If you look at the results of 2015, Simon Pagenaud was perhaps an outside bet at best to take the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series title, but the Frenchman did just that, starting the season in style and ending it impressively despite pressure from behind from Will Power.
The Frenchman endured a tough first season in 2015 with the Team Penske team that culminated in just two visits to the podium and no victories, but wind the clock to 2016 and the world saw a rejuvenated Pagenaud take five victories and three further podium finishes to take the crown, with the championship battle with team-mate Power going down to the wire at Sonoma Raceway.
The season saw eight different race winners across the sixteen race championship, with Pagenaud, Power and Scott Dixon the only multiple victors. For Penske, Pagenaud’s five wins, Power’s four and one for Juan Pablo Montoya confirmed them as the team to beat, and that is not taking into account Helio Castroneves’ run to third place in the championship without heading to victory lane himself.
Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais were also victorious during 2016, while the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was won by Formula 1 refugee Alexander Rossi!
Pagenaud’s Strong Start
Pagenaud began the season in fantastic fashion, winning three of the first five races of the year and finishing second in the other two, with the Frenchman laying down a marker to all his rivals in the process.
Second place in the season opener around the streets of St Petersburg to team-mate Montoya was followed by the same finishing position around the one-mile oval in Phoenix – making a welcome return to the IndyCar schedule after an eleven year absence – this time to Dixon.
Pagenaud’s first win of the season came around the streets of Long Beach, although controversy played a part when he appeared to cut the pit exit line in order to maintain position ahead of Dixon at the final round of pit stops. The Penske driver was only given a warning, infuriating Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing, but Pagenaud maintained position at the head of the field to take the chequered flag first.
Another win came the following race on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park, but not after a strong challenge from Rahal that had seen the American take the lead in the closing stages, only to break his front wing against the back of Jack Hawksworth’s AJ Foyt Racing machine as he attempted to lap the Briton, allowing Pagenaud back into the lead.
It became a hat trick of victories as Pagenaud dominated the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, finishing ahead of team-mate Castroneves, while James Hinchcliffe claimed his first podium of the season for Schmidt Peterson Motorsport.
Rossi Surprises on ‘500 debut
The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 started with a fantastic feel good story, when Hinchcliffe took a stunning pole position, a year after almost losing his life in a horror crash during practice for the same event. The Canadian was joined on the front row by American’s Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Amongst the entrants were Matthew Brabham, who became the third generation starter of the legendary event after Grandfather Sir Jack Brabham and father Geoff Brabham, and he raced for KV Racing Technology in conjunction with PIRTEK Team Murray.
Stefan Wilson was also on the entry list, again aligned with KV Racing, as he honoured his late brother Justin who lost his live at Pocono Raceway towards the end of the 2015 season, while Bryan Clauson raced his final Indy 500 before he lost his life in a midget car crash in August.
The race itself was an interesting affair with fuel strategy playing a key part towards the end of the race, and Rossi, a rookie in 2016 with the Andretti-Herta Autosport combination, saw him take a stunning victory, coasting to the line almost on fumes as others were forced to pit over the last few laps.
Rossi was involved in the leading battle for much of the race, leading fourteen laps in total, with his strategy denying a disappointed Carlos Muñoz, who was ultimately forced to settle for second ahead of Newgarden and Tony Kanaan.
Power Fights Back
Pagenaud had a convincing lead in the championship heading away from Indianapolis despite finishing a lapped nineteenth, while Dixon held second, but Detroit would start Power’s fight back.
The Australian had missed the opening race of the season at St Petersburg due to illness despite having taken pole position, and was replaced by veteran Spaniard Oriol Servia at the last moment, and through the first six races of the year, took only one podium finish at Phoenix.
He took his first win of the season in race two around the Belle Isle circuit on Sunday, having crashed out of Saturday’s opening race, a race won by Sebastien Bourdais of KVSH Racing ahead of Conor Daly and Montoya. Pagenaud, who had finished thirteenth in race one, followed Power home in the second race to strengthen his lead in the championship.
The race around Texas Motor Speedway was abandoned due to weather after just seventy-one laps, with the remainder of the race rescheduled for the final weekend of August, but not before a horror crash befell Newgarden after he found himself tangled up with Daly on the main straight. To say he was lucky to escape with just a fracture wrist and clavicle was the understatement of the year after he slid upside down against the wall before coming to rest on the infield.
The return to the legendary Road America saw Power dominate, leading forty-six of the fifty laps, and despite running towards the front of the field for much of the afternoon, a disastrous final stint saw Pagenaud fall all the way to thirteenth as Kanaan and Rahal completed the podium.
