IndyCar season review: Simon Pagenaud

IndyCar season review: Simon Pagenaud

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Simon Pagenaud

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All images by LAT Photographic

A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and?yes, some troubling incidents, too ” mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.

The fact that the ?500? winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number?so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett are counting down the dirty dozen. Today, it’s?

3rd ” SIMON PAGENAUD
Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Dallara-Honda
Best finish ” 1st, Detroit 2, Baltimore
Best qualifying ” 3rd, Baltimore

Robin Miller writes?

The fact Simon Pagenaud won two races and finished third in the 2013 IndyCar championship is obviously as noteworthy as it was impressive. But it wasn’t that surprising ” not if you’ve been paying attention. Because, as long as he’s been racing in North America, Pagenaud has been on the fast track to success.

From capturing the Atlantic Championship title in 2006, holding his own against Will Power on the same Champ Car team, charging from 24th to eighth on his 2011 IndyCar debut and being rookie of the year in 2012, it’s always been about progress for the 29-year-old Frenchman. So consider 2013 as simply another step his open wheel ascension.

Pagenaud dropped out of the opener and the finale with mechanical problems but finished every other race ” racking up two wins, a second, a fourth, a fifth and eight other top-10 finishes.

His initial victory in the nightcap at Detroit was a combination of speed and smarts as he started sixth, avoided the carnage and led the final 12 laps to give owner Sam Schmidt his first win as well. Pagenaud owned the top spot at Mid-Ohio for 14 laps before Charlie Kimball got by him and Simon settled for second. And his W at Baltimore was easily the most rewarding as he emerged from a wild scrum with countryman Sebastian Bourdais, Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson to lead the final seven circuits.

In both victories, his aggression in traffic and slick maneuvers were the difference makers yet he’s also got that ability to take what the car is capable of and be smart. Simon and engineer Ben Bretzman have formed a great chemistry, if not a growing legacy, and both are hungry for more.

?It was good, but it could have been better,? conceded Pagenaud of 2013. ?I felt like we should have won at least one more race.?

When you factor in that he drives for Schmidt, and not Ganassi or Penske or Andretti, that quote almost sounds ludicrous. A little team winning twice in this ultra-competitive series is a hell of an accomplishment. But this kid thinks like someone who may be driving for one of the Big Three someday soon. Real soon if those teams are paying attention.

David Malsher writes?

There was a period, six races into the season, when this looked like being Simon Pagenaud’s equivalent of the difficult second album by a band that caused a huge sensation with its debut effort. In 2012, Pagenaud had fulfilled the expectations of many of us, and caught others by surprise through not only turning in some great performances but continually doing so. He ended his rookie season fifth in the championship and with several podium visits on the score sheet. Indeed, there were a couple of races where he and team manager Rob Edwards, along with race engineers Ben Bretzman and Nick Snyder were slightly rueful, wondering if they’d missed out on a trip to Victory Lane. Yup, 2012 was that good for the one-car Schmidt Hamilton Racing.

Whether expanding to two cars helped or hindered Sam Schmidt’s team is an interesting debate as part of a story later this winter. What was most depressing was how little momentum there appeared to be in the early stages of 2013 for the team leader. Simon’s rookie teammate Tristan Vautier had done a wonderful job to reach the Firestone Fast Six in both St. Petersburg and Barber as Pagenaud wrestled with mechanical and setup issues. But it was that first race at Detroit ” where Simon had finished on the podium the year before ” that was the nadir. The No. 77 was starting from its highest grid position of the season so far (ninth) but couldn’t hold onto that on race day and Simon trailed home a desultory 12th, with a car that appeared too hard-sprung for the bumpy track.

But remember that saying about the darkest hour being just before the dawn? Overnight, the Schmidt boys performed a miracle and from sixth on the grid for the second Detroit race, Pagenaud was always in the mix for the win. In the second half of the race, which went caution-free, the SHM car was finally able to stretch its legs and its advantage, and Simon proved more than a match for Mike Conway, the guy who had destroyed the field just 24 hours earlier?..

That didn’t signal an opening of the floodgates, but thereafter, Pagenaud was a regular top-six contender once more. Were Simon less ethical, he might have blocked Kimball long enough in Mid-Ohio to bring his own tires up to temperature following his pit stop, and maybe then could have held him off for the win. But no matter, second place was a strong result, and it got even better at Baltimore, where he was on-form all weekend and then outdueled his old Peugeot sports car teammate Sebastien Bourdais before taking the win and a distant shot at the title.

Houston’s double-header brought fourth- and sixth-place finishes, not enough to keep Simon in the championship hunt but still heading to Fontana with a chance at runner-up position. Unfortunately, the team’s  bid ended in engine failure, after Pagenaud produced a stirring drive through the field following a puncture in the early stages.

