Simon Pagenaud, the man who two years ago held his IndyCar rivals' feet to the flames with his pace and consistency, was M.I.A. for the majority of the 2018 season. Ben Bretzman, his race engineer at Team Penske-Chevrolet, tells David Malsher why.
No offense meant to Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi and the Ganassi team, but I was delighted when, Portland Grand Prix qualifying saw Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi lined up 1-2-3, and the championship leader could manage only 11th. Since Toronto I’d been expecting a fifth title for the Kiwi maestro but here, surely, was a prime opportunity for his three nearest challengers to carve into his points lead. The idea of arriving at the Sonoma finale with a genuine four-driver and three-team title battle was everything we could hope for after a brilliant season of racing. I’d have more to write about, there would be more championship tension, it would be a good send-off for Sonoma Raceway, and hopefully more eyeballs would watch NBCSN’s coverage.
A couple of hours after qualifying, I approached one Team Penske member to congratulate him on the front row lockout by the silver Verizon cars and explain my hopes for the next day’s race. Then, with reference to Simon Pagenaud’s desultory P22 in the #22 Penske, I added: “Hopefully the team can find a strategy so maybe Simon can help out Will and Josef, too.”
“Huh!” the Penske guy snorted contemptuously. “Yeah, maybe he can slow down the others when they come up to lap him.” He looked across the Penske bay where all three Penske-Chevys were being fettled, and shook his head. “We’ve done everything to get that guy going quicker, but…” He pulled a face and shrugged.
It’s rare for any team member at this level to show such despair at a driver’s performance, least of all in Penske, synonymous with solidarity and team spirit. But at the penultimate event of a season in which Pagenaud had often looked a shadow of his former self, my companion allowed his frustration to leak out.
Of course, as we know, Power’s and Newgarden’s championship hopes all-but-disappeared on Sunday in a welter of gearbox issues, sandtrap visits and badly timed yellows, while ironically Pagenaud was aided by the same fall of yellows to come through to finish sixth.
Four days later at Sonoma Raceway, a place where he has won the past two years, Pagenaud had a poor test… then looked his old self come race weekend, trading fast lap times with his teammates, Dixon and the Andretti cars. Simon went on to qualify eighth and finish fourth – not worthy of a tickertape parade, but enough to trigger his goofy grin again.
So was the finale the start of his breakthrough? And what exactly was the problem all year? Pagenaud had been refreshingly honest to all forms of media in admitting he didn’t like the 2018 cars’ inherent instability at the rear, that he couldn’t find the confidence to push to the limit in qualifying. Yet there had been enough anomalies, enough flashes of the 2016 champion’s natural talent – starting third at Long Beach and Toronto and being superfast in any oval qualifying session – to deserve a deeper explanation.
Ben Bretzman, who’s been race engineer for Pagenaud at Highcroft Racing sportscar team, at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in IndyCar, and now again at Penske, is the man to ask.
“Particularly at the start of the year, random things that don’t typically happen started hitting us whenever we had a chance to do well,” Bretzman tells Motorsport.com. “Like when we crashed out at Long Beach [Pagenaud was punted by Graham Rahal] we were joking about how rare that is. There was Pocono in 2016, and before that I think you have to go back to Brazil in 2013!
“Then at Barber, we were running eighth or ninth and playing a strategy game and pitted early. We came out 16th and then they red-flagged it – but allowed everyone to refuel before the restart next day. So then it took us all race to get back up to eighth.
“So there was just this general malaise at the start of the year. Everything went against us up to Indy, and by that time you’re so far back in the points, you start trying big flash-in-the-pan ideas to make things happen, while at the same time trying to learn about the car and get him comfortable in qualifying.
“If you look at the points, Simon scored more than Josef and Will from Texas onward, but we weren’t putting up as many as Dixon. Simon hasn’t forgotten how to drive or anything like that. His race craft has been really, really good. It’s just that we have to keep working on getting him to where he’s confident in qualifying. It really helps to start in the top five rather than have to come from 15th or something…”
The most severe examples of Pagenaud’s problems when seeking that edge in qualifying came at St. Petersburg (11th), Detroit 1 (13th), Road America (14th), Mid-Ohio (17th) and that infamous 22nd in Portland. One glib, simplistic theory is that Pagenaud can only excel in high-downforce cars, such as he found in the sports prototype category of the American Le Mans Series or in the manufacturer aerokit era of IndyCar. Yes, he was mighty impressive with Schmidt Peterson in the spec DW12s of 2012-’14, but they were inherent understeerers. The shedding of 20-30 percent of downforce in 2018’s breed of IndyCar and the resultant looseness of the 2018 car raised red flags with Bretzman and Pagenaud early on.
“Yeah, pretty soon into testing of the new kit, Simon was fairly unhappy,” says Bretzman. “It’s hard when you’ve come off two seasons where you win the championship in one and finish second in the other. You’ve got lots of momentum and confidence, and then you get into something so foreign that doesn’t drive like you expect it to.
“We started questioning ourselves – ‘Are we tackling this the right way?’ But like you say, we managed to get him OK in certain circumstances. At the Indy road course, he made big gains in what he thought he wanted from the racecar. That got him in the right mood, started to get his confidence back. But then Detroit 1 was really, really difficult compared with where we were in St. Pete and Long Beach, so then we started doubting ourselves again.
“So we opened our own eyes a bit by doing something very different on the car for raceday and Simon started to have some nice things to say about it. And in fact what we discovered there made us quicker at Toronto for all three of the cars. But of course by then we’re halfway through the season and we’re still throwing big things at the car.
“It was an odd deal all-around, to be honest. We got out of Mid-Ohio and Simon made up about 10 places from his starting position without any caution periods and we were relatively happy. But again, it had taken us all the way until the race to get to that happy place. As I told you at the time, he has done a really good job in the races because his race craft has been really good.
