On the one hand, it's hard to explain why Simon Pagenaud isn't yet a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series driver. He has huge talent, a studious work ethic, great technical feedback, a cool head even in the heat of battle and a personality that should be manna for the media.
On the other hand, the team Pagenaud raced for in Champ Car in 2007 didn't have the chance to transfer to IndyCar so he spent two and a half seasons in the American Le Mans Series, he doesn't bring a budget and…well, some team owners are short-sighted and/or hooked on drivers who have reputations that exceed their worth.
So here's why Pagenaud is a no-risk option.
“The first thing about Simon I noticed was his quirkiness!” says Derrick Walker, who gave him his first drive in the U.S. back in 2006. “Then I noticed he was focused, articulate, and driven. And I was impressed that over the winter of 2005, he'd recognized Europe wouldn't offer him any more than it had already – not without money, at least – so west was the way to go. He turned up in America and basically said, ‘I want to drive your Atlantic car,' and he didn't come with an army of assistants. It was Walker Racing's first year in Atlantics, we already had James Davison on the books, and then young Inspector Clouseau arrived and it all took off from there. Once we tested him, we collectively realized he was a good talent and he also had a good personality. He was good to work with and we bonded.”
What happened is that Pagenaud got his head down and worked. So, too, did Walker Racing. They may not have always been the fastest combination in Atlantics that year – a rookie team and a rookie driver can't expect smooth sailing – but Simon and Conquest Racing's Graham Rahal went toe to toe for the title and it was Simon who emerged victorious, despite just one win to Rahal's four. The Atlantic Championship came with a $2m reward, so it was clear he was going to graduate into Walker's Champ Car team.
“We never had any doubts Simon could go from a 270hp Atlantic car to a 750hp Champ Car,” recalls Walker. “He was a lot more mature than his competition level and the flip side of his quirkiness is that he's very particular, and pays close attention to detail. As teammate to Will [Power], he was ideal. In 2007, Will was in his second season, Simon was in his first, but the pair of them pushed each other, explored their limits, immediately developed a bond and respected each other. For us it was a dream team.”
Especially given that 2007 was the first (and as it transpired, only) year of the Panoz DP01. You need drivers to be blindingly fast, yes, but in those circumstances you also need them to provide great technical feedback, to push the whole team forward. And there's no doubt Pagenaud played a role in helping Power become a championship contender. The Australian scored two wins, five poles and had four other front-row starts. Simon started from the front row just once and didn't score a podium finish, but he did out-qualify Power five times. You ask Ryan Briscoe how hard that is to do on a road or street course – he's managed it twice since March 2009 – or Helio Castroneves who's yet to achieve it. Sure, Will is a better driver now than he was in '07…but you can bet your life Simon is, too.
Unfortunately, that's where the disconnect comes, because no one in IndyCar except Dreyer & Reinbold Racing are quite aware of his potential in an open-wheel car. And even they haven't seen him at his best.
“The plan was to stay at Walker Racing,” says Pagenaud, “but when Champ Car folded, I was not very attractive for an IndyCar team because I had no oval experience and no sponsors. I tried, but then I started to look at sports cars because it would provide me with the baggage I needed [he means baggage in the positive sense!] to make me more appealing in IndyCar. So Gil de Ferran called me and said, ‘Are you still an open-wheel guy or are you a sports car guy?' Obviously, in my heart I'm open-wheel, but I needed to earn money and there is a certain path I need to go through to get back to where I want to be. De Ferran Motorsports in the American Le Mans Series really did that.”
Not-quite-two seasons at de Ferran Motorsports were followed by a season at Highcroft Racing for Pagenaud, partnering David Brabham. Their competition wasn't deep, but it was strong and so it was satisfying for Simon that he and Brabs won the ALMS title last year. More important, considering his ultimate aim, was how much he developed the skills that are needed to embellish raw talent.
“Since 2008, I've been learning a lot and have become a completely different driver,” says Pagenaud candidly. “I've opened up my mind on so many things and learned technical information about engines, brakes, aerodynamics. Those cars offer a different kind of speed. The Acura prototypes were quicker down the straights, and have more power than an IndyCar, but the braking duration is longer because it's a heavier car, so you actually lose time under braking compared to an IndyCar. And the response of a sports car is a lot slower. High-speed corners are faster in a sports car because of all the downforce, but low-speed turns are a lot slower.”
De Ferran was left with boundless respect for Pagenaud's development. “I rate Simon very highly,” says the 2000 and '01 IndyCar champion. “I see him in a very similar light to how I see Dario Franchitti. He's highly intelligent, very aware not only of his surroundings but also himself. By that I mean, he understands why he does well when he does well, what he hasn't done right if he doesn't do well, what he needs to improve. He understands his own performances. Because of that, he has that ability to evolve and improve. If I look at how he was in 2008 to how he is now, he's much better – and I don't see this evolution stopping! I think he has tremendous potential and when the visor's down and he's in the right frame of mind, he is extremely fast. I've seen him do very special things in a racing car. I mean, just look at his last stint at Le Mans this year in the Peugeot. I don't think anyone could have gone any quicker.”