Taken as a whole then, you have to say it was an excellent season for this young team and its super-sophomore. Yes, the low points were more extreme than in 2012, but the peaks were higher too. A classy performance by a classy combo. Don’t assume that Andretti Autosport will be Honda’s leading contender next season?.

Marshall Pruett writes?

Simon Pagenaud presented an interesting question to ponder after completing the crooked, meandering path that led him to the IndyCar Series in 2012. And by the end of the 2013 season, that question was answered definitively and with style.

The question that came packaged with Pagenaud in 2012 was simple: could a driver with limited Indy car experience pose an immediate threat to the establishment due to his extensive training in other forms of motor racing?

Pagenaud entered his rookie IndyCar season with one year of Champ Car experience to draw from, and that came five years earlier. A few appearances as an IndyCar stand-in during the 2011 season gave the then-28-year-old a glimpse of what he’d be up against, but the real challenge began the following year.

Three podiums and eight top-6 finishes from 15 rounds gave a good indication of Pagenaud’s skills and readiness to compete in 2012. He was rewarded with a fifth-place finish in the championship standings, and also earned Rookie of the Year honors, and yet, incredibly, despite driving for a team that works from a modest budget, Pagenaud and his Lord-that-guy-is-good engineer Ben Bretzman did the impossible and actually moved up in the standings, improving to third in 2013 without any major changes to the funding or resources that were available to the No. 77 HP Honda program. (Restrict a Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske to live with what’s spent on the No. 77, and they’d announce their immediate exit from the series.)

Fifth as a rookie in 2012, third as a sophomore in 2013?it defies everything we’re told about what can be achieved in top-tier championships. It tops anything Marco Andretti has managed in eight seasons, what Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson have done in six, what Takuma Sato has done in four, James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball have done in three?.

But why? Why has Pagenaud been able to skip past the hard part ” the years of toiling away at his open-wheel craft ” and jump right into the thick of the championship battle? That’s the big question he answered so emphatically in 2013, and it all comes down to what he learned when he wasn’t racing Indy cars.

Once the bottom fell out of his open-wheel career at the end of 2007, Pagenaud found refuge in Gil de Ferran’s factory Acura ALMS P2 team (RIGHT), where sports car racing offered a professional growth spurt that spec open-wheel machines would have never provided. Intensive engine and chassis R&D work with Acura, then Peugeot, and more experience from rallying, sedan racing and anything else he could work his way into meant he returned to U.S. open-wheel racing short on Indy car experience, but overflowing with knowledge and skills that most of his rivals did not possess.

Take one of his fellow rivals that are also under the age of 30, and note their gradual progression from year to year. They improve every season, but it’s incremental, a slow, refinement-based process centered on mastering one motor racing discipline and in one type of car. Then take a wild card like Pagenaud who, by the numbers, is an Indy car neophyte, but has settled in to scrap with the Dixons and Powers of the sport. The same is true for Bretzman, who also has a diverse engineering background that extends far beyond open-wheel racing, and came back to Indy car racing looking like a salty veteran.

Put the two of them together (along with the excellent Nick Snyder in a support engineering role), and 2013 was a defining year for differing paths and diverse experience. Pagenaud, along with his engineers, proved that it doesn’t take years of gradual learning in IndyCar to challenge the sport’s best teams and drivers. If anything, they proved it’s possible to become one of the sport’s best in a short amount of time by breaking from tradition.

Pagenaud won twice, had three podiums, and only trailed Dixon/Ganassi and Castroneves/Penske in the standings. He outperformed the entire Andretti Autosport team, two Ganassi entries, one from Team Penske.

If he and the team have any hope of holding onto third, there’s one glaring area that needs to be addressed in 2014, and that’s qualifying. Pagenaud started outside the top-10 in 10 races, and while picking up a combined 61 positions in those 10 races is an impressive statistic, it made finishing closer to the front all but impossible. With less work to do in each race, more wins and points should follow, and while he’s clearly capable of working his way forward, how many champions are crowned after routinely starting from deep in the field? The good news is that Pagenaud’s still a work in progress, and loves nothing more than finding ways to improve himself.

This guy is something special ” cut more from the Dixon school of letting his driving do the talking than some of the other showmen in the series, but that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating what he’s just accomplished. He hasn’t been groomed for years to become an Indy car driver. He hasn’t been handed all of the tools and toys the top teams have. He isn’t celebrated or spoken of in hushed reverie.

He’s the guy who came out of nowhere, worked his derriere off to get an opportunity with a small team, and is being rewarded for becoming the most well-rounded driver in the series. Imagine what the guy could do if the scales were leveled.

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