Simon Pagenaud’s career has taken many twists and turns, but he has finally landed where he’s always wanted to be: in INDYCAR and qualified for his first Indianapolis 500. In this Q&A, Pagenaud discusses the path that brought him to today, his experiences at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway thus far, and his successes in and goals for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series.
MFW: Talk about how it feels to qualify for your first Indianapolis 500.
SP: “It was a very special moment in my career, especially when you line up for qualifying and sit in the car and you wait for the moment. It’s definitely challenging. Even though you’re not on the racetrack yet, there are so many people watching you. And you’ve got to be flat, no question. You’ve got the wing laid back and you’ve got the lightest downforce you’ve had all week, and you’ve got to be flat. The human brain doesn’t work the way it’s working on an oval. The human brain tells you to lift and you think you should lift, but you’ve got to stay flat. I enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed learning about the oval, how to drive on an oval, how the car should read.”
MFW: The greater amount of track time teams get at Indianapolis makes it a unique experience. What has stood out for you?
SP: “It’s very different in many ways. First, we were limited to two sets of tires per day and we had six hours of running. With one set you can only do 28 laps, so that goes by really quickly doing 40 seconds a lap. You have to use your tires at the right time of the day with the right trim level. And we worked on race setup most of the time, which may have been a little bit of a mistake because when we trimmed the car out we had a problem. It wasn’t behaving well, and we lost a lot of time. That’s why in qualifying we were only 23rd — the car could have gone quicker, but we were behind schedule. But in the end, slowly I started running by myself, then started to follow one guy, and then I started to follow in the pack, and then I started to do long runs with people and try to find my way into the pack and try to learn the code. There’s a code on the ovals — I didn’t know anything about it. When you let people by, you go on the inside and you let people by on the outside. There’s a lot of things like that. It’s this whole disciplinary thing. It has been an interesting week.”
MFW: Having driven many different racing machines in your career, how have you found the performance of the DW12?
SP: “When we started testing, the car was difficult to drive. It was a pig. But it was just up to the team to set it up. So, we worked on it, and my car feels really good on the road circuits. Long Beach was probably our peak performance. We really had it spot-on in the race. And then Sao Paulo, again we had a really good race car. We struggled a little bit in qualifying, but we know why now, so I’m expecting a lot for Detroit and the other street circuits. I think we’re going to have a really strong car and maybe can expect some wins. On the ovals it’s all new, so I just adapt to the car. I tried to make it feel like I thought it should feel, and then I went toward being too loose, too much oversteer. My engineer said it’s because on the road course you’re used to having the steering responding to what you want. On an oval, you’re relying on the right rear, and you need to make sure that your rear is stable. So, I learned that wasn’t the right way and went back in the right direction, and now we’re okay. The car feels really good now.”
MFW: Has the powerful draft this car forms at Indianapolis been affecting you?
SP: “Not really. I’ve been used to it in sports cars because we run such big wickers and it creates such a big wake behind it. I’ve been used to a lot more buffeting on that, so it’s okay for me. But what I’ve found difficult is when you get really close to someone you just don’t have any front grip anymore, and you see the wall coming and you just want to lift. And until [Bump Day practice], we had to lift in traffic. We couldn’t get by anyone. We found something at the end, so finally we can get a run on people. But for some reason, I didn’t feel like there was huge drafting. There’s a good drafting on the road course. In road course trim, there’s huge drafting, which is good for racing. I didn’t feel like we could pass really easily at Indy. It’s a one-groove track as well, which makes it difficult. But I hope I can go through. I hope I can go back to the front. Top 10 would be great.”
MFW: Do you think pitting you against Josef Newgarden for Rookie of the Year honors is a fair fight?
SP: “I think Josef is pretty quick, actually. I think it is. I’ve never been on an oval — Josef has. He’s been on an oval in Indy Lights. I don’t know any more tracks than he knows — he’s been doing Indy Lights, so he knows all the tracks really well. I’ve only done three races in INDYCAR. You could say I’ve been driving high-powered cars and he hasn’t — that’s right, that’s true. But I’ve never been in INDYCAR before, so I feel like I should be treated as a rookie.”
MFW: Given that, do you think it’s fair to exclude Rubens Barrichello from being a rookie?
SP: “No, I don’t think it is. He’s at even more of a disadvantage than I am. He’s never driven the tracks. He’s been with a higher-powered car, but he doesn’t know the tracks and that’s probably the most difficult part. I think he should be a rookie, too.”
MFW: You spent a year in Champ Car in 2007, then went to ALMS for four seasons. Was it always your goal while in sports cars to return to open-wheel racing?
