power since his last win at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis back in May was not looking like a good option for Pagenaud.
What was a 137-point gap over his teammate in mid-May was now 47 here, and potentially down to 38 if Power got another 10 or more points.
So it left the 32-year-old Frenchman with a decision – do I accept the fact that I’m running behind Power, take my lumps and lose more points?
Or, do I risk the car being penalized post-race for being overweight, because of the giant stones attached that come with making a passing attempt on Power at a track where overtaking is limited, and at a corner where the number of successful attempts is in single digits?
The new, 2016 version of Pagenaud showed the same level of commitment and bravery he did on another permanent road course this year, in a similar “pass for the win or bust” situation at Barber Motorsports Park back in April.
If Pagenaud’s final 10-lap duel with Graham Rahal was the finish of the season, then Pagenaud’s first inside at Turn 11, then switch back right to the inside of Turn 12 at Mid-Ohio pass of Power was the pass of the season – and it will go down as the defining move of the season if in fact Pagenaud hangs on for the title.
THE PROTAGONISTS REFLECT
“I knew that my only chance was really going to be on the restart,” Pagenaud said.
“I knew that was going to be my chance. And I tried to set him up in four; didn’t work out. Tried for five, and six, didn’t work out. And again, he made a little mistake on nine.
“So then it was my chance for 11, which is a very tricky corner to pass, but we managed to make it side-by-side. And then I crossed him in 12, and that was it for the pass.
“It was an interesting lap, too. I was out of breath at the end of the lap. But it was great racing. Will raced me hard and fair as usual, and I thought it was really good for the fans. Thanks to Penske for letting us race like this.
“I was calculating in my head, if I finish second to Will, I lose ten points, and that’s only 38 (gap). You don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four races. So I thought this is my time to go because I didn’t have much to lose. It was my time to be aggressive. The car was just fantastic to drive on the attack more and I took a chance and it worked out. So that was the right approach, and when it works out, it’s great; it’s just one of these days.”
Power rued his mistake for not restarting as strong as he wanted to, but then admitted he had to back out by way of Pagenaud’s forceful move.
“I just blew it. I should have done a much better job on that restart,” he said. “I kick myself for not being on top of it more. It’s a situation of trying to defend and getting in marbles and eventually getting passed.
“I got pickup on the tires and kind of went wide and got more pickup. I was quite slow. So you know, I just made a dog’s breakfast of the bloody restart, which allowed him to get into the position to have a shot. And if you have a shot, of course you can’t pass it; you’ve got to go for it, and he did.
“Actually in the last turn, had I not backed off, we would have crashed. He was quite aggressive the way he threw it in there. At that moment, I thought of it being just — I didn’t want to say — Roger would have been pretty mad if we had taken each other out of first and second potentially. At that point I decided to lift, because he was not going to.”
WHY NOT TAKE THIS ALL ON WITH A BACK ISSUE?
Pagenaud did all this, again, mind you, with a back issue that he barely wanted to discuss. Except once it was out in the open, it meant he had to go out and explain it.
But in typical Pagenaud form, he minced no words and was typically candid in describing what he was going through.
Here’s what Pagenaud said after qualifying on the pole on Saturday:
“I’m struggling. But this morning the pain was 10 out of 10. I didn’t know if I was going to be doing qualifying to be honest. But the doctors took good care of me, and I managed to get in the car, and once the adrenaline got in, it was better, but I’m really struggling sitting here, so we should get done pretty quickly here. I’m kidding.
“I pulled — we don’t know yet what it is exactly. I was in Turn 1, the third lap in on Friday, and then all of a sudden it was like somebody jammed a knife in my back. I’ve been struggling to drive, honestly. I haven’t been doing much, letting my teammate get the car sorted, and I’ve been trying to rest as much as possible. But the doctors took good care of me and tried to have the muscle relax. We’ll see what it is on Monday. I guess I’m going to race anyway, so we’ll see.”
After Sunday, here’s how he felt:
“I was going to go on vacation, but time on the plane is not a good thing. Sitting down is not a good thing. I’ll be lying down for the next week and try to get better. We have four more races and of course the championship, and that’s my main priority, so I might have vacation at home.
“Yes, actually my guy is here on every race. It’s unfortunately it comes from my dad. He’s having the same issues. Unfortunately that’s how I was born. I’ve had this issue since I was a little kid, and it can happen. One time it happened when I was cleaning my car at home. It’s just one of these things you’ve got to deal with it.”
BONUS POINTS PALOOZA
Here’s another thing to note as Pagenaud stretched his points lead back from 47 to 58 points over Power – he’s chalked up an insane amount of bonus points this year.
Pagenaud has six pole positions, has led at least one lap in 10 of 12 completed races (Phoenix, where he finished second, and the Indianapolis 500 are the only two he hasn’t), and led the most laps in five races (St. Petersburg, Barber, Indianapolis GP, Detroit 1 and Detroit 2).
That means we’ve calculated Pagenaud has scored some 26 bonus points in 12 races this year – the six for pole, 10 for leading at least one lap and 10 more from the five races he’s led the most laps, as you get two bonus points for leading the most laps. Bonus points were also awarded for qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
“Pole position is just an advantage you are going to get at the start. Like here, it was a huge advantage. So just work as hard as I can,” he said.
“I just think we have a really good understanding of what we need now for the Red tires, for the Red Firestone tires with Ben, my engineer. And I think that’s why we’ve been able to be so strong in qualifying lately. But certainly six points we got in qualifying, so that’s tremendous for sure, and at the end of the year, it’s important.”
With a 58-point lead on Power and everyone else 111 or more points back, the final four races of the year set up as the showdown that pits the two longtime friends and occasional rivals – who are now teammates at Team Penske – head-to-head for this year’s title fight.
Pagenaud’s aggression has served him well this year, and it may be the single biggest reason it could clinch him his first series title.