Simon Pagenaud received the boost he needed entering the Indianapolis 500 after scoring a sensational victory in Saturday’s Indy Grand Prix. Having gone winless since September of 2017, the Team Penske driver found the perfect opportunity to end the streak when light showers started to fall near the halfway point of the 85-lap contest.
To catch race leader Scott Dixon, carving into a significant lead would be required, and with Pagenaud’s hero, the late three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna held firmly in mind, the Frenchman made use of the lessons learned observing the Brazilian’s rain racing techniques.
“My big inspiration in racing has always been Ayrton Senna, who was tremendous in these kinds of conditions,” the 2016 IndyCar Series champion said. “So obviously, I’ve studied a lot of how he was driving in the rain. And I try to emulate the way he drives in the rain, by doing similar things, and it seemed to pay off really well. I wouldn’t like to compare myself to him at all; I think it would be very pretentious, but it was an incredible situation. I had a great car also, which really helped my performance. But I just felt like [it] was my time and I seized the opportunity when I smelt blood at one point and I went for it.”
Pagenaud deployed one of Senna’s approaches to wet-weather racing by straying from the traditional off-line running most drivers utilize. Although more grip can be found in the rain by avoiding the well-worn track surfaces used in the dry, Senna – and Pagenaud, on Saturday at the Indy road course – often opted to stray from convention and use a variety of lines to find speed.
“I’ve noticed, definitely noticed from Senna that he was always searching, always looking for grippy places on the racetrack,” he said. “I think when you drive in the rain, it’s all about being curious and understanding where the grip is. Finding confidence in the grip level. You know it’s so treacherous in the rain, the grip is very reduced. But you can find patches and places where there’s more grip and it helps you corner quicker than others, and it helps you set up the exit better as well, and throttle better.
“And I told [race strategist] Kyle Moyer before the restart, I said ‘Let’s just, we’ll talk strategy later, I’m just going to go forward.’ It was very much one of those moments that I had where I was just focused on the moment, and my goal was to go forward.”
As he prepares for the opening day of practice for the Indy 500, Pagenaud is surging with confidence following the Indy GP win.
“Everything just aligned perfectly, you know. The stars were there, a little bit of luck because the race car was perfect and I drove my A-Plus game and it all worked out really well. So I’m, proud to say that I’ve been preaching it all year long that we were right there and proud to say that we showed it, so that’s fantastic,” he said.
“I have to say, also, last year it was a bit of a struggle to find the right behavior for the car. [Team Penske] really did everything they could to provide me what I needed over the winter. And as you can see, this year is very different. Like I feel every race, I feel like we have a chance. It’s just phenomenal to get a win under our belts so early in the season. Because I believed it since St. Petersburg, I believed we would be fighting for the championship this year. And it’s just good to be able to showcase our speed right away and our strength again.”