2016 Season Review - Simon Pagenaud

December 12, 2016

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Simon Pagenaud’s run to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship – and perhaps most daunting for his competitors – is that his best race of the season was his last.

With the title on the line in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway in September, Pagenaud was fastest in practice in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet, won the pole position and cruised to victory and the series championship.

“It was my best race weekend, not just my best race,” said Pagenaud. “The decisions we made in practice, qualifying and the race were the right ones, and the way I worked with the team was probably my best of the year. It shows that we’re capable of improvement. I think we’ve unlocked a lot of potential for the future. Sonoma is our benchmark as to how we can perform as a team.”

That’s not to say the races leading up to Sonoma weren’t positive for Pagenaud, race engineer Ben Bretzman and the rest of the crew of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise/PPG/Menards/DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevy. They posted five victories – Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma – and won seven pole positions.

The rare missteps – a 19th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 and three other results outside the top 10 – still bother Pagenaud, but they were few and far between during a season in which he won the title by 127 points over Team Penske teammate Will Power while another teammate, Helio Castroneves, finished third to complete the championship podium sweep.

“We had a bit of difficult time in the middle of the season, but in any championship contending season you’re always going to have two or three little issues here and there,” explained Pagenaud. “As long as you’re consistent as we were the rest of the season, then you can expect to score big points. We had performance all year, and there weren’t any strange races like there were the year before. The weather cooperated with us all year, and it was a pretty normal season when it came down to strategy. That helped out our consistency, for sure.”

Also helpful was a strong start. Pagenaud won the third, fourth and fifth races of the season to firmly establish himself in the lead.

“Starting the championship strong is always super important,” he said. “It gives everybody confidence – the team, the crew, yourself as a driver – and you can do very special things when everybody is confident and in a good dynamic. It’s always easier to push the limit when you’re ahead than it is to fight from behind.”

The 32-year-old Frenchman knew from the beginning of the season, by way of a runner-up finish behind teammate Juan Pablo Montoya at St. Petersburg, Fla., that he had championship potential.

“In St. Pete, I knew we had something special going on,” said Pagenaud. “I knew it was going to be a matter of working on the details and trying to improve ourselves. I was very pleased with the way the whole season went. I still see some room for improvement, which is very exciting.”

The numbers behind the championship are as impressive as the Astor Cup trophy itself. Aside from the five wins and seven poles, Pagenaud also led the series with eight podium finishes, 406 laps led and he recorded an average start of 3.9 and average finish of 6.1.

In all, the title proved Pagenaud’s capabilities to others, but also to himself.

“My dream was to be here, and I knew I was capable of doing it, but it’s a different story to actually do it,” he explained. “The fact that I did it and was able to sustain the performance among the pressure all year long and perform at this level shows me that it’s more than possible. Now I’ve gained even more confidence knowing that my dreams are reasonable and possible goals. When you put your heart into it and work the way Team Penske works, it can happen. We always say that ‘effort equals results,’ and that’s the recap of our season. All of this work as a team made it possible. I’m very impressed with the way we performed as a team. I expected it, but we did even better than expected.”

And accomplishing it only motivates him to do it again. When the 2017 season opens March 12 at St. Petersburg, Pagenaud will be ready to repeat.

“Winning the championship feels like when you make it to the next level in a video game,” he said. “In reaching that next level and finding success, you only want to accomplish more. It’s a page of a book turned for me, which is very important in my mind. Now I can focus on different things and be a little less anxious about my career and what I wanted to accomplish. It’s taken a lot of weight off my shoulders, which could be a very good thing for my driving.”  

And it could be a difficult thing for the other competitors in the Verizon IndyCar Series.