The race around the Iowa Speedway saw an emphatic victory for Newgarden, despite him still feeling the effects of his Texas crash, leading 282 laps and at one point putting a lap on everyone bar the top three, although caution periods meant others did claw back that deficit. Power was second to reduce the gap to Pagenaud who finished behind Dixon in fourth.
Power’s momentum continued into the race around the streets of Toronto, as he took his third win in four races, while Pagenaud trailed home in ninth as Castroneves and Hinchcliffe completed the podium.
The Battle goes to the Wire
Power had reduced Pagenaud’s advantage to forty-seven points heading into the final five races of the season, but the Frenchman responded in fantastic fashion as he got the better of the Australian at Mid-Ohio to take victory, although the race should have been Mikhail Aleshin’s, who led the most laps and was seemingly in control when his final scheduled pit stop went drastically wrong for the SMP Racing-backed Schmidt Peterson Motorsport driver.
Aleshin also the led the most laps at Pocono Raceway after starting from pole position, but Power once again took victory as Pagenaud found himself out of the race after hitting the wall on lap 158. The result ensured the gap in the championship reduced to just twenty points heading into the resumption of the race at Texas.
Texas was a thrilling encounter where neither Pagenaud or Power were able to lead a lap, although the Frenchman finished fourth and the Australian eighth. The battle for the lead however went down to the wire, and Rahal took his only win of the season after a final lap pass on Hinchcliffe – the two crossing the line side by side with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver winning by just 0.0080 seconds, with Kanaan completing the podium.
An early retirement for Power in IndyCar’s return to the Watkins Glen International provided an almost decisive swing in the championship, as the Australian clashed early with Charlie Kimball on the exit of turn four.
Dixon was in dominant form, winning for the first time since Phoenix, while Newgarden and Castroneves completed the podium in a race that saw a number of drivers struggling with fuel in the closing stages, including Pagenaud who dropped to seventh as he conserved fuel, although he left Watkins Glen with a forty-three point advantage.
Power knew he would need Pagenaud to finish outside the top four at the Sonoma Raceway to be in with a chance of taking the title, and that was providing the Australian was victorious, but unfortunately for Power, it was not to be, as Pagenaud dominated the race from pole position to take the championship, with Rahal and Montoya completing the podium.
Pagenaud ultimately ended up 127 points up on Power in the championship, due to double points being awarded in the finale, while Castroneves completed the top three lock-out for Penske.
Andretti Autosport Disappoint
The battles at the front of the field for much of the year was thrilling, but aside from the Indianapolis 500, only rarely did Andretti Autosport show good speed, with only Muñoz finishing inside the top ten in the championship.
The Colombian is quickly becoming renowned as a specialist around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and took his second runners-up spot in 2016, but only visited the podium once more at Mid-Ohio, although his results were enough to secure tenth in the championship.
Former series champion Hunter-Reay took four third place finishes during the year, but Marco Andretti, the son of team owner Michael, endured a terrible year, finishing inside the top ten on only three occasions and taking a lowly sixteenth in the championship standings.
Rossi’s victory at Indianapolis was the only high point in a season that when they were on the pace they finished highly, but when they were not, they were nowhere, and usually this could be determined by their qualifying pace, particularly on the road and street courses where drivers struggled to get out of the first phase of qualifying, let alone make it through the fast six shootout.
The team were not the only ones to struggle, with AJ Foyt duo Hawksworth and Takuma Sato struggling to impress, the former enduring a tough third season in the championship and failing to break into the top ten all year, while Sato had a best finish of fifth at Long Beach and Toronto.
Simon Pagenaud became only the second Frenchman to win a top level single-seater Championship in the United States after Sebastien Bourdais, and Team Penske were once more the team to beat in 2016.
Five wins, including in dominating fashion when under pressure at Sonoma, proved Pagenaud is an outstanding IndyCar driver and a deserving champion. It will be interesting to see how he comes back in 2017, and how Power responds.
It could have been a different year without Power’s absence in St Petersburg, and the Australian admitted he was not really at his full potential for much of the first half of the season.
Couple into the fact the Josef Newgarden now switches to the top team in the championship next season in place in place of Juan Pablo Montoya, who paid for his poor form in 2016, and alongside Helio Castroneves – Penske could have more than the two challengers for the title in 2017.
Both Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport will also be looking to get back into winning ways, with the former switching from Chevrolet to Honda power… Pagenaud will do well to retain his title.