“It’s the opposite problem to our first year at Penske, 2015, when we were fast but just didn’t execute very well. This year we’ve been chasing ourselves setup-wise all weekend until the race, but then we’ve executed well – no mistakes from Simon, strong pace, great pitstops and so on. I guess that's what makes me happy going into the offseason. We had some crew turnover before this season but we meshed really well and performed really well as a unit.
“Going forward, what we’ve got to learn to do is identify his issues earlier in the weekends and remedy them in time for him to qualify much stronger.”
It must, I venture, have been a considerable weight for Pagenaud to carry that maybe for the first time in his career he couldn’t puzzle his way out of these technical cul-de-sacs – or at least, not before he had a damagingly low grid position.
“Yeah, he’s such a ‘mental’ driver,” agrees Bretzman. “The way he approaches his driving, the way he approaches a lap, the way he approaches setting a car up and how to make it go faster… But when it comes down to race time, you set all that aside and just go racing and you’re not stressing over 100lb of spring, what dampers are on the car or how much front wing you’ve got in it.”
Bretzman mentions dampers there, and these appeared to become key to Pagenaud’s quest for speed. Was that to provide better stability or better ‘feel’?
“Better feel,” replies Bretzman. “Simon drives very methodically, and is constantly asking himself, ‘How much grip do I have?’ The reason he doesn’t crash when he’s laying down a qualifying lap is that by then he always has a very good knowledge of how much grip he has and how well the tires work. He can hit the same braking point lap after lap but then he can try and brake five feet deeper to discover how much further he can go. That way, he builds his database and can therefore hone his driving and his car setup too. That’s why he was able to get seven poles in 2016: he knew exactly what the car and tires were going to do and therefore push to its absolute limit.
“If he’s missing a piece of that knowledge and doesn’t have a good feel for what the car’s doing, he’s going to lose confidence because he can’t build that database. So that’s what he’s been searching for all year; that feel to tell him where the limit is and what his car is capable of.”
It seemed odd, therefore, to see Pagenaud contending for pole in the treacherously damp track conditions encountered in qualifying at Toronto. There he seemed to know exactly what the car was going to do, he was error free, and he qualified third, ahead of Power and just behind Newgarden and Dixon.
“Ah well, remember that stemmed from Detroit,” replies Bretzman, “where we found something on our streetcourse package that helped maximize the tires in qualifying. And at that point we were able to then switch our focus more onto his driving, how he’s going to do better in this sector or that sector. In Toronto, it was more like previous years, where I could make minimal changes to the car and instead just find the speed with his driving technique.”
Not only were the basic handling traits of the 2018 car not to his taste, Pagenaud had to accept also that this was this aerokit’s first year, and therefore Team Penske, along with all other teams, was still exploring different setup avenues.
“It was constantly evolving, so its dynamics were regularly changing – that also made him less able to predict its handling traits,” says Bretzman. “That’s another reason why I think Simon will be much stronger next year – because now we have a whole year’s worth of data with this aerokit. We’ll be giving him a car that’s that much further down the road of development, and at the majority of races we ended up with something he liked.”
It’s been notable that there were zero issues for Pagenaud with the new car on oval tracks this year. He was fastest of the Penske drivers in qualifying at both Phoenix and Indy (the latter of which also included four-time Indy polesitter Helio Castroneves), and in the Texas race he was the best of the Penske drivers at protecting his tires, and was rewarded with a runner-up finish – his first of only two podiums this year.
“Yeah, he loves this car on the ovals,” says Bretzman. “It sounds funny but we were actually annoyed with fifth on the grid at Pocono – it screwed up our oval qualifying average because we’d been on the front two rows at the others. But seriously, he’s been really strong, and loves the overall Penske package for ovals. He’s not quite as aggressive as Josef, but he’s getting there, and his racecraft is getting better and better. Four or five years ago, you might have said ovals were our weak link but that certainly wasn’t the case this year.”
The plan, of course, is to have no weak links come 2019. Did Sonoma provide a genuine foretaste of what’s to come from Pagenaud next season? Bretzman thinks so, and admits that testing there a week before race weekend was key.
“That’s the whole reason we do that test early,” he says. “It gives us a chance to put our thinking caps on and process the test data, talk to the drivers and then react to what we’ve discovered. It’s better than testing on the Thursday immediately beforehand where it feels like you’re just doing it on the fly. Also, to be honest, because of where we were in points, we actually used the Portland test and the Sonoma test to experiment with stuff for 2019, and try and work out our struggles from earlier in the year. It gave us some good ideas.”
A couple of months ago, one of Pagenaud’s rivals, hearing of the 2016 champion’s issues with the new spec aerokit, expressed some sympathy for him, but then added: “The thing is, the best drivers adapt, and some people have had a lot more to adapt to. Rossi had to adapt from F1, Wickens had to adapt from touring cars, Veach had to adapt from Indy Lights. Pagenaud just had to learn how to drive an IndyCar with much less downforce than the last one.
“The thing is, you can be messing around with setups all practice trying to adapt the car to your style, but at some point, as you go into qualifying, what you’ve got is what you’ve got, and it’s then up to you to adapt your style to the car.”
As an expert in endurance racing, and also managing an IndyCar over a whole stint, that should be well within Pagenaud’s grasp. He’s just gotta have that feeling.
“Yes,” agrees Bretzman. “If Simon gets the feedback from the car, he can then feel confident and unleash himself, give 100 percent and he’s fast. So this off-season is about making sure we can do that for every track we go to – and from the very start of a race weekend. Being buried in the pack at the start just makes life so difficult for ourselves.”
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