Behind the scenes of Pagenaud, Penske’s Sonoma strategic gem

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For the first time since 2014, the winner of the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale was not also the winner of the championship as well – and the upshot of that is that the race winner got overlooked as a result.

It’s with that in mind that it’s worth looking a bit deeper at Simon Pagenaud’s win on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, with an effort turned in by strategist Kyle Moyer and longtime engineer Ben Bretzman on the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet that would have been more widely hailed if it wasn’t in the backdrop of the championship celebration delivered by teammate Josef Newgarden.

All of Newgarden’s four wins this year, luck-aided in Barber and Toronto and via authoritative moves at Mid-Ohio and Gateway, entered the microscope in a way that shifted the focus to the bigger picture narrative of a championship pursuit in his first year.

Pagenaud’s season, by contrast, has been a series of consistently very good, but rarely great results. The Frenchman was the measure of consistency but admitted there were points left on the table when he didn’t engage the same level of aggression that served him so well en route to the 2016 title. Only at Phoenix, for Pagenaud’s overdue first oval triumph, was there that same 2016 level of beatdown this year.

This makes Pagenaud’s Sonoma drive, his second straight win in wine country, all the more noteworthy and impressive to dig into.

THE FOUR-STOP CALL

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #1 DXC Technology Chevrolet chats to his crew during practice on day 1 of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 15, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

It was obvious when Pagenaud pitted on Lap 11 that he and his team were throwing a strategic gamble into the race, and as it turned out, being the only thing to spice up what would have been an otherwise straightforward and fairly dull race.

Pagenaud’s team had three sets of Firestone red alternate tires available at their disposal for the race start, and by starting on the black primary tires, could afford to run the reds in the race, before going back to blacks at the finish. The early pit stop call was the salvo that this would be a pure pace run to try to beat strategist Tim Cindric, Penske Racing president, at his own game.

“I think what you didn’t know is that probably two hours before the race, the drivers, we sat down, Tim and I sat down with the drivers and we talked about all the scenarios that could take place,” Roger Penske said afterwards in the post-race press conference.

“You’ve been here before when there’s a yellow that comes out that mixes up the field, and Simon put his hand up and said, I’ll be the guy, I’ll commit to come in on lap 10.”

Pagenaud wasn’t immediately keen on the call but trusted Bretzman to see if it could work.

“My engineer texted me when I was at the Verizon dinner, and he said, ‘We’re going to do four stops.’ I’m like, ‘What? Four stops never worked here; why would we do four stops?’ He said, ‘Well, if there’s a yellow, that’s the best way we can win the championship.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, that makes sense, but it’s a long shot.’

COMMITTING TO FOUR, THEN PRODUCING THE FIRST SIGN IT COULD WORK

Pagenaud’s early pit stop dropped him from fourth to 15th, but he was back to second and net leader by Lap 18, resuming on point once Conor Daly from the lead pitted on Lap 21.

The nine laps that followed in Pagenaud’s second stint of the race were huge. He ran six of those nine laps in the 1:19 bracket to build the gap to second place from 7.2835 seconds to 15.6117 seconds before making his next stop.

With Pagenaud on the scuffed reds while most of his rivals were on blacks in the second stint, Pagenaud parlayed Bretzman and Moyer’s strategic advantage to his benefit.

“I was really surprised on the second stint how strong we were compared to everybody. We were able to pass a lot of cars and made some very aggressive passes, and it was starting to really work,” he said.

“When I built a gap on Josef, 10 seconds, and then 11 and then 12, I was like, ooh, I think we have a chance. So then I thought, if we keep putting pressure, maybe something would happen. The strategy worked out really, really well.”

Pagenaud’s pace in the second stint was such that when he pitted for the second time on Lap 30, he only fell to 10th place, and then rebounded to the lead by Lap 40, just shy of halfway once everyone else made their next stops.

