Team Penske‘s Simon Pagenaud has stated that he is happy to have taken a podium finish in last weekend’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Frenchman started way down the order in twentieth place after a disaster in qualifying and went on to finish in third place.
Entering the weekend, Simon was hoping to continue a run of good form after a decent start to the season at Texas Motor Speedway. The Frenchman finished June’s Genesys 300 in a strong second place and was now heading to Indianapolis; the site of two fantastic victories for him in 2019.
Despite being the defending race winner on the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit, Pagenaud would have a tough time in qualifying. In the first round, Pagenaud needed to be in the top six of his group to advance further into the next round. However, a set of poor lap-times would leave him only tenth, putting him twentieth on the grid for Saturday’s race.
The elimination came as a shock to many, as Pagenaud had not been too far off the pace in practice earlier on in the day. After qualifying, Simon commented that the team had made an adjustment to his #22 Penske Chevrolet before qualifying and that he believed that was the cause of his elimination in the first round.
“I said this morning we felt pretty good, and I think the adjustment we made went in the wrong direction,” Simon said on Friday. “It comes down to downforce. If you decide to run less downforce when you let that rear wing down, there’s a lot of speed. I think we might have to do that tomorrow with the Menards Chevy. We’ll see. I thought the tire degradation rate was low, so that might help us to make that decision.”
Pagenaud had been hoping to make up positions quickly at the start of Saturday’s race. However, that would be far from the case. The Frenchman was only able to make up a handful of positions, but he would soon find himself stuck in eighteenth place and unable to make up ground. At one point, Simon even found himself on the receiving end of a beautiful opportunistic pass by rookie Alex Palou at the penultimate corner; which would push Pagenaud back down to nineteenth.
Pagenaud’s team would soon elect to change strategy in order to try and undercut those ahead of him by running in clean air. Simon pitted for the first time on lap nine. His second pit-stop came just a few laps before the race-changing caution on lap thirty-four after Arrow McLaren SP‘s Oliver Askew crashed at the final corner.
The caution meant that those who had not yet pitted would do so during the yellow flag period. This would cycle Pagenaud up into seventh place. From there, he was finally able to use the speed of his #22 Chevrolet to move into the fight for the podium.
Pagenaud found himself up into third place as the race neared its end. With just a handful of laps to go, Pagenaud caught up to second-placed Graham Rahal. However, catching up was one thing and passing was a completely different challenge. There was no doubt that Pagenaud had the faster car, but he just ran out of laps before he was able to properly have a go at overtaking Rahal.
In the end, just over half a second would separate the pair as they crossed the line to finish the race. Pagenaud’s podium would be a fantastic comeback after his qualifying disappointment. Post-race, an exhausted Pagenaud would thank his team for a fantastic strategy.
“Yesterday was not what we wanted with qualifying,” Pagenaud said on Saturday. “We unloaded well but went the wrong direction with this basically new car. But it was a negative that became a positive. I think it sets us up for the season really early on knowing what we need for the car. We weren’t totally happy when we started the race and adjusted the Menards Chevy and got better and better. We were also able to keep the tires underneath us really well. We made a lot of ground under pit sequences by really, really pushing really hard when everybody pitted and we gained a lot of ground that way. The yellow helped us a bit because we pitted about five laps before so that did help us.”
The race had been an absolute scorcher, with air temperatures up and above ninety degrees. With one of the new-for-2020 Aeroscreen’s only drawbacks being an increase in cockpit temperature, the drivers really had their work cut out for them. After climbing from his #22 Chevrolet, Simon said that he had been happy for “the extra training” he had been able to do whilst the series had been delayed.
“In the end, we had good pace,” Pagenaud said. “It was really hard to move the car so thanks to all the extra training I put in since it was a really physical race. I also want to say a big thanks to Chevy because that was a lot of horsepower in the straightaway and helped me pass all of those people. Just a big thanks to them.”
Pagenaud’s pair of podiums in the first two races makes this year his best start to an IndyCar season since 2016; the year he won the championship. Back then, he followed up his pair of podiums with a victory in the third round. He will be hoping that he can do the same when the championship continues this weekend at Road America.
The REV Group Grand Prix weekend will consist of a pair of NTT IndyCar Series races. The first will take place on Saturday, July 11, with the second following on Sunday, July 12.