• Simon Pagenaud will be auctioning his Ayrton Senna tribute helmet from the 98th Indy 500 – read more here
Marshall Pruett says…
Small team, modest budget, excellent team manager, excellent technical director, excellent crew, amazing engineer and amazing driver. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ formula for taking on and beating the biggest operations in the Verizon IndyCar Series was put on display in 2014 with Simon Pagenaud just as it was in 2013, and even during his rookie season in 2012.
The Frenchman and his trusty engineer Ben Bretzman went into the new season with a unified vision of consistency and success, and through the first four rounds, the No. 77 Honda held the best average finishing position in the field. Winning from fourth at the GP of Indy was only the beginning of a feelgood month at the Brickyard as the road racing specialist spent the off-season concentrating on improving his oval game, and stunned the Field of 33 at Indy by qualifying fifth.
Leaving the 500 with a decent 12th-place result, a silly, unnecessary clash with Will Power at Detroit 1 sent him into the wall and out of the race for no reason. It was his second incident with the Aussie after being nerfed into the barriers at Long Beach in April. Simon’s anger, while justified, was completely over the top in the LBC. Power screwed up, locked up, and ruined Simon’s race.
I stood about 10 feet away with my colleague Robin Miller after the race when Pagenaud confronted Power, and if we hadn’t known the reason behind his outrage, we might have thought Power shot Simon’s dog and lit his house on fire. Whether it was the pressure beginning to get under his skin, or a newfound determination to attack his rivals in any circumstance, I remember looking at Robin and mentioning something about Simon exposing his belly to Power – revealing a weak spot in his mental game – which could come back to haunt him.
At Detroit, it came to a head. My guess is if it was any driver other than Power in front of him, Simon is less concerned with proving a point and stays out of the wall. Pagenaud has always relied on self-belief, and it’s fair to say he was feeling himself a bit too much at times during the first half of 2014. In private, even some of his rivals began to inquire about the darker version of Pagenaud that was beginning to emerge.
As much as the No. 77 team played the role of Giant Killer and kept most of the field in their rearview mirrors, they also suffered from their lack of size and resources. Putting the entire Andretti Autosport team and three quarters of Ganassi Racing behind Pagenaud was a testament to the quality of their program, but moving higher than fifth in the standings would have required more – more of everything – to equal the preparedness and potential shown by Team Penske and Ganassi’s Scott Dixon.
For all of their unfathomable performances, the biggest surprise for Simon and SPM last season came in qualifying. Missing the Firestone Fast Six on six occasions – half of the road and street course events – was an odd and ongoing theme. As a result, too many of Pagenaud’s races were spent recovering positions that were forfeited in time trials: 14th at St. Pete, 10th at Barber, 17th at Detroit 1, 15th at Sonoma…
Compare that to the drivers Simon was chasing, and the disparity in resources is revealed. Life’s much easier when the distance to first place is just a few spots; when it involves passing half the field, simply making the podium is a treat.
Like most Honda runners in 2014, SPM wasn’t immune from reliability issues. Entering Toronto third in points, an ignition problem had Pagenaud running on less than six of the twin-turbo V6’s cylinders in Race 2, leading to an unsightly 22nd-place finish with four rounds left to run.
With the gap to Power and Castroneves widening, Simon put in three solid races en route to the Fontana finale. Ninth at Mid-Ohio was underwhelming, yet paid points, and a seventh at Milwaukee reaffirmed his maturity on ovals. Third at Sonoma – all the way from 15th – was another long trip caused by missing the boat in qualifying. On the flip side, Pagenaud’s march from P15 to P3 at Sonoma was borderline miraculous. It’s the track where passing is impossible, yet Simon went nuts and defied convention. The tense, outwardly aggressive Pagenaud had given way to his more familiar, natural state, and it was from that pure state where the scything drive in Sonoma was made possible.
Simon’s third consecutive fairytale season came to an end in the wine country. He held a slim mathematical chance of earning the championship, but a crash in night practice at Fontana set the team back and a massive downward spiral was awaiting Pagenaud in the race. The car was diabolical to drive, couldn’t be fixed through normal tuning options, and he closed the season seven laps down in 20th place.
The worst part about Simon Pagenaud’s 2014 season is that it came to an end, and with the curtains being drawn on the championship, so too was his time with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. They knew he was Penske-bound; he wanted to end things on a high note, but with an ill-handling car and his charming teammate Mikhail Aleshin in the hospital, Fontana was a disappointing farewell to an incredibly dynamic relationship.
I’m a lifelong fan of underdogs, which makes the Pagenaud+SPM narrative such a tough one to lose, but Hinchcliffe+SPM could write a new chapter starting in 2015.
