Team Penske‘s Simon Pagenaud has stated that he was driving totally on “instinct” in Saturday’s 2019 NTT IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Indianapolis, where he took his first victory since 2017. The Frenchman overtook reigning champion Scott Dixon on the penultimate lap of the race to take the win, having charged through the order in the closing stages to get into contention.
Heading into the weekend off the back of a relatively solid start to the season, Pagenaud was still hoping for his return to the front of the field; having gone over a year and a half since securing his last IndyCar victory back at the 2017 Grand Prix of Sonoma.
On face value, given Pagenaud and Penske’s prior record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix circuit, eighth place on the grid may have seen somewhat disappointing. However, qualifying ended up producing a totally mixed up grid. Some of the usual front-runners, such as his team-mate Josef Newgarden as well as all four Andretti Autosport drivers, were eliminated in the first round of qualifying. What’s more, he would start only two places behind his other full-time team-mate, Will Power.
“It’s a lot of fun out there,” Pagenaud said after qualifying on Friday, “It is so competitive. Everyone on the Menards Chevy did a great job today. We took a step backwards in practice two and took a big step forward in that qualifying session. I’m pretty happy.
“I gave it everything I could. That was the best lap I could have done, we just need to find a little bit more. We are right there. And if it rains tomorrow, you just have to adapt. It’s the same for everyone. I enjoy driving in the rain, so we will put on a good show tomorrow.”
Pagenaud maintained his solid position in the middle of the top ten for much of the first half of the race on Saturday. The Chip Ganassi Racing duo of pole-sitter Felix Rosenqvist and team-mate Scott Dixon held the lead for the early stages, but as the rain arrived and slowly worsened towards the end of the race, Pagenaud’s pace in the #22 Penske Chevrolet got better and better.
When Pagenaud’s returning team-mate, Helio Castroneves, bought out the caution with just over twenty laps remaining, the field all pitted for what should have been the last time. However, the rain would worsen even further during the caution period, forcing those who had just fitted dry tyres to pit again for wets. This put Pagenaud in sixth place for the ensuing restart, with Dixon sprinting away in the lead of the race.
Pagenaud quickly found that his #22 Chevrolet had fantastic pace in the rain. He managed to blitz his way by the likes of Ed Carpenter Racing‘s Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones. After a few more laps, he would pass A.J. Foyt Enterprises‘ Matheus Leist to take third place. The Frenchman seemed to struggle to find a way by Meyer Shank Racing‘s Jack Harvey at first, but a bold move in the braking zone for turn one would see him take second place with six laps to go.
Despite trailing Dixon by five seconds after getting into second place, Pagenaud would not throw in the towel. Just two laps later, Simon had cut Scott’s advantage down to just two seconds. Another lap later, the gap was just half a second.
Pagenaud’s task of taking the lead was made more difficult by having no more push-to-pass boost, but when Dixon made a mistake into turn seven on the penultimate lap, Simon made his move. The Frenchman placed his car on the outside of Dixon heading into the left-right chicane of turns eight and nine, thus putting him on the inside line for the exit of the corner. The pair made slight contact whilst racing side-by-side, but Simon was able to take the place and with it, one lap later, the race victory.
The win was an important one for Pagenaud, with the 2016 champion having suffered a winless drought lasting the previous twenty-one races. The race was arguably one of Pagenaud’s best in his IndyCar career, as his pace in the closing stages was simply magnificent. Post-race, Pagenaud would praise the speed of his car throughout the race, before going on to admit that in the closing laps, he was driving in “full instinct mode.”
“The car was just amazing all day,” Simon said after his victory, “It was really weird, at times I thought people were saving fuel and they weren’t saving fuel, so I didn’t understand why we had so much pace at times.
“Then when it started raining, obviously, [I] had no knowledge of the track, no knowledge of our setup in the rain. I thought, ‘OK, the sports cars have been racing a lot in the rain.’ A lot of racing in the rain, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to attack right away and see,’ and right away I noticed our car was much better now that it’s on the braking, so I could really attack and get the tires hot quickly and that’s how I jumped a lot of people right away, and then I gained confidence.
“Then, I noticed that other people were struggling with tyre wear and we didn’t. So then I kept on pushing but was still trying to keep the tires underneath me. It was just incredible to see the pace we had in the rain conditions. I took a lot of risks for sure, maybe more than (Scott) Dixon needed to take some risk because we were in a position where I can take some risks right now, and the car was so good that I just gave it 100 percent, 100 percent every lap.
“Honestly, in the last two laps to go, I almost started out saving second, and then all of a sudden I realized, ‘Wait, I’ve got too much pace for this.’ We caught Scott by a lot – and I guess you call it the penultimate lap, the one before the last – and I realized that I had a shot, but I was out of push-to-pass, so my only chance was to get him on the infield. But quite frankly, none of the passes I made today I planned. I just drove with full instinct mode, and it worked out.”
Pagenaud will now be hoping to replicate what his team-mate, Will Power, accomplished twelve months ago. Power managed to win both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 last year. With the most important race of the year now just two weeks away, Simon will be fully focused on trying to do the double himself.
The first practice session for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 will take place on Tuesday, May 14. The two-days of qualifying will be run next weekend from Saturday, May 18 to Sunday, May 19. The race itself, the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, will take place the following weekend on Sunday, May 26.