THE RACE COMES TO THE NO. 1 CREW

Once Daly pitted again on Lap 42, Pagenaud’s lead by Lap 43 was 25.546 seconds – so a net gain of 10 seconds between on-track pace, pit stops and in-and-out laps over that second stint of the race. And again, Pagenaud had the set of reds working for him and the lap times were again faster than the rest. Pagenaud uncorked five of six laps in the 1:19 range as he built the gap back up before stopping for a third time on Lap 48.

And again, because of the gap he’d built, his positions lost on track were minimal. He exited in third place and now could afford to run deeper into the final stint over the final 37 laps, needing one further stop. But they still had to guard against a yellow, because any full-course caution would have negated the progress and the gap built.

It was the IndyCar equivalent of a 0-0 soccer match where one mistake, one yellow card was all it took to have the tension boil over. Sometimes watching timing & scoring is the most thrilling part of an IndyCar race and this was one of those days.

THE FINAL STOPS, AND THAT DEFENSE

Newgarden was first in on Lap 62 and Pagenaud followed on Lap 64, with a lead of 31.1993 seconds. The pit stop delta is roughly 32 seconds and Pagenaud’s stop by his No. 1 crew was fast enough to propel him out of the pits just ahead of Newgarden, to set up the race’s lone on-track dramatic moment behind the computers. And the tire strategy was flipped too; now Pagenaud was on blacks, Newgarden on reds.

Newgarden made the pass attempt on the inside of Turn 7 but Pagenaud held tough on the outside, which set him up on the ideal line for the corner leaving it.

“It was tough, especially on the black tires. I was thinking about it before the pit stop. I was like, man, I’m going to come out on blacks and he’s going on reds. It’s going to be close!” Pagenaud said. “The in lap the tires were really starting to get used up and starting to have a lot of oversteer out of 7, was using some Push-to-Pass, and the rear end was really coming around a lot, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if it’s going to be enough.’ Then when we did it, I was like, ‘Okay, now I’ve got to really be smart about how I’m going to handle this, ‘so I came out of the pit as hard as I could, took all the risks in the world, and tires came up really quick because I was so aggressive.

“After Turn 7, I knew I could keep it, so then — the nice thing is today I could be on the aggressive side and Josef had to be a little bit more on the defensive side, so I also took advantage of that.”

Newgarden, who still had the championship in his hands at this stage – he’d have needed to fall off the podium to lose that with Pagenaud leading – was still livid at his missed opportunity to pass Pagenaud anyway.

“Oh, 100 percent. I’m not joking. I was kind of steaming inside the car!” Newgarden laughed post-race.

“When I blocked Turn 7 and I saw him diving, I’m like, dude, be careful,” Pagenaud said.

That was the dramatic moment for the race. The strategy play had worked and Pagenaud had his second win of the season, and a fully earned one in his last race for now with the No. 1 adorning his car.

LESSONS LEARNED IN TITLE DEFENSE YEAR

Pagenaud spoke openly at the final two races about how he learned a couple key things this year: sustaining success is harder than achieving it in the first place, and aggression is always needed, particularly when you don’t think your teammate will try a move that’s risky.

The Frenchman was a great ambassador for the series all year as champion, if slightly off a step on-track on pure pace compared to his incredible 2016. Still, completing all laps in the season was incredibly impressive, and that fire to return to the top will only fuel him into the offseason.

“You know, at the end of the day, I think what is important to me is to perform at your best in those conditions. I think to me, the final champion is someone that can bring his A game or extra A game on a given time. I thought we did just that today as a team, myself as a driver, my engineer, my strategist, my guys, my crew in the pit stops. I think we did just that,” he said.

“And to me, when I look at Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and all these guys that really — obviously those guys are Formula 1 drivers, but think about some IndyCar drivers, Franchitti, these guys, when you think about these guys that have really marked the sport, the sport in general, Motorsports, I think today was one of those days for us.

“If you live in the past, you’re not going to improve yourself. Whatever happened there happened. I think Josef obviously won the championship, and that move was critical to his championship. Hat off to him. Next time I’ve got to be better. That’s it.

“Overall, the best man won, and Josef did. On the whole season, he was the strongest. I miss being the strongest, and I will come back next year, and I’m going to try to be the best.

Photo: IndyCar

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

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