By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Simon Pagenaud is ready to attack and defend his crown when the Verizon IndyCar Series gets back in action on the Streets of St. Petersburg this weekend.
Six months removed from winning his first title, Pagenaud has a feeling of satisfaction of clearing this hurdle in his career.
“It has been a relief,” he said. “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.”
His championship was backed by five wins, eight poles and 406 laps led. The win puts him in a new stratosphere as one of the sport’s elite.
Now that he has progressed to the next level, the 32-year-old Frenchman hopes to capitalize even more in the year ahead and stay in the groove.
“My approach is going to be to attack and be aggressive when I need to be,” he said. “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.”
His championship is a far cry from his first season with the team in 2015. He ended the year a disappointing 11th place finish in the standings.
While the year was not ideal, it really wasn’t too unexpected. He went from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, where he was the central focus, to an organization that does everything on a different level than anyone else in the paddock.
His team was also brand new and had to adjust to the Penske culture as well. Now that all the parties have adjusted, the team has become a force to be reckoned with.
Pagenaud feels that the familiarity and rhythm that the team has built up is going to lead to more success.
“I do believe in consistency being the key to success in racing,” he said. “It’s a job where everything is changing every second of the day. You might be fastest in practice one at 10:30 in the morning, and then the next practice you might be 20th.
“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.
Furthering that point, Pagenaud is thrilled that every member of the championship-winning No. 22 squad has returned to the renumbered No. 1 Chevrolet team.
“I’m very excited about having every one of my guys back together,” he said. “The crew is exactly the same.”
Winning back-to-back titles would make him the first Team Penske driver to do so since his mentor Gil de Ferran won the 2000-01 CART championships. De Ferran has served as a mentor to Pagenaud since the pair raced together in the American Le Mans Series in 2008.
Pagenaud noted that De Ferran’s advice is key as he prepares to get back to work.
“Gil and I have a very similar approach on how to go racing,” he said. “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.”