In the middle of the chaos that is a Formula 1 grid pre-race, you’ll do well to stand out from the crowd. The cars are a hive of activity with mechanics swarming around them, and drivers are pestered by television crews and photographers, as are team principals, and the VIP guests.
It’s a place to be seen. Which almost makes it that much harder to be seen.
But the Indy 500 winner’s ring? Yeah, that catches the eye.
Simon Pagenaud has just taken third place at Pocono to strengthen his hopes of a second championship but his previous visit to a racetrack had him at the Hungaroring. And as he made his way to the front of the grid – ring proudly on display – he commanded attention.
By his own admission, it had been “too long” since he’d even been to a track in Europe. The Frenchman has made his home in the States with Team Penske, but he had his schooling on the other side of the Atlantic.
Bumping into Alfa Romeo team principal Frederic Vasseur, the pair share a joke remembering when Pagenaud raced for Vasseur’s ART team – then known as ASM – in Formula Renault back in 2003.
“Don’t trust this guy!” Pagenaud jokes, with his arm around his former boss.
But Pagenaud is a guy you can trust when it comes to looking at two series that have been undergoing significant changes in recent years, and continue to do so.
“It’s been an interesting few seasons for me,” Pagenaud told RACER. “I got to drive the old IndyCar in 2011, low-downforce, quite difficult to drive, and then we got to the DW12 era that had a little bit more downforce, but [was] a very good car for racing. It was good for drafting, lots of rearward weight distribution which helps the rotation of the car behind others, and it worked, surprisingly.
“Then they added a lot of downforce in 2015 – I can’t remember the exact numbers – and it grew again in 2016, and that was when we had the worst racing. If you were leading then nobody could pass, because the disturbance of the air was too strong. On ovals we had so much downforce that we could actually follow, but it was with so much risk because all of a sudden you could lose it with the aerodynamics being disturbed, and you wouldn’t know why you made a mistake.”
IndyCar reduced downforce accordingly, but ironically, the following year Formula 1 introduced spectacular higher-downforce cars, smashing lap records on multiple circuits. The two series were going in very different directions.
“The drivers and IndyCar worked really close together to try to find the best formula for racing, to make a good show. Because I think IndyCar is very much about the show and making sure the fans enjoy watching. That’s what IndyCar is about; it’s about being loud, pure racing and not about contact but about a muscle car. It’s not about technology as much.
“F1 is very sophisticated, it’s a very different market, it’s not the same sport. It’s like comparing cricket and football.
“Right now I think it’s the best formula IndyCar ever found. I think on ovals they know exactly the amount of downforce we should be running to have good racing without it being too easy, without it being too difficult, so people feel the confidence to go and attack. To find that right combination is the key.
“But also we found on ovals that the draft and the drag has a big importance for racing. As you can see at Indianapolis I think the formula is actually perfect right now.
“On road courses, we just had a race at Mid-Ohio which is a track where you usually cannot pass and the racing was phenomenal. So with the Push to Pass we have and with the low-ish downforce – it’s still pretty high downforce, but low-ish – the cars are really nice following, so racing is fantastic.”
As effusive as Pagenaud is about IndyCar’s current positioning, he was still enthralled by what he saw in Hungary. Despite ever-faster cars, a track that is traditionally tough to pass on still provided a thrilling fight for victory as Lewis Hamilton overtook Max Verstappen in the closing stages.
“F1 was very interesting to watch because the technology is fascinating,” Pagenaud says. “The aerodynamics on the car are absolutely stunning. Beautiful. I love little winglets here and there, I love to see the flow of the air, how the Red Bull has worked on the sidepods and almost sculpting to get the air flow going to the radiators is just phenomenal. The cars are fast, grippy, almost too good, making it look like they are on rails.
“They’re working it, let me tell you. When Hamilton went for it in Hungary, you could see the body language of the car change. I love to see that. Now, we had a great race there. I think the track actually helps racing because of the sequence of Turn 1, Turn 2 you can run side-by-side and then by Turn 3 you have to decide who is going to yield. So I thought it was a great race.
“A lot of the tracks need a combination that helps running side-by-side, and you also need the grip on the outside to make it work. So it’s not just the aerodynamics, in my opinion, that makes good racing. Obviously Formula 1 compared to IndyCar; there’s a lot more discrepancy between cars because manufacturers make their own cars, it’s very different. But I think both have their advantages.
“We’re both in different markets. IndyCar is on the rise in the U.S. – at Mid-Ohio, I could not get to the grid on my scooter. It’s the first time in my career that I’ve had to ditch the scooter and I had to walk to get to the grid. It’s all open to the public; the public can see the mechanics working on the car. We’re not allowed to cover the cars to show what’s inside of it. I think it’s a very different mentality, and it works there.”
The public reaction to F1’s switch to turbo-hybrid power units in 2014 was mixed to say the least, due in no small part to the loss of the sound of screaming V8s. But Pagenaud feels the clamor for a return to high-revving naturally aspirated engines ignores the direction of motorsport as a whole, ahead of IndyCar’s planned introduction of hybrid technology in 2022.
“The interesting thing is when they started Lewis’s Mercedes on the grid, I turned around and thought it was my IndyCar! It sounds the same; that idle sounds the same. Then when they’re running it sounds quite similar to an IndyCar as well; the sound levels are quite similar. You can hear the turbo a little more on the Formula 1s, but I wasn’t surprised with the noise.
“I thought that’s the way the sport’s been going – whether it’s sports car racing, whether it’s IndyCar, whether it’s Formula 1 – because it’s the evolution of technology. Smaller engines and turbos are always going to make less noise than a V12 with no turbos. It’s just the way manufacturers are going these days, to save fuel and be more efficient.
“Certainly fuel efficiency has been incredible to see the evolution over time, and power with the hybrid systems and electric engines is just phenomenal. So I guess you’ve just got to follow your time and deal with it.”
F1’s 2021 regulations are being designed with the impact of aerodynamics on racing in mind, and are expected to be far more prescriptive to bringing car performance closer together. In many ways, it’s in a similar direction to IndyCar, but Pagenaud warns there is no single approach that works for either series.
“I’m not in a position to say it’s better or worse,” he says. “I’m a witness to what’s going on in the U.S. and what’s going on here in Hungary, and I was impressed at how beautiful Formula 1 is in the paddock, and how well organized it is, and how everything is worked to detail. It reminds me of the way Team Penske works.
“The racing format is different, the rules are different, the cars are different. We’re allowed to bump a little bit… And everybody has the same car. There’s very little difference between Team Penske and Ganassi or Andretti, so I think that also helps to create good racing.
“It’s interesting you say Formula 1 is looking at aerodynamics that provide better racing, because I remember the years with the big front wing and the small rear wing, and they were horrible races too. So it’s a combination. It’s very difficult to find the right level, and I’m certainly not an engineer to say what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s about finding that balance.”
While both categories continue to search for a better trade-off and improve their product, Pagenaud says his visit to the Hungarian GP was a reminder that F1 can still produce a gripping spectacle.
“It seems like the drivers are having fun driving these cars!” he says. “We were having fun driving the high-downforce cars but we are also having a lot of fun driving lower downforce and fighting the cars more. So I honestly don’t know what’s right or not for F1, but I thought Hungary was a fantastic race.”