Last year in Detroit, most of us spent the Saturday evening recovering from the shock of seeing Mike Conway’s Dale Coyne Racing No. 18 car blitz all the full-time entrants in the first race of the Chevrolet Indy Dual In Detroit. But Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports’ Simon Pagenaud spent the evening with his race engineer Ben Bretzman discussing how to cure the No. 77 car of the problems that had rendered it an also-ran. Their hard work paid off and on Sunday, Pagenaud defeated all-comers with a relentless charge to earn his first IndyCar victory. RACER editor David Malsher asked Simon for the low-down on the attractive and demanding Belle Isle track.
RACER: How hard is it, after two weeks of focusing on turning left on a smooth oval, to now be looking at street course setups?
Simon Pagenaud: Very hard, to be honest with you. This schedule is so packed, it’s become hard to really get a chance to sit down and analyze yourself and your car’s performance. For example, we won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but we haven’t had a chance to do any research on why we were so competitive, because the very next day was the first day of practice for the Indy 500. On the oval, we struggled a little bit, but we don’t have time to think about that too much either because now we’re looking at street course setups again for Detroit. Then the weekend after that, we’re back to an oval… Finding the time to understand everything and keep improving has been difficult because we just keep moving on. Physically, a packed schedule is not a problem; technically, it’s very demanding.
For someone like you, who’s known for throwing himself into the technical side of it, this must be frustrating. You’re a known perfectionist.
Yeah, it’s frustrating thinking that the car should be good – we won last year and had a good car in Long Beach this year – but not knowing, because we haven’t had a chance to keep improving the details, you know? I guess it’s a case of whatever you developed during the winter is what you’re going to have in the race, and you have to deal with it.
Last year, what in particular were you able to improve overnight after the first race where you were nowhere, and suddenly become so good that you could win on Sunday? As I recall, Conway could match you on the reds, but on blacks, you were gone, and that stint on the primary tires was key to your success.
Well, the way IndyCar is at the moment, obviously a lot of the car is spec but the shock and damper program is quite open in comparison, so that becomes one of the key factors, especially on a bumpy track, in deciding what is a good car and what is not. The important thing is to match the damper forces to the spring level, so whatever softness/stiffness rates you’re running, they must really match the velocity and frequency of the forces acting upon them. Some tracks have a higher frequency of bumps than others, so this also changes the game and up until the second race at Detroit last year, it was something we didn’t really have our finger on. But because we were so out to lunch in the first race, we felt we had to solve the problem right then, that night, and work out what we needed for the remainder of the season because there are so many street circuits. And we got it right.
I’m assuming the Firestone factor throws further doubt in your mind. Apparently, the blacks are going to be the same as at St. Pete and Long Beach this year…but at Long Beach, some drivers set their best times on blacks and were all over the place on the grippier primaries. Are you confident that last year’s Detroit setup will work with this year’s tire compound?
No! I’m not confident, and this is what is interesting and keeps things spicy. On the other hand, we did understand the tires well at Long Beach so we should be OK. The other thing is of course that we don’t get the red tires until qualifying, and so we have to adapt very quickly – within one lap – to the extra grip that they should provide.
Your first year in IndyCar, Schmidt Peterson was a one car team, then last year added a second car but you were partnered by a rookie. Now you’re with another rookie. How much can you rely on Mikhail Aleshin to give feedback that’s useful to you?
Well, Mikhail is very experienced, though not in IndyCar. He’s pretty good at knowing what he needs to go fast, so we’ve been sharing quite a bit of information this year and I don’t really feel like he’s a rookie. I can rely on him quite a bit, we’ve started to act as a two-car team and that’s been part of our success this year. So far, the difficulty for him is to learn the tracks, not the cars, and by the second day of a race weekend he’s pretty much up to speed.
Do you have similar driving styles?
Er…no, actually we don’t, but that’s a good thing because sometimes he’s going to be better in one corner and I’m better in others and when we put our data together we both make progress. How do I put this…? Mikhail is a lot more aggressive with the pedals and the steering inputs than I am, so that requires different things from the car, but I can still see if his technique is better in certain corners and I can use that.
