Pagenaud Sweating The Details In Drive To Repeat

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 12 2017

Simon Pagenaud is aiming to win a second straight IndyCar Series championship this season; the season which kicks off Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Simon Pagenaud will attempt to repeat as Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2017 via an excruciating attention to detail that began during the long open-wheel offseason.

Pagenaud and the braintrust of his newly re-numbered No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet reviewed their 2016 season searching not only for the highlights of a five-win campaign, but also for the inherent hiccups.  

“Yeah, it took us a long time,” Pagenaud said during a teleconference leading into Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street race. “We sat down for about two weeks with (engineer) Ben Bretzman and (race strategist) Kyle Moyer to go through the whole season _ practice, even test days, practice, practice, qualifying, race, review every single stint, every single time I was on black tires or red tires. Tried to understand what was good at the time, what wasn’t good, comparing our notes.”

With sanctioning body INDYCAR freezing the manufacturers’ aerodynamic packages for Chevrolet and rival Honda’s 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 engine packages for the 2017 season, incremental gains in those details could produce benefits on the series’ varied selection of ovals, road course and street circuits.

“It’s a long process, but something I really enjoy doing,” Pagenaud said. “It helps me gather data for myself as a driver going into this next season.”

Pagenaud will start Sunday’s 110-lap/198-miler around the 1.8-mile/14-turn layout that includes the Florida city’s downtown and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport from the 14th

Simon Pagenaud is proudly sporting the No. 1 on his Team Penske Chevrolet this year.

position in a 21-car field. Pagenaud posted a best lap of 1 minute, 01.6129-seconds/105.173 mph during qualifying on Saturday. Penske teammate Will Power earned P1 with a hot lap of 1:01.0640-seconds/106.118 mph in his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet.

ABC’s live telecast of the first event of a 17-race schedule is set for noon (EDT) with the race also carried on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Recall that Pagenaud began his championship chase last year with front row start/second-place finish on the Streets of St. Pete en route to a season that produced those series-high five wins and seven Verizon P1 pole awards. He also topped the charts for races-led (12), laps-led (406 of 2,070), and top-five finishes (10) in his second season with car-owner Roger Penske.

It was a dramatic transition for the native of Montmorillon, France, who finished 11th in his first season with open-wheel racing’s dominant organization.

“The biggest difference was knowing my environment; being confident about the people that were working with me, the relationships. All that together gave me so much more confidence,” said Pagenaud, 32. “It is important to me to perform at my best, and I needed that year of transition and learning and understanding my environment and who I was dealing with and how.

“I gained a lot of confidence over the winter working on my mind, and how we attacked at St. Pete it was clear to me we were going to have a really good season seeing how happy my guys were working together and how I was driving the race car.”

Pagenaud clinched the title in the season-ender at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, starting from pole and leading 76 of 85 laps. His first Verizon IndyCar Series title represented the 14th open-wheel crown and 29th championship overall for Team Penske, punctuating the organization’s landmark 50th season of racing. Teammates Power and Helio Castroneves finished second and third, respectively, in the standings _ the first team to accomplish that feat since another Penske trio swept in 1994.

“My whole career has been about getting to this point, reaching this level,” said Pagenaud, whose 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Series title opened the door to his Indy car career. “For an athlete, it’s what you work for.

“I think it’s possible to repeat and do even better. It will be difficult to repeat such a strong

Simon Pagenaud won Roger Penske yet another IndyCar championship in 2016.

start because the results were just amazing. Maybe we can avoid the difficulties we had in the middle of the season to get a little stronger at the end.”

Speaking in English and his native French, Pagenaud discussed a wide range of topics during his national teleconference. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: For the last six months, we’ve talked about how you won your first title, how your dream came true winning that championship. How excited are you to get back behind the wheel of the No. 1 car and race for the first times a champion?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yes, we’ve had quite a bit of time for good celebration. It was definitely an amazing, amazing feeling. Fantastic 2016 season. I believe all my dreams came true, but also all the stars were aligned. It was a very enjoyable year, probably one of my best years so far. But it’s back to business now. I’m quite excited about it. I’m very, very enthused about what’s about to happen in St. Petersburg and the rest of the year. The team, the No. 1 car now, is the exact same team as last year. We expect to unlock even more potential, which gets me very excited.”

QUESTION: You’ll be running the No. 1, signifying your championship in 2016. There’s quite a bit of superstition about carrying the No. 1. Some drivers who have used it had bad luck the following year. Do you believe in that superstition? Do you have any concerns about running No. 1?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “No, not at all. I’m not very superstitious really. My only superstition is my routine that I have before the races. No, I’m excited to run No. 1. It’s a testament to a great previous year. It’s also a testament and a thank you to our partners at Team Penske. They’ve followed us into this adventure. They’ve wanted to be our partners. We won the championship together. It’s a way to say thanks to them. Here we are the defending champions. It’s a way to also be proud of what we’ve done, but also raise our game this year trying to keep it.”

