TORONTO – Simon Pagenaud is back in the conversation for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship after the driver from France scored an impressive victory in the Honda Indy Toronto on Bastille Day.
By winning the race from the pole and leading 80 laps in the 85-lap contest, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner has put aside his celebration from winning the Memorial Day Weekend Classic and is ready to focus on another IndyCar title.
Since winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud had some major commitments that came with winning the world’s biggest race, including a trip to France. Once Pagenaud returned to the track at Toronto, he concluded the time for celebration was over; it was time to focus on the championship.
“That’s a good point,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “I think that was definitely a closure to go to France and realize the impact of the biggest race in the world. I had no idea the impact it was going to have in France. It was quite incredible.
“We’re actually going back in August for a media tour with INDYCAR to celebrate with the media there and fans in my hometown as well, which I’m really excited about. (The) Borg-Warner (Trophy) is going to be there. Those are good moments, too.
“I’m definitely switched to championship mode now even though I’m a happy person.”
This weekend on the streets of Toronto, Pagenaud was the fastest in every practice session, won the pole on Saturday and easily won the 85-lap race on Sunday when he was in front for 80 laps.
He defeated Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing in a race that finished under yellow after Pagenaud’s teammate, Will Power, stuffed his No. 12 Chevrolet into the Turn 8 tire barrier.
“What a great weekend really,” Pagenaud said afterwards. “We were really hooked up the whole weekend with a fantastic race car.
“Then it’s Bastille Day in France. Being able to win for France, after winning Indianapolis, it’s been a special year. I’m very proud to fly the French flag here in a cousin country, which is Canada. I’m really excited and proud.
“I guess the French guy is leading the Tour de France today on the bike. I felt like I had to do the same. Super proud.”
Pagenaud’s near-perfect weekend also shows his resurgence in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series points championship. It was his third win of the season, but his first since his spectacular “Month of May” in Indianapolis.
Pagenaud moved up to third in the standings and is now 39 points behind championship leader and teammate Josef Newgarden.
“What a great day for the team, great stops, great strategy and you had to hold off one of the best guys in the business behind you in Scott Dixon,” team owner Roger Penske said in Victory Lane of Pagenaud’s performance.
Dixon’s second place finish has him fourth in points, but he is 86 points behind Newgarden with six races left.
Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport finished third in a Honda and is now just four points behind Newgarden heading into Saturday night’s race at Iowa Speedway. He finished one position ahead of Newgarden, who clings to the championship lead that he has held for 10 of the 11 rounds in the championship.
While Rossi is closing in on Newgarden, Pagenaud is back to within striking distance of the lead. With six races remaining in the season, he promises to fight his way all the way to the final race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway in Laguna Seca, California on September 22.
“If you look at my Indy car career, I’ve been fighting for championships almost every year,” Pagenaud said. “Never count me out. That’s all I can say.
“Maybe here in the end, I’m showing it today, that’s my determination that’s talking, it’s not pretentious, it’s just that I have a great team behind me. We won the biggest race in the world. We just won an awesome race (in Toronto). To be at a driver track where you need to have a really good car, chassis and engine, we showed that today.
“We’ve got all the equipment, all the tools to do so well. Now it’s just a matter of knowing when to push it. It’s a long championship. You’ve got to build it. I’m here and I think Newgarden, Rossi and Dixon know it, like I know they’re here, too.
“It’s going to be a great fight in the end.”
The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?