THE RECENT PAST
Pagenaud is officially available – has been since the start of the year, in fact, and in his two IndyCar starts, he's turned heads. It's not the bald statistics that catch the eye, but rather, the circumstances in which he's shone.
Take the Grand Prix of Alabama this year – his IndyCar debut. Drafted in to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing to sub for Ana Beatriz who had damaged her wrist in the season opener, Simon finds himself at a track he's never seen before in a type of car he's never driven before. It's been over three years since he drove something similar, the Team Australia/Walker Racing Panoz Champ Car.
He also finds himself partnering a driver who is regarded as one of the top three road course racers in the series, Justin Wilson. In the first three practice sessions, Simon is 1.2sec off Justin, then 0.8, then 0.6, respectively. Come first qualifying session, that gap is down to 0.4sec, but Simon doesn't make the top six in his segment. He's faster than Tony Kanaan, EJ Viso, Sebastien Bourdais, and more, but IndyCar's illogical way of arranging those outside the top 12 leaves him starting 24th. And on a narrow track where it's hard to pass. Nevertheless, he finishes the race in eighth, in convoy with Marco Andretti, Oriol Servia, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Impressive? You bet.
“Barber was a difficult weekend,” says Pagenaud, “because I knew that was my shot, I knew that was my chance to show what I could do, but I knew I didn't have everything in place to do so – I'd never driven the car or the track! In the end, it went pretty well.”
But Bia's wrist recovered in time for Long Beach, and she resumed her place in the D&R team. Simon goes off to Europe for more races for Peugeot, proving to be the star of the team in terms of taking the fight to Audi at the Le Mans 24 Hours (RIGHT).
Fast forward to late July. He does a test with AFS/Sam Schmidt Racing at Mid-Ohio the week before the IndyCar race, amid rumors that Sam is seriously considering him for 2012.
“A lot of people said Mid-Ohio would be good for me because I'd driven many laps there in sports cars,” says Pagenaud, “but actually it was hard at first, because the cars are so different. The intensity in an IndyCar is higher because you're always throwing yourself from one side to the other, where a sports car is smoother. It's hard to describe because it's just a different kind of performance. Also, sports cars are much more about long-duration stints where you have to be super consistent but fast, whereas IndyCar is about being super-fast in qualifying, and then 70 or 80 very similar laps on race day!
“So it's probably harder to change and gain confidence in leaving my braking later and throwing the car into the corner than if I had come to a completely new track. But that test with AFS/Schmidt allowed me to get the unlearning and relearning process out of the way, and we set competitive times.”
The following week, Simon arrives at Mid-Ohio late on Friday night to chat to a few team owners about next year. He's watching the Saturday morning free practice session, hears that Wilson has gone off in what looks like a small incident but has been sent to the hospital in extreme back pain. At the end of the session, Simon gets a call from Walker, who now serves as his manager and is at Mid-Ohio in his capacity as manager of the Falken Tires Porsche team in ALMS. His message to Pagenaud is along the lines of “Get your ass down to D&R!”. The Frenchman agrees to fill in for Wilson. The next couple of hours are a blur.
“Derrick, Robbie Buhl and Larry Curry helped me to assemble some gear,” recalls Pagenaud, “and it was impressive how many people volunteered to help. I got a racesuit from Sebastien [Bourdais], shoes from JR Hildebrand, James Jakes' HANS device, Will gave me his gloves and also his seat, but we didn't use that, we used one of Vitor Meira's. Then we went out to qualify! We were j-u-s-t ready on time. The team was very busy – obviously the pedals needed a bit of adjustment because Justin is 6'4” or something, right? What the D&R boys did was amazing in the time available.
“The driving position wasn't bad, but it was unfortunate that my lower back wasn't in contact with the seat, so I struggled a little bit to feel what the car was doing on corner-entry. However, I just wanted to do well for the team who had made so much effort for me and put so much trust in me, so I just hung on for dear life. A good friend of mine then brought all my gear over from Indy, and did the round-trip in a day, so I was properly equipped by Sunday morning and the team did another good job of making the adjustments: it felt like home afterward.”
Cue fourth place in Sunday morning warm-up time sheets. As Simon admits, Justin has left him with a very good car, and warm-up times can mean little, but to be so near the front shouldn't have been possible given the lack of preparation. During the race, he has a small off-course excursion (at the same part of the track that had injured Wilson) and finishes 13th but the team is impressed with him and Walker is understandably proud of his boy – in particular, with his mindset.
“The last thing Dreyer & Reinbold needed, after the way their weekend has gone, is for their stand-in driver to do the most demon start, pass half the field and maybe get to Turn 3 before spinning and wiping out half the field because he's trying to make a big impression,” says Walker. “What he needed to do was exactly what he did because he's mature and understands his mission was primarily for the team and its sponsors – even though Simon was desperate to show his true capabilities.”
Pagenaud admits that was a frustration. “Dreyer & Reinbold had prepared the car so well, and I just jumped in and it was ready to go. To me it was a top-six car. I saw the times that Scott Dixon and Will set, and I believe ours was around that pace. I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but the car really was that good.”