QUESTION: If you are able to defend your title, you’ll be the first Team Penske driver since Gil de Ferran to do so. You refer to him as your Yoda. Has the Brazilian given you any advice?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yes. It’s actually the word ‘defending’ we’ve talked about a lot. Gil and I have a very similar approach on how to go racing. I would say I really understood better what it all meant last year. It’s about defending. Everything is back to zero. The counts are all back to zero. It’s all reset. Now it’s time to attack, attack a new championship, attack a new year. Last year, if I was so successful, it’s because we attacked and we didn’t look in the mirrors. The goal is to do the same thing, not defend, but attack a new season coming up.”

QUESTION: There’s several theories about the aero kit freezing this year, whether that means Penske will retain its possession at the top of the tree or whether that gives other teams a chance to catch up. What is your take on that?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “I think it’s going to be interesting, for sure. I think it gives a bit of consistency to everybody in trying to understand the aero kit better. The aero world is still

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was a happy champ after winning the 2016 title.

not fully understood, so there’s always something to learn for everybody, I think. So I do think it’s a way for the other teams to catch up. We’ve also, I believe, kept improving during the winter because of the hard work of everybody on the race team. I expect us to be very competitive, like we were last year. I also expect other teams to turn things around, maybe like Andretti last year. I expect them to turn things around.”

QUESTION: Do you expect Target Chip Ganassi Racing to pull the Honda camp closer to Chevy’s level of dominance?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Absolutely. I think especially Scott Dixon is going to be really strong. He’s shown in Sebring (testing) that they were going to be there. I expect Scott to be right there fighting for the championship. And Tony (Kanaan) is, I’m sure, going to be very, very strong on the oval with his package. They’re going to have a very strong end in Indy, as well. Let’s not forget, it’s the biggest race of the year. I think they’re going to have a really strong package there. I do think they’re going to be a great challenge.”

QUESTION: Does it feel like it’s been a full year since you won the title, or does it feel like yesterday? With just such a long offseason (since Sept. 18), how long it seems for you to have won it?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “It’s been a long offseason, but considering we won the championship, how busy I’ve been, it feels like a blessing. I’ve had time to prepare really well physically and mentally. Physically, you know, you need a lot of time to get ready to drive these cars, the high downforce that we have these days. It’s unbelievable how high our heart rate can be during a race. I was pleased that I had enough time to get ready. I was pleased that I was able to, you know, control my schedule better because of time. So this year was OK. It does feel like a long time ago, but I feel fresh and ready to go.”

QUESTION: With Phoenix being a little later in the schedule, starting off with three road courses, does that change the dynamics at all? Last year your start of the season vaulted you into the position to win the championship. Does the dynamic change at all with three road courses to start off the year?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Well, you know, it’s no secret that road course and street course are my strong suits. I’m trying to change the trends on the oval, and it’s working out pretty good. Definitely, for us, on the No. 1 car, it starts with the tracks that we like. So starting off strong is very important for the championship. It gives you a bit more leverage during the rest of the season. So that’s going to be the approach, is to start very strong, score as many points as possible where it’s available, then see. But, yeah, that’s going to be the goal. I don’t think there’s a different approach this year than last year.”

QUESTON: Simon, now that you’ve won your first championship, do you feel clearing that hurdle, has it been a relief for you?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yeah, absolutely, it has been a relief. It also helped me grow into a different position mentally. I feel a lot more clear in my head because I’m not stressing about getting my first championship. We always said that the first one’s the hardest to get. I hope that’s true. But I do feel more relieved, and definitely more focused on the actual job and not the results.”

QUESTION: Do you see yourself changing your approach this year, coming off of a title, or do you still have the same approach as usual?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “No, my approach is going to be to attack and be aggressive when I need to be. Try to maximize the opportunity when I have a winning car in my hands, to score as many points as possible when I’m not having a good day. That approach is the same as 2016. It worked for me. I think I just found my stride. I found my line to walk on, and I’m going to keep doing that.”

QUESTION: Simon, we saw you driving the Embarcadero in San Francisco last year, then winning flag-to-flag in Sonoma. Are you planning to do the same this year? How ready are you to do it?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “It was definitely a great promotion stunt from INDYCAR in Sonoma, to drive downtown to San Francisco. It’s such a tourist place; that’s how you’re going to reach the most people with INDYCAR. It was a really good job from INDYCAR there, just showing what an Indy car is on the street. It was fantastic. I was so glad to be part of it. On that race at Sonoma, I just felt like I had to take my destiny in my own hands. I went and tried to put the best weekend of my career together, which I did. My team helped me tremendously at doing the same thing. This year, I’m planning on just being one with my team, being one with my car, and trying to maximize again my opportunities. Hopefully we can have domination again. I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but I’m planning on doing a similar thing by being aggressive.”

QUESTION: You talked earlier about being very busy, all the demands that are on an Indy car driver. Social media has been added in the last few years. It can take up a lot of time. How do you manage that extra that you have to do now?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “It is difficult, you know. As popularity rises, you really need to be careful about your schedule. The cell phones these days, you know, the technology is incredible. You can be reached anywhere in the world at any time of the day, via email, via phone, or social media. You don’t really have any time for resting, and you can’t really put yourself on the side. Also in this job, you need to be available any time of the day because something might pop up. The schedule is very difficult to keep in line. There’s always something coming up. Even though you may have something else planned, you need to make changes. It’s discipline. It’s discipline. It’s not something easy to do.

