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.”
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.”
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.