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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with this year’s runner-up, Simon Pagenaud. Carrying the No. 1 for the first time in his career, Pagenaud had an excellent encore campaign to his title season of 2016 that in almost any other year would have netted a repeat – but was marginally short at a couple of occasions.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 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
  • 2017: 2nd Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 13 Top-5, 15 Top-10, 187 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 5.3 Avg. Finish

Evaluating Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season is a real challenge. On one hand, Pagenaud turned in a year that, more than 90 percent of the time, should have been enough to defend his title. He completed every single lap of competition, won twice, and was the series leader in top-five and top-10 finishes. Pagenaud was the king of picking up valuable points at nearly every opportunity, and together with longtime engineer Ben Bretzman and strategist Kyle Moyer, executed at nearly every round.

And yet, it was the mere fraction of races when Pagenaud didn’t exert his inner lion from last year that he’ll look back on and realize that was where his title defense was lost, even as he was the best-finishing champion in his championship defense his year since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012.

Three occasions stick out in the latter category and it’s any of these three that could have been enough to erase the 13-point gap. At Texas, Pagenaud drove smartly while most of the field lost its head and finished third – but those were 15 points lost to Will Power, who won. At Toronto, Pagenaud was the dominant Penske driver all weekend from his lone pole position of the year, but he and Helio Castroneves got caught out by Tony Kanaan’s incident that brought out a full-course yellow. He ended seventh, which was his fourth worst finish of the year. And of course at Gateway, he left the door open just enough for Josef Newgarden to barge through, and the resultant 25-point swing as he dropped to third shifted a would-have-been 18-point deficit to Newgarden to 43. Alas, the “what if” game is dangerous to play.

Where Pagenaud excelled this year was in overcoming adversity from qualifying struggles, which was the biggest surprise of his season. The absolute qualifying star of 2016 with seven poles, and an eighth inherited when Power was forced out of St. Petersburg, only managed the one pole this year, along with a 4.7-average grid spot drop year on year from 3.9 to 8.6. Only twice was Pagenaud Penske’s top qualifier – at Toronto and Pocono – and he only made four of nine Firestone Fast Six rounds. Some circumstances dropped him back outside his control, namely the opening two street races in St. Petersburg and Long Beach, the latter where he got a penalty for impeding and started stone last. Pagenaud admitted at the end of the season that sustaining pace and setups was a challenge; by trying to improve what was optimal pace from 2016, the No. 1 team actually took a step back performance-wise.

All that said, minor critiques are easy to overlook in a year where Pagenaud represented IndyCar well as defending champion. His personality came out a bit more, namely in the Team Penske “Penske Games” digital series, with his “hula hoop on a regular day” line even becoming a T-shirt. His two wins were statement drives for his career – Phoenix as he finally won an oval and was ebullient about it, and Sonoma after a brilliant strategic effort to win pushing despite making an extra stop. It was a great season all told, if just that fraction off his 2016 title campaign.

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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