Robin Miller says…
The fast, friendly Frog found himself in the thick of the championship for most of 2014 thanks to a couple of wins, always lingering in the Top 5 and his heady driving style. A little more polish on the ovals and Pagenaud might have stolen the title for Schmidt/Peterson but his consistent excellence in the majority of the circuits had him ranked third going into the Fontana finale but with no realistic chance.
The 30-year-old Frenchman led the final five laps to capture the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May before reaching the top step of the podium in the second Houston race with a relatively easy seven-second triumph.
Had he not been gouged by Will Power at Long Beach and caught up in another crash in the Houston opener, Simon would have certainly added to his point total and been more of a serious threat in the closing races. Easily one of the quickest at turning right and left, Pagenaud performed like the elite driver he’s becoming for much of 2014. The 2006 Atlantic champion’s average finish on road and street courses was 8.1 and 12.4 on ovals, which he admits he needs to improve on to become champ.
And that figures to happen real quick. His technical savvy and the prowess of engineer Ben Bretzman managed to make them contenders for a third straight season and earned them both a job with Roger Penske. Four-time Indy winner Rick Mears will do for Simon what he did for Helio Castroneves and Power and he’ll be one of the favorites for No. 1 in 2015.
David Malsher says…
A strange season for Simon Pagenaud and certainly not one I expected would lead to employment by the reigning champions, Team Penske, for 2015. It makes sense that when Helio Castroneves and/or Juan Montoya hang up their helmet, Roger will already have another ace in his prime alongside Will Power in the Penske family. But I’m slightly surprised that Pagenaud earned the gig after a season in which he fluctuated between brilliance and anonymity.
You can argue that even scoring top-six-but-non-podium finishes in a field where the “big three” teams have a combined total of 11 cars is a major achievement. Seven times this year, that’s what Simon did, and that shows admirable consistency – a rare quality among the IndyCar entries this year. But Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was/is packed with human talent (including Pagenaud) and has proven since its full-time arrival in 2012 that it emphatically isn’t a backmarker team. Finishing between fourth and sixth is the least they (and we) have come to expect of the operation at any given race.
There’s nothing lacking in Simon’s fundamental qualities as a driver, of course, other than oval experience. He’s a great thinker, has an engineering-led mind, he’s damn fast and he’s charming for the sponsors – a new Dario Franchitti, perhaps. But I wish he’d been bolder on occasion, maybe taken a leaf out of teammate Mikhail Aleshin’s book. There were times this year when I felt Pagenaud should get his elbows out, when passing opportunities that would have been grabbed by a Power, Scott Dixon, Montoya or Ryan Hunter-Reay were spurned by the SPM pilote.
That does not mean I want to see more of the petulant and doomed-to-failure nibbling at Power’s rear bumper in Detroit. I can’t decide if it was the media, the series or even a team member who was the biggest culprit in the silly verbal hair-pulling that followed Power’s misjudged pass on the No. 77 at Long Beach. I do know that dragging it out for race after race was tiresome, served no purpose and certainly didn’t fit Pagenaud’s image of studious wisdom, learned at the feet of first Derrick Walker and then his de facto mentor, Gil de Ferran.
Pagenaud’s 2014 was strange for two other reasons. I don’t think he got enough praise for his excellent performances, nor did he get enough sympathy for the days when he was let down by the car (Toronto’s second race and during practice/qualifying at Sonoma) or became the innocent party in another driver’s screw-up (Houston first race). Maybe that was karma because the Long Beach clash had been milked beyond its expiration date.
Into the “excellent-but-overlooked” category falls Pagenaud’s steer from the rear in the first Toronto race, where he finished fourth despite getting collected in a first-lap multi-car shunt. Simon driving with a real sense of incisiveness and purpose is a heady sight to behold, and not much can stop him. He has an almost Paul Tracy-like relentless race pace. And of course there’s that magnificent victory in Houston 2; I’m not convinced Helio Castroneves could have held him off that day, even if the Brazilian veteran hadn’t collided with Sebastien Bourdais.
While I think he’s too cautious when racing wheel-to-wheel, Pagenaud is at his best up front and controlling a race, controlling the pace, and the opportunities to do that will surely increase next year. Finally nailing his first IndyCar pole (Houston race 1) will surely have done wonders for his confidence when going up against the stopwatch, as will the fact that he outqualified his highly talented (albeit rookie) teammate Aleshin at 14 of the 18 races. Having said that, Simon’s mediocre qualifying average would surely have been vastly improved had Tristan Vautier been retained as his teammate for 2014. Instead, for the second consecutive year, Pagenaud was partnering a series debutant, and Aleshin was one with no prior knowledge of the cars or tracks. Not helpful for Simon as a potential title contender…
Still after three straight seasons finishing in the top five of the IndyCar Series, you’ve got to conclude that he and SPM have overperformed. So it’s now the moment of truth for Simon and his loyal and talented engineer Ben Bretzman, as they move from Schmidt Peterson to Penske together. Interesting times ahead, methinks.