Simon Pagenaud looks to repeat at Phoenix, regain championship

IndyCar
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To paraphrase the late Glen Campbell, by the time Simon Pagenaud gets to Phoenix this weekend, he’ll be dreaming about winning again.

Pagenaud has good reason to think that way: he won last year’s Verizon IndyCar series race at the one-mile oval. And that came after finishing second in IndyCar’s return to the track in 2016 after a 10-year absence.

To say Pagenaud is primed to earn another win – or a podium finish at the very least – is putting it mildly. In this season’s first race on an oval track, the French driver is looking forward to taking the checkered flag once again in the 250-lap sprint.

“I’m very confident going in,” Pagenaud told MotorSportsTalk. “We had a great open test there (in February), our car was behaving really well.

“This is all so new to us because we have this new Indy car. It behaved a lot different than the previous one. It has a lot less downforce and accelerates down the straightaway a lot more, so it’s quite a bit different.

“There’s a lot more to think about when you drive, a lot more adjustments needed, so I think it’s going to be good for the race (the first oval of the season). I’m excited. I think Team Penske has done a great job preparing for these kind of events, so I think we’re in good shape.”

After winning five races en route to the 2016 IndyCar championship, Pagenaud was still very competitive in 2017, but won just twice and finished second to teammate Josef Newgarden by 13 points in the championship battle.

Admittedly, the 2018 season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month was not the new season’s debut the three-car Team Penske operation hoped for.

Newgarden was the highest Team Penske finisher (7th), while Will Power was 10th and Pagenaud was 13th in the 24-car field.

“I know that we may have had a one-off weekend and really, quite frankly, I think it was a one-off,” Pagenaud said. “All three of us had some sort of bad luck at some point in the race, but it didn’t reflect the team performance, but we’ll be back up there very shortly.

“And if not, we’ll work hard and find a way. That’s the way it is at Team Penske. We don’t look back, we only look forward. That’s what I love about this team, that we’re always finding ways (to succeed).

“I know we’ll be fighting for the championship, if not all of us, one of us will be. And I’m hoping it will be me, but right now it’s a matter of cracking the code of the car. We’ll be there soon. It’s like one for all and all for one.”

Pagenaud likes the new-style Indy car for this season, but like several of his peers in the series, he admits he’s still getting used to it.

“It’s quite a bit different,” Pagenaud acknowledged. “It’s the first time since 2012 that the weight has been moved forward that much. The weight has been moved by two percent forward, that’s a lot for us.

“It’s definitely changed completely the characteristics of the car. It’s funny but as a racer, you always think about the next time you’re going to be on-track and how you’re going to drive, what you need to adapt to the car.

“I do think there has to be a little bit of change on the driving style. I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, for me it’s just an evolution and I have to adapt. It’s what I’m being given, so the goal is to be the best at it and at the moment, I need to improve in it and find ways to do that.”

The overall dynamic at Team Penske is different this season than in years past, as the operation has slimmed down from a four-car team to a three-car team for the first time since 2014.

“I think the biggest difference is Helio (Castroneves) is such a great spirit, he always brings joy, everybody loves him, there’s no trash talk,” Pagenaud said. “He’s just him, everybody knows him and he’s been around the team for almost 20 years. He has big respect.

“He also had a leadership going that we all liked, he was a reference, a benchmark. Now he’s gone, only coming back for the Indy 500. It’s definitely different, but we’ve kept a good atmosphere, have tried to keep it light in the engineering room and to keep that at-ease attitude. To me, he’s an example.”

Pagenaud is in his ninth full season in Indy car racing. Including one season in CART (2007) and eight seasons in IndyCar since 2011, he’s racked up five top-five season finishes in his career, including his championship season in 2016.

He said that 2018 could be the best season of all for both him and the series, given how IndyCar is riding a wave of increased attendance, TV ratings and overall fan popularity and media interest in the sport.

It’s definitely a season he’s looking forward to see how it plays out, both on- and off-track.

“The future is bright, IndyCar is on the rise and I’m excited,” Pagenaud said. “When we were in St. Pete, seeing the crowds and walking through the paddock, having difficulty to get to the driver intro was great, it was phenomenal (he said with a laugh).

“I was really excited. People love the sport, they love the way the cars look right now and we gave them a great show for the first race, and it’s only the first race. I was saying to Mark Miles (President/CEO of Hulman & Company, parent company of IndyCar) the other day that we’re staying true to our value, to what IndyCar is, the fact we like big cars, big horsepower, noise and on-track fights (he said with another laugh).

“And we’re doing that all on the racetrack. I’m just excited to be part of the sport. I’m glad I made the right decision (to come to the series to race) and I’m grateful enough to get a good ride.”

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