IndyCar 2016 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

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MotorSportsTalk starts its run through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with a look at the newly crowned champion, Simon Pagenaud.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2015: 11th Place, Best Finish 3rd, 1 Pole, 2 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 132 Laps Led, 5.2 Avg. Start, 10.6 Avg. Finish
  • 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

Those who’ve followed Simon Pagenaud’s career since the start of his journey in North America have known a year like 2016 was possible. Still, the fact it happened on the heels of a frustrating and out-of-body campaign like 2015 was a remarkable turnaround story, and spoke to how well the new fourth team at Team Penske had gelled over the winter knowing they would have to be better next year.

It’s funny to think that six or so months ago before St. Petersburg, Pagenaud was the Team Penske driver theoretically on the “hot seat.” But where the No. 22 team fell short of expectations in 2015 was just that – expectations. You naturally figure that when a driver as talented as Pagenaud and an engineer as talented as Ben Bretzman come as a new package with a new crew that while it may take a little bit of time to mesh, they’ll be winning races sooner rather than later. Instead, there were only a couple of strategy-aided podium finishes and more races when the finish didn’t match the qualifying.

That’s not to say there was pressure on Pagenaud this year but there was certainly a vibe that if he and the No. 22 team didn’t say, win one or two races and make a jump from 11th to the top-five in points – as Pagenaud had finished in 2012 through 2014 – it would be a second successive underwhelming year.

Luckily any doubts were removed with back-to-back runner-up finishes to kick off the campaign, and then, and this is where Pagenaud made a big step forward in my eyes this year, but a fantastic mix of aggression and defense that followed in the races at Long Beach and Barber. Putting aside Pagenaud’s pit exit that day, he still had to defend against Scott Dixon – who was driving angry in the moment because he felt Pagenaud should have been issued more than a warning. And Pagenaud didn’t let this win slip away, as perhaps he had to Juan Pablo Montoya following Montoya’s move on a restart at St. Petersburg. Then at Barber, the battle with Graham Rahal provided arguably the road course finish of the year, with Pagenaud prevailing following a pass for the win after he’d lost it earlier in that final 10-lap period. We hadn’t seen him do this much, so seeing it in IndyCar was a good sign.

He dominated in the frigid conditions of the Indianapolis road course. He then endured the second quarter of the season when he finished 13th or worse in three of the next four races, two of them owing to mechanicals, and crucially, didn’t lose the grasp on the points lead he’d built in the first five races.

When Pagenaud needed to drive smart, he did – fourth at Iowa and ninth at Toronto were not standout races but key results. Then when he needed to get aggressive again, he did – and that move he made on Will Power at Mid-Ohio goes down as his pass of the year and perhaps the pass for the championship. It positioned him so well going into the final four races that he still managed to avoid his one stumble, at Pocono, before getting up stronger in Texas and Watkins Glen before bringing it home at Sonoma with his most authoritative weekend of the year.

The final tally shows a year of domination that really hasn’t been witnessed in IndyCar in some time. Five wins is the most for an IndyCar champion in the Dallara DW12 era (since 2012) and most since Dario Franchitti won five in 2009; all other champs since have won four races or fewer since. He was the top qualifier, a season grid average of 3.9 (5.2 in 2015 and 8.6 in 2014 speaks to a marked improvement). He made nine of a possible 10 Firestone Fast Six appearances, including a whopping seven poles. He led 406 of 2,070 laps (19.61 percent) in 12 of 16 races; second most was Josef Newgarden’s 313, but 282 of those were in one race. And he won the title by a whopping 127 points over Power – perhaps a bit skewed by double points seeing as though it was as low as 20 points leaving Pocono – but still a significant number that was between the mid-50s and low-80s over second most of the year.

The Frenchman joins the illustrious list of champs on the 2016 grid: Power, Montoya, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais. And his was wholly deserved following a career year.