By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
Simon Pagenaud didn’t know he was going to do a four stop strategy until his engineer sent him a text. It ended up being the move that earned him the final Verizon IndyCar Series race victory of 2017 in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“My engineer texted me when I was at the Verizon dinner,” said Pagenaud. “And he said, ‘We’re going to do four stops.’ I’m like, what? Four stops never worked here; why would we do four stops? He said, ‘Well, if there’s a yellow, that’s the best way we can win the championship.’ I’m like, all right, that makes sense, but it’s a long shot. If it doesn’t work out, we’re going to end up fifth or sixth in the championship, it’s not going to look too good. But I was in a very attacking mode, attacking mood this weekend, and I thought, hey, why not, let’s try. And he convinced me.”
“Then, you know, it was — I was really surprised on the second stint how strong we were compared to everybody. We were able to pass a lot of cars and made some very aggressive passes, and it was starting to really work.
Pagenaud’s gap to teammate and title contender Josef Newgarden built slowly but surely during the race as the alternative strategy started to work in the Frenchman’s favor.
“When I built a gap on Josef, 10 seconds, and then 11 and then 12, I was like, ooh, I think we have a chance,” Pagenaud said. “So then I thought, if we keep putting pressure, maybe something would happen. The strategy worked out really, really well. It was impressive. The car was just phenomenal all day. Grueling, tiring, and I’m exhausted right now. That’s the most I’ve ever pushed in an IndyCar race.”
Pagenaud pitted for his final pit stop on Lap 65 and came out right ahead of Newgarden. One problem: Pagenaud was on the black sidewall tires while Newgarden’s red sidewall tires were giving the Tennessee native more grip. Try as he might, Newgarden was unable to get around Pagenaud.
“When I blocked Turn 7 and I saw (Newgarden) diving, I’m like, dude, be careful,” Pagenaud said. “Especially at the time, the thing is if he has a problem, I’m leading the race, I’m champion, so at the time we’re racing, obviously I knew, I could see on the sign Dixon was fifth, so I knew we couldn’t do anything stupid for the championship. But it was more comfortable for me than it was for him, I’m assuming, in my position. Yeah, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fight. It was a good fight. I thought that my out lap was outstanding for sure.”
Newgarden had only one thing in mind: beating his teammate.
“My instinct when I saw him was I’m going to beat him, and that’s just my — honestly that’s my natural instinct inside the car is just to beat whoever is in front of me,” said Newgarden. “That’s what I felt like. I was on reds, he was out of the pits, he was like weak prey in front of me, so I’m going to get him. But I also tried to measure it the way I was doing it. I didn’t want to do something silly.
“And then obviously the more that that lap progressed, Tim was very vocal and coaching me through it and telling me, this is the situation. You know, it made a lot of sense in my mind when he was over the radio, so I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Tim for keeping me in check and making sure that I was thinking correctly this whole weekend and certainly in that moment.”
Pagenaud got into the position he was in by trying an alternate four stop strategy while the vast majority of the rest of the field did only three scheduled pit stops. The defending series champion made his first pit stop on Lap 11 then again on Laps 30 and 48. During that time, Pagenaud had to lap between half a second to a second faster than Newgarden in order to build a gap that would allow the eventual winner to maintain a lead.
Pagenaud’s defending and Newgarden’s conservative approach to the final stint allowed for Pagenaud to win the race and Newgarden to win the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.