A lot of drivers who go into sports cars do it either at the end of their career or when they run out of money and therefore opportunity. Should they get the chance to switch back to open-wheel again, they find it hard or near-impossible to snap back to the necessary intensity (to use Simon's word), particularly in qualifying. It's not that they get lazy. It's just that they step back from the edge. After all, for a sports car driver, there's far less prestige involved in pole positions and besides, why risk the car in qualifying, when the races are so long? No one remembers who took pole for an endurance event.
Pagenaud sighs thoughtfully and considers this assertion. Finally he says, “I tell you, that's an interesting point because…it's very true. That's what I was most concerned about in sports cars. I was worried I might start slipping on my performance, start to just find it easy and keep rolling with it. So I always tried to push myself harder, and keep that open-wheel mentality so that if I got my chance in IndyCar, I'd be ready.
“When I got in at Barber, I admit it was a bit of a shock because it was a different dimension. I'm still working on that part and I'm closer to where I need to be. I've pushed my own limits further than where I was before. Now it's a matter of reaching those limits. You can find the limit of an IndyCar pretty early. It's a matter of finding my own limits, pushing those further and then matching them to the specific requirements of an IndyCar. That's what Will does so well: matching those two, and then putting together his best theoretical time – his best time from each sector of the lap – into one hot lap. That's what I need to make sure I can do. That's why I've been doing a lot of karting; to practice that.”
THE SHORT-TERM FUTURE
While Wilson convalesces, what are Robbie Buhl's and Dennis Reinbold's options for the balance of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season? If Tomas Scheckter does a good job at Loudon this weekend (and there's no reason to believe he won't) he'd probably be a wise choice for Kentucky, too. Scheckter is brave, adventurous, inventive and has a fast pair of hands. But it would be a major opportunity missed to pass up Pagenaud for the remaining three road/street races. Although he's never driven Sonoma before, there is a test day there on the Monday before the race, while Baltimore and the Motegi road course are new to everyone. Besides, Simon doesn't think track knowledge makes all that much difference.
When U.S. open-wheel racing merged in 2008, ex-Champ Car drivers weren't happy with the handling characteristics of the Dallara IndyCars. The car was relatively underpowered and so it was harder to counteract its natural corner-exit understeer with use of the throttle. An IndyCar's tail-happiness came on corner entry and was a result of a weighty 3.5-liter V8 and a high center of gravity.
But in 2012, when everyone starts over with a car more powerful than the current 630-horsepower machines and with a smaller, lower engine – in other words, very different handling characteristics than the current breed – that could work in a talented rookie's favor.
“I think you're right,” says Pagenaud, “so long as the team you're with has all the resources to go and find the extra edge. That's going to be key. It will be a matter of putting everything together outside the racetrack, so that when you show up, you know what you have – you know what you can do. Resources will be key. The engineers need to understand the aero map of the car, they need to go in the wind tunnel, and to go on the shaker rig. And the drivers need more mileage. Everyone needs as much as time as possible and everyone will do what they can. It's how they analyze and apply the data that will be what separates the good teams from the rest.”
It might be hoped that the 2012 IndyCar's better power to weight – or rather, power-to-downforce – ratio will not only separate the great from the good, but also the good from the mediocre, as well as eliminating the hopeless drivers altogether. The whole oval racing discipline may also come more naturally to a highly talented rookie if everyone has to back off for corners and the series is less equipment-dependent. Pagenaud, who has never driven an oval, hopes so.
“I think the good guys on the ovals will still be the good guys, and the good cars will still be the good cars,” states Pagenaud, “but yeah, more power and less downforce will be good for differentiating the driving talent and make a better show for the fans. However, don't get me wrong: I'm not thinking I'll P1 in my first oval session!
“My lack of oval experience has not been a big minus point in my discussions with teams,” he continues. “Drivers like Dan Wheldon, Scott and Dario weren't originally oval drivers – they had backgrounds from Europe or other non-USA backgrounds – and they adapted. I think everyone in IndyCar today had to learn, and some learn quicker than others by being in top teams sooner than others. I've been fortunate enough to drive different cars in different series and I never had a problem to adapt. Of course, ovals are a very different experience, but it's something that has always really appealed to me. I can't wait to do my first.”
De Ferran has no doubts that his former teammate and employee would approach all aspects of IndyCar racing in the right way. “He never stops thinking about the car and never stops thinking about how he can improve himself,” says de Ferran, “which means he's constantly getting a little better. He's man enough to look in the mirror and tackle his shortcomings – and already, there aren't many! He's very methodical about learning what it takes to do the best job in any circumstance. He knows when not to put his neck out, like when he's controlling a race from the front. But always, when it is time to go, the speed is there. Real, ultimate speed.”
Does he deserve to be in a top team? Gil barely hesitates before saying: “Put it this way, if I were running a team, Simon would be on my list of potential drivers. If I look at the driver market for guys who have the potential to deliver you a championship, I see four or five of the current IndyCar drivers. Outside of those, I would say Simon has that potential if he continues to develop the way he has done – and I believe he will. His ability, combined with his attitude, means he will not stagnate. He will only get better.”
This may be the first time you've heard someone of de Ferran's status making such a bold statement about a guy with just two IndyCar races under his belt. But no one should doubt him. Simon Pagenaud really is that good.