By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 10 drivers from the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list continues with the second-place championship finisher, Simon Pagenaud.
Simon Pagenaud, No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet
- 2017: 2nd in the championship
- Wins: 2, Top 5: 13, Top 10: 15, Poles: 1, Laps Led: 187
- Best Finish: 1st (Phoenix, Sonoma)
For the second-consecutive year, 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud put together an impressive season-long campaign to position himself to contend for the title.
But unlike last season’s romp, this year the Frenchman was outdone by one of his teammates.
Pagenaud made the annual season-opening venture to St. Petersburg fresh off of a breakout year in 2016. The Pointiers, France native had blown away all of his previous bests in his first season with Penske, scoring more wins (five) in one year than the four total victories he’d managed in four complete seasons beforehand.
In the end of that year, Pagenaud had fended off a challenge from teammate Will Power to claim his first INDYCAR title, earning himself the option to use the iconic No. 1 for the 2017 campaign.
It was no surprise, then, when Pagenaud’s No. 1 Chevrolet streaked to the front of the field in St. Petersburg, leading 13 laps before finishing second in what appeared to be the first step in a successful championship defense.
When Pagenaud followed that run up with finishes of fifth, third, first and fourth in the ensuing four races – tallying his first oval victory at Phoenix Raceway in the process – his march to a second VICS title seemed like an inevitability.
But unlike in 2016, Pagenaud had a teammate that was prepared to step up and challenge him. It was a young Tennessean, a newcomer to the team:
Pagenaud went into the Month of May with the points lead, and maintained it with a fourth-place run in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to cement himself as a favorite for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
The Frenchman showed glimpses of speed in the early stages of the month, but once the time for qualifications arrived his struggles became apparent. Pagenaud qualified a disappointing 23rd for the race, and despite his best efforts, he crossed the Yard of Bricks in 14th at the end of the 500-mile race.
Coming in the first of two double-points races, the subpar Indy 500 result was a major blow to Pagenaud’s title pursuit. He dropped to second in the standings leaving Indianapolis, and fell further to fourth the following weekend after finishing 16th in the first of two races at Belle Isle Parkway.
After leaving Detroit, Pagenaud again began to display the consistency that delivered him a title in the previous year. But while he was a constant presence toward the front of the field, the 33-year-old didn’t have the same race-winning peaks he’d managed in the prior season.
Where in 2016 he delivered wins, Pagenaud often ended 2017 runs just outside of the podium. In fact, the sixth-year INDYCAR star finished fourth or fifth in four of the season’s final eight races.
The disappointing trend was likely led on by Pagenaud’s mediocre qualifying performance. In 2016 the Penske shoe often took the green flag with little ground to make up on the leaders, with an average starting position of 3.9. But in 2017 Pagenaud’s average starting position dropped down to 8.6 – the worst mark he’d managed since 2014.
That left Pagenaud needing 4.7 additional overtakes per race to contend for race wins, a feat that he was unable to accomplish with consistency.
Pagenaud still contended for the series title to the very end, battling with Newgarden in a title fight that reached its’ climax at Gateway Motorsports Park, where hard racing between the two sent Newgarden to Victory Lane while a frustrated and angry Pagenaud settled for third.
The Frenchman entered the season finale at Sonoma Raceway sitting fourth in the VICS standing, within mathematical contention for a title but understanding it wasn’t likely.
In the end Pagenaud couldn’t close up the gap to Newgarden, but he went down swinging. The 2016 champion ended his title defense with a statement day at Sonoma, claiming the race victory and rising to second in the standings to close out the year.
He didn’t get to hoist up the Astor Cup for a second year, but in some ways Pagenaud’s 2017 campaign was actually stronger than his championship season.
Pagenaud didn’t have the dominant highs of 2016, with three fewer wins (two), two fewer podiums (six), seven fewer poles (one) and 219 fewer laps led (187). But what he lacked in top-end results he made up for with consistency, scoring a 5.3 average finish that was not only better than his 2016 mark (6.1), but also the best of the entire INDYCAR field.
His championship defense complete, Pagenaud will now look to pair the strength of his first season with Team Penske with the consistency of his second.