By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Simon Pagenaud went from the 20th starting position to get a surprise third-place finish in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.
The three-time race winner didn’t make it out of the group round of qualifying Friday, so he had his work cut out for from the very start of the 80-lap contest.
“It’s not the performance I want to display, and certainly my team deserves to be up front. We just made a mistake,” Pagenaud on his poor qualifying effort. “I think the decision process we had with my engineer Ben (Bretzman) was not as good as it’s been other times.
“We need to go back on Monday and think about why we made those decisions. I think I know why, quite frankly. We just thought it was going to be better, but we made a mistake.”
Pagenaud’s luck changed once the only full course caution came out for a crash by Oliver Askew in Turn 14 on Lap 36. The man who was hardly in the top-15, recently made a third stop where he went from fresh Firestone red compounds to used ones.
“The yellow fell five laps after we pitted. It worked out well for us,” said Pagenaud. “It’s funny, my spotter actually after the race said I had a weird relationship with this place saying one day it’s tough on me and the next day she rewards me, and I said, yeah, my personal life is not as dramatic, so I like that.”
From there, things began clicking as different pit strategies from other competitors benefited the No. 22 Team Penske squad.
“We started on black, which was the strategy. We were going to do three stops and attack,” Pagenaud on his pit strategy. “The pit window was very open, so you could pit early and jump back in a sequence of pit stops.
“When you come out of pits, now when you’re on the track and with worn-out tires you had more degradation than other years, so coming out of the pits on new tires, you would actually gain a lot of time, so the undercut was very interesting, and we played that game a lot, and it gained us a lot of position at the beginning of the race.”
The Frenchman began improving over time and was suddenly in prime position for a podium finish after getting by Spencer Pigot on Lap 61.
Pigot was having strong showing but once Pagenaud got by, that’s when engine woes saw the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Citrone-Buhl Autosport driver regressing down the running order and later retired from the race to finish 24th.
As the race winded down, Pagenaud had already gained 17 spots from where he started, but had at least one more guy to hunt down and that was second place Graham Rahal.
Pagenaud’s key to his race success was pushing his car to its limit but also managing his tires in order to make the rally possible. He did that and cut Rahal’s gap down to a single second, but ran out of time to get one more position.
“We weren’t totally happy to start the race. We adjusted the car and it got better and better,” Pagenaud on his race progress. “We were also able to keep the tires underneath us pretty well. Made a lot of ground on the pit sequence by pushing really hard. We gained a lot of ground that way.
“The aero also helped us because we had pitted already five laps before. Overall, had good pace, it was very hot in the car. Thanks to all the training I put in because it was a very physical race,” Pagenaud added.
Nevertheless, it was a strong rebound for Pagenaud, who ended up with his 32nd career INDYCAR podium to put himself 2-for-2 in the podium category this season.
Pagenaud thanked Chevrolet for finding more horsepower over the winter, citing that straightaway speed was strong which made it easier for him to pass cars.
“Chevy has done a phenomenal job and I definitely felt it during the race. We had an advantage on the straights and it clearly showed on all the passing we could make. We were passing people before even Turn 1, so I was very impressed with that,” said Pagenaud.
“Maybe we had less downforce. I know we trimmed on our car to be able to do that. Chevy is the reason we had such a great race today. We still have some work to do on the car. Overall, very good first two races for us.”
Despite being second in points, he’s already trailing race winner Scott Dixon by 29 points heading into the doubleheader at Road America (July 11-12) as the five-race grind has just begun.
“It’s going to be intense. Indy car racing is probably one of the most physical sort of racing that there is. We don’t have power steering and now it’s really hot in the race car,” said Pagenaud.
He followed it up by saying the Aeroscreen has created some new challenges during hot conditions like Saturday. One suggestion was improving the air vent inside the car better as he was exhausted after the race.
“Those are the kind of things that you say thank you to your training, and I’ve been trying in the heat, but I’m going to keep doing the same,” said Pagenaud. “Maybe adjust a little bit the training to be even stronger. But yeah, it’s evolving every year. It’s fun, and I’m glad I trained this hard this winter.”