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.