You’ve never really been one to focus on qualifying setups – you’re a bit like a latter-day Al Unser Jr. If you’re in the top 10 on the grid, you’re probably going to be at or near the front at some point in the race; if you qualify in the first two rows, then the others better watch out because you’re going to be superfast on race day. Is that a definite policy by you and the team, or is it just the way things have played out?
I think the main reason is that with my sports car background, I’m able to set a car up to be consistently fast through a stint, through a race, which can give us an edge. Qualifying, yeah, we’ve improved but with the Dallara DW12, the setup required for maximum qualifying speed is very different from what’s required for the race. In the past, I used the same setup, which was not ideal for grid position, but this year we’ve tried to shift gear and be competitive in qualifying too and I believe we have been. I’d say I’m still working on extracting a little bit more from myself over one lap but I’m getting there. For me, I can make up for this by retaining the same speed and intensity for 90 laps. And this DW12 has been so good at racing, that if you start in the top eight on a street course, you can make your way to the front if your car is strong.
And the Belle Isle track seems pretty good for passing places. Certainly judging by last year’s races…
Yeah, it’s a really good track, a lot of fun to drive. It has good grip so you can really push the car hard, and it’s very narrow in places so that feeling of speed is pretty intense! But although it’s narrow, the passing chances are good. The restarts are really interesting because through Turns 1 and 2 and all the way down that long straight to Turn 3, you can go side by side which is excellent for the fans. So Turn 3 is also a good passing zone and so is Turn 7.
These are the sixth and seventh races of the season, and only one of them has been on an oval. Have you got any clues regarding which engine is the strongest for this type of track?
Well, so far I’ve been very pleased with the work we’ve done with Honda. As you could see at the Indy 500, the engines were very equal so now we have the top-end power we were missing last year, and on road and street courses, we have a very easy engine to drive with a lot of mid-range. I think we have a very good engine. The twin turbo was certainly a big step but the drivability is at least as good if not better than last year. Hats off to the HPD engineers who worked really hard with us in the winter at Sebring in particular and got the engine to behave really well, really quickly. I think we have a big advantage out of the corners at the moment whereby it’s really easy to put the power down, easy to manage the tires, and when it’s bumpy, that’s a big advantage.
Can Chevrolet drivers combat that with gearing for corner exit speed?
I’ve never driven the Chevy so it would be quite difficult for me to be definitive about how that engine behaves, but they seem to have a very aggressive powerband where all the power is coming in hard, and you can see them spin their wheels at a certain rpm level. They have a lot of power so credit to them for that, but at Honda we have focused a lot on trying to feed in the power in a very linear way and that is helping us tremendously at the moment.
Physically, how hard is Belle Isle? If it went green all the way, would it be tiring? There don’t seem to be that many quick corners so the lateral Gs are probably OK, but there’s a lot of slowing from high speed, so that must take it out of the drivers.
Oh, it’s a tiring racetrack, believe me. It’s bumpy, so your head gets banged from one side to the other and all the time your body is getting pummeled, like in a boxing match. Then the steering wheel gets very heavy because the concrete is very grippy, and so the wheel is trying to get out of your hand all the time. And of course then we have to do two races on consecutive days. I remember last year getting in the car on Sunday really sore, and I’m well prepared, but there’s nothing you can do about it except accept it’s going to be tough and drink as much fluid as you can.
Looking back to last year’s Detroit race, obviously the first win is a big one for any team, but we always kinda knew it was going to happen, bearing in mind how strong you and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports were in 2012. I think more important was that turnaround in performance overnight: that was the kind of thing that only the very best IndyCar teams can do, so it was a landmark win in the stat book, but also had another layer of significance. Would you agree?
Yeah definitely, that was us reaching a peak, and quite frankly, since then we’ve been competitive everywhere. So you’re right, it was a breakthrough and being able to turn things around overnight is an incredible testament to the work we do and our relationship, drivers with engineers. So I take big pride from that weekend, for sure.