“But, you know, you need to surround yourself with the right people that can help you deal with your schedule and deal with social media for the right things, and guide you through what’s the right message to send in terms of what you need to do for your fan base, what do they want to see, what do they want to hear from you. It’s an interesting thing that’s really evolving. It’s a business. It’s becoming very interesting because you can really target what you want to do and why. So it’s good to see.”

QUESTION: Are there things about it that you really like? Are there things that you would change when you see something you don’t like?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Well, the biggest thing is you can’t go out and party like crazy on Saturday night. There might be a picture coming up on your social media feed! You do have to be careful about things like that because, you know, you represent brands and partners. They want you to show the right image. And you should as an athlete do that and be mindful of that. It’s just that you have to be careful and think about these little things you might not think of on a daily basis. But it’s important because you represent something, and people expect something from you. You know, I think popularity is always something that people seek, but it is also a discipline. You need to be careful what you do and how you do it. I wouldn’t change it. It’s the way it is. But it’s an interesting society we’re in right now.

“Yeah, it’s definitely very open. I think that’s what the fan wants. They want to know what you’re up to, what you do, what’s your passion. Myself, I follow athletes sometimes and celebrities just to see what they do because we’re all curious about that. It is very different. It’s an interactive relationship. It’s quite interesting. It’s a very open world, there’s no limits to reaching out to people. It’s pretty cool to see.”

QUESTION: Your entire team has returned for the 2017 season. How unusual, in your career, is it for a whole group to come back, as guys change teams kind of as a routine? Is that something you campaigned for, to get the whole group back together?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yes, it definitely is. It’s phenomenal to see that my team remained exactly the same. That’s something that, you know, Roger, for example, always talks about human capital. It is something that I live for, that sentence. I do believe in consistency being the key to success in racing. It’s a job where everything is changing every second of the day. You might be fastest in Practice No. 1 at 10:30 in the morning, and then the next practice you might be 20th. Everything changes really quickly. It’s not like a business where you get your results every quarter. Racing changes all the time. If you can have the least amount of changes, keep the same people onboard, you can find consistency, and it helps you gain time on things.

“I’m very excited about having every one of my guys back together. The crew is exactly the same. My engineer, Ben Bretzman, has been with me since 2010. Kyle Moyer is going to be my strategist. It’s very exciting. For me it’s a source of motivation.”

QUESTION: In terms of the popularity of IndyCar within France, have you seen it spike? This is the first time I’ve heard so many French journalists on the line on one of these conferences. Is that an encouraging sign that IndyCar is gaining momentum in your home country, maybe mainland Europe?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yes, I was thinking the same thing actually. It’s a good surprise to see the interest growing there. I was very pleased to hear that. Canal Plus is doing a tremendous job on the TV to show the races. They found that French people really enjoy the racing, really enjoy the competition of IndyCar. Obviously it helped, you know, to have a Frenchman win the championship last year. I’m very proud to carry the colors, and I’m very proud that it’s definitely picking up over there, as well. I think the interest in Formula One has gone down, for the reason that, you know, they love IndyCar for the opposite reasons: because it’s such high competition. I hope we can keep growing it over there.”

QUESTION: What do you think would be the biggest factor, the biggest difference, for what you would have to do this year to win the title compared to last year?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “It’s a tough question. I can’t read the future. But one of the first ones that comes to my mind is just adapting to the new PFC brakes really, compared to last year. That’s going to be the only difference on the race car. That might change the way the car behaves on entry of the corner since you’re trail-braking into the corners with those cars. You know, I think what you have to deal with is sometimes the outside factors. You may have good luck one weekend, things might go really well. Some other weekends it might not be the case. You can’t control it.

“But I think the main thing is to remain walking on the line I’ve been walking on, finding the limits and not going above or under, and keeping that a trend during the season. Also, you know, keeping my crew, keeping my guys, motivated throughout the season with zero pressure on them, so they can focus on the task at the time. I think that’s going to be key. Trying to focus on the job only, not focus on results.”

QUESTION: Do you feel there is more pressure on you or your team to back up what you did last year?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “No. I feel less pressure because, for me _I’m talking only for myself _ I was always stressed-out or anxious about not getting my first championship in IndyCar. So now that it’s done, I feel like since I’ve done it once, I can do it again. It’s just a matter of providing my best game on the table, to the table. That’s really what I would say about that.”

QUESTION: Do you feel like last year was your best year ever?

SIMON PAGENAUD: “Yes. So far, definitely. I would say there were maybe one or two weekends where I’m a little bit disappointed about myself. The rest of the year I was very much on my game. The goal is to raise that game again this year, find new limits. I’ve been able to do that every year, raise my game every year, and improve areas where I wasn’t happy about myself. Last year was definitely my best year since I started racing.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 12 2017
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