The stress of winning his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship behind him, Simon Pagenaud has that weight now off his shoulders.
The question now is whether he can repeat, a feat no singular driver has done since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced in 2012 and something Team Penske hasn’t done since 2001.
Dario Franchitti (2010 and 2011) and Gil de Ferran (2000 and 2001) were the last respective series and Team Penske champions. The defending champion has finished third or worse each of the last five seasons.
Nonetheless, with the transition year in the bank and last year’s career year behind him, Pagenaud has no turnover in his Team Penske crew. The only thing that’s different is a number switch – 22 takes a back-seat to the champion’s No. 1.
“I’m excited to run No. 1. It’s a testament to a great previous year. It’s also a testament and a thank you to our partners at Team Penske,” Pagenaud told reporters during a teleconference Tuesday.
“They’ve followed us into this adventure. They’ve wanted to be our partners. We won the championship together. It’s a way to say thanks to them. Here we are the defending champions.
“It’s a way to also be proud of what we’ve done, but also raise our game this year trying to keep it.”
It’ll be hard for Pagenaud to improve upon his five wins and seven poles (an eighth was added after Will Power didn’t start at St. Petersburg), but that’ll be the goal for Pagenaud this season, after an offseason that saw him try to rest when he could in an otherwise whirlwind round of media activity both nationally and his home country of France.
The mental improvement from year one to year two for him saw him in a better state of mind most weekends last year anyway, and that translated to success on track. Putting together probably the most dominant weekend of his career at Sonoma didn’t hurt, either.
“Yeah, absolutely, it has been a relief. It also helped me grow into a different position mentally,” he explained. “I feel a lot more clear in my head because I’m not stressing about getting my first championship.
“We always said that the first one’s the hardest to get. I hope that’s true. But I do feel more relieved, and definitely more focused on the actual job and not the results.
“On that race, that race at Sonoma, I just felt like I had to take my destiny in my own hands. I went and tried to put the best weekend of my career together, which I did. My team helped me tremendously at doing the same thing.”
Where Pagenaud also improved over the course of the season last year was in his aggression. He lost at St. Petersburg after Juan Pablo Montoya got ahead of him on a restart but by Mid-Ohio, he’d channeled an aggression not often seen with a pass that was good to win there versus Power.
“This year, I’m planning on just being one with my team, being one with my car, and trying to maximize again my opportunities,” Pagenaud said. “Hopefully we can have domination again. I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but I’m planning on doing a similar thing by being aggressive.”
Without changes to the team or car this year, the across-the-board swap from Brembo to PFC brakes will require a bit of an adjustment, and that’s something Pagenaud will look to excel with.
“One of the first ones that comes to my mind is just adapting to the new PFC brakes really, compared to last year,” he said. “That’s going to be the only difference on the race car. That might change the way the car behaves on entry of the corner since you’re trail braking into the corners with those cars.
“You know, I think what you have to deal with is sometimes the outside factors, you know. You may have good luck one weekend, things might go really well. Some other weekends it might not be the case. You can’t control it. You just have to bounce back or keep going depending on the success.
“But I think the main thing is to remain walking on the line I’ve been walking on, finding the limits and not going above or under, and keeping that a trend during the season.”
Pagenaud looks for his first St. Petersburg win in IndyCar this weekend.