SP: “It has always been my goal. When I grew up, it was either F1 or INDYCAR for me, one or the other. I remember a day I was watching Cleveland on TV. I think it was 1995. I think it was Gil de Ferran driving Derrick Walker’s car, the Valvoline car. I remember watching the race and thinking that was a really cool kind of racing. The cars looked cool. They had a lot of power. And I told my grandpa, ‘I want to be a race car driver.’ And he said, ‘You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘What’s your plan?’ because he liked plans. I said, ‘It’s either Formula 1 or INDYCAR.’ And from that moment, I stuck to it my whole life. It came from that.”
MFW: Was there anything in your sports car career that was particularly helpful in preparing for your return to open-wheel?
SP: “I set up a deal with Gil de Ferran to do the Acura program [in ALMS in 2008], and the first thing Gil asked me was, ‘Are you still thinking about INDYCAR, or are you a sports car guy?’ And I knew what the answer was, but I lied. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have hired me. I said, ‘No, I’m fully committed to sports cars, I want to do sports cars,’ because I needed the ride. And I needed to learn from him as well. My goal was to go with him and complete myself as a driver because he had so much more experience. He’s the great professor, right? And he actually gave me everything he has like an open book, and I just had to listen. I talked to him yesterday on the phone — he still gives me advice, and it’s great. In 2008, I learned so much. In 2009, I improved myself as a driver. I was able to get some speed but also set the car up. And then, we started to have some conversations about setup and not always agree. In 2010, I went to Highcroft and won the championship.”
MFW: You were very successful in your sports car career. What was it that precipitated the move back to open-wheel at this point? Was it simply that the opportunity arose, or was there more to it?
SP: “I continued to work on my physical fitness level to be able to step into an INDYCAR at any time. My discipline was to always train as much as possible so I would be ready mentally, physically. And I showed my face everywhere in the INDYCAR paddock, and I had my manager working on talking to teams. And then, a good friend of mine, Will Power — who was my teammate in 2007 — really helped me with Dreyer & Reinbold. When Ana Beatriz broke her wrist at St. Pete in 2011, Will said to Dreyer & Reinbold that they should hire me. And because Will said that, they thought, ‘wow, he must be really good.’ So, they hired me and I finished eighth in my first INDYCAR race, and Sam called me straight after that race and offered me a contract. Everything was going fine in sports cars. I could have had the best career. I could have been the next McNish, or I could have won Le Mans and continued in that direction. But I was 27. I had to make a decision, and I didn’t want to regret it. INDYCAR has always been my dream. If I had the opportunity I’d take it, even though I was giving away somewhere I was getting paid really well, somewhere where I had security with my job more than I do now. But this is racing. This is why I’m racing. I’m a racer. I want compete with the best and prove to myself that I’m the best, and that’s why I’m back in INDYCAR.”
MFW: You’ve been one of the more successful drivers with a Honda engine this season. To what do you attribute that?
SP: “I think it’s the whole package. I don’t think it’s me. It can’t be me by myself. My guys have been the fastest in the pits getting me in the right position. We started Barber in 13th position because we didn’t qualify really well. They got me out there fighting for the win. Same in Brazil – we started 16th, and after a stint we were in 7th position. So, the team has been fantastic — tremendous amount of work at the shop, at the track. The strategy has been great. With my engineer, the chemistry is so strong. We trust each other. Even though we don’t have as much information as Penske or Ganassi with four cars, we can understand what we need and we try to be very smart about the choices we make, and it works out in the moment.”
MFW: What’s your goal for the remainder of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season?
SP: “I think the fact that we have Indy right now is a good break in the season for us to prepare again for the road courses and be stronger. I’m expecting quite a lot out of Detroit and the next road course tracks. Now, we’re fifth in the championship. I think we should be third. My goal is to fight for top five in the championship. I think we can aim for top three, but top five would be reasonable.”
MFW: When you imagine walking through Gasoline Alley and out to the grid to start your first Indianapolis 500, what goes through your mind?
SP: “To be honest, I tackle it as another race. If you pay too much attention to the crowds, to the emotion that goes through your body, to the tradition — it’s kind of dramatic. If you pay attention to this, you’re going to start shaking and you won’t be good at the start. So, my goal is to put myself in my own Simon world before I walk through Gasoline Alley and before I walk to the grid and block out everything else. I can only see my goal, and my goal is to go forward. I’m not saying I’m going to be outside in turn 1 because I think that might be a bit too much, but I want to go forward. I’m trying to see how I can make the car right for me and how I can make it come back through traffic and finish in a top-10 position.”