Reigning American Le Mans Series LMP1 co-champion Simon Pagenaud posted an impressive performance in his IZOD IndyCar Series debut last weekend. Filling in for the injured Ana Beatriz at Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, Pagenaud finished eighth after starting 23rd and finished the race looking for a way past three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
While the ex-Formula Atlantic champ spent a season in Champ Car competition in 2007, Pagenaud had never sat in an IndyCar prior to last weekend and had never been to Barber Motorsports Park. Not only did he come away with a strong result, Pagenaud also recorded the sixth fastest lap of the race – quicker than the likes of Castroneves and fellow IndyCar winners Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal. Out of six IndyCar rookies in the race, Pagenaud pulled out the best finish and fastest lap of the new class of 2011. Pagenaud's former Champ Car teammate at Walker Racing/Team Australia, Will Power, won the race overall at Barber Motorsport Park to take the lead the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Championship.
What was the most challenging part of your debut?
“I had to get used to the restarts, but we had so many, so there was plenty of opportunity to practice. I worked out how to pick off some positions after a while, but I didn't want to be too aggressive on the initial start because we were so far back on the grid.
“There was no reason to be silly at the green flag. I saw people being overly aggressive in the early stages, but it was a long race and I decided to wait until the last third of the race. That was the plan and the team put me in a good position with the pit stops and we were able to pick up a lot of places off the restarts at the end.
“The car was really good at the end of the race. I was able to turn really fast laps and keep on Helio's [Castroneves] tail. I was really happy I was able to keep up with him – that was a lot of fun.”
How different was it to be in an IndyCar rather than a sports car race?
“The restart rules are different, because you can't pass before the start-finish line whereas in sports cars you can race straight away as soon as it goes green. Everyone has the same engine and the cars are very close. It is a challenge to manage because, if somebody checks up in front of you, you are sitting so low and you can't really see what is going on. You need to be on your toes all the time.
“After a few restarts, I picked it up and the restarts actually became my friend at the end of the race and I was able to pick up a few positions. I was able to pull off some passes around the outside at Turn 5 and was able to run with the leaders after that.
“I really enjoyed the day and it was great to be a part of the IZOD IndyCar Series. There were a lot of new things for me, but I was really pleased to pull off eighth position.”
Was there any experience from your year in Champ Cars that proved beneficial?
“It was very similar – very much the same apart from the restart rule. The tires behave a bit differently and the IndyCar doesn't have quite as much downforce, so you have to take care of your tires a little bit, especially the softer red-side-walled Firestones. I really got the hang of the softer tires in the last third of the race.
“The more seat time you can get, the more you can learn. I was really happy with the pace at the end when we were going as fast as the leaders. It was a great day overall.”
Do you think your experience in sports cars with Highcroft Racing and Peugeot has helped you become a better driver?
“Absolutely. It has been an enormous help. For all the passes I made today, I really have to be thankful for my time in sports cars. That was my big weakness when I was in Champ Car, but now on restarts everyone was diving for a certain part of the track but I had a few different things to try. When you have to work your way through sports car traffic, you learn different ways of getting around people.
“From the technical side of things I also have learned a tremendous amount developing new cars for Honda Performance Development in the U.S. and Peugeot in Europe. That knowledge on set up I think will prove very beneficial in IndyCar. From a career perspective, racing in sports cars has undoubtedly made me a much better driver.”
How much would you like to do some more IndyCar racing?
“I certainly got a taste for it in IndyCar and would love to do some more. I know Duncan Dayton and the whole Highcroft Racing team are looking very closely at the IZOD IndyCar Series and if they were to come across, I would love to be part of the package. We have had a lot of success together with the ALMS championship last year and had brilliant result with second overall at Sebring this year.
“I'm very hopeful of doing a few more IndyCar races this year alongside some more ALMS events for Honda Performance Development as well – that would be a great combination.”