In our latest driver interview, we exclusively caught up with French driver and IndyCar legend, Simon Pagenaud as he reflected on his motorsport journey, life in IndyCar and witnessing the “fun” evolution of fresh talent in the series.
Pagenaud has spent 21 seasons racing across various motorsport disciplines which has seen him enjoy various successes, such as 2006 Atlantic Championship and 2016 IndyCar titles to name just two of his many achievements.
Now as Pagenaud prepares for a new era as he leaves Team Penske after seven seasons to join Meyer Shank Racing, he candidly reflects on his life in motorsport from his motorsport inspiration to climbing the ladder to life at Team Penske and also looks to the future of IndyCar and a new era with Meyer Shank Racing.
Who inspired you to become a racing driver?
Pagenaud: “Ayrton Senna as he was mythical. Schumacher for the work ethic.”
You spent the early part of your career racing in Europe with a best finish of second in 2000 Formula Campus and 2004 Eurocup FR 2000. As a young driver at that stage of your career, what was it like to graduate from karting to single seater then adapt to various series?
Pagenaud: “It was extremely difficult because of the cost of just getting in a race car. I understood early on that you had to be with the best team to run up front and, of course, that is even more expensive.
“Finding partners for a series that is not shown anywhere in the media or on TV was extremely difficult. During that time, the driving came second and it was only possible to just let the instinct driving do the talk. The feel of an open wheel since day 1 was a lot more natural to me than karts.”
2006 saw you switch to Atlantic Championship across Americas where you won in your rookie season. How much did it mean to win the title that season as a rookie as you also adapted to a new continent and circuits?
Pagenaud: “It was a make-or-break kind of year, so winning was everything. My sole focus was to concentrate on extracting the best out of every day, every race and get every point I could get.”
2008-11 saw you switch to sportscar racing including Le Mans 24 Hours but you found success in 2010 American Le Mans Series. Having spent several years in single-seater racing, what was it like to move to sportscar racing and ultimately winning 2010 ALMS?
Pagenaud: “This was an interesting time of my career with the decision to play the long game by going to sportscars and try to be the best sportscar driver there was at that time. I thought if I could accomplish that, then I would get a chance to join the INDYCAR series which was my ultimate goal.
“Sportscar racing and especially working with Gil De Ferran allowed me to learn a lot more about the technical details of racing.
“We were working on engine development, traction control, tire development, aero and it was also great seat time, especially with the Peugeot Team in preparation for Le Mans with some regular 30 hours testing simulation.”
2011 saw you make your IndyCar bow at Alabama as part of an 3-race programme before making a permanent switch in 2012. What was it like to make that permanent switch to IndyCar after four seasons of sportscar racing and a packed 2011 season in different series?
Pagenaud: “It was not a planned program. I was still racing with Peugeot in our attempt to conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Unfortunately, there were a few drivers getting injured in 2011 in INDYCAR and it gave me a chance to jump in with Dreyer Reinbold in Barber. After a top 6 in my first race, I became the super sub in the series for teams who had injured drivers that year.”
“It was awesome to be in one of these cars but those weekends were difficult with not a lot of seat time at tracks I had not seen before. Those races were the key to signing a deal with Schmidt Hamilton Honda.
“Honda (I had been an Acura driver since 2008 in ALMS) was very instrumental in making it happen.”
You soon proved yourself as a serious contender for wins and podiums under SP Motorsport with a third-placed finish in 2013 either side of fifth-placed results in 2012/14. What was it like to be part of SP Motorsport and making progress which culminated in a title challenge in 2014?
Pagenaud: “Yes, that was a fun time for me. I really enjoyed the way the car was and the way the team worked. It was an ideal environment.
“In pre-season testing we were able to develop a really good baseline right away. So, we actually fought for the championship all the way to the last race in 2014.”
2015 saw you join Team Penske where you enjoyed further success including 2016 IndyCar title. You however have often had to fight your teammates for not just wins but the title too, so what has it been like having Josef Newgarden and Will Power as teammates and driving for Team Penkse?
Pagenaud: “One of my goals when I was at Schmidt Peterson was to be team-mate with Will Power someday who was the fastest guy in the series. Being his team-mate would allow me to see how I would stack up in a similar car.
We are two very different drivers but with a similar driving style and I really enjoyed working alongside him, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Juan Pablo Montoya. Each one of them had their qualities and I became a better driver being team-mates with them.
“They all have very different personalities with various egos. Top drivers.”
Since last season there has been a feeling of a changing of the guard in IndyCar so from your perspective, what has it been like to see drivers like Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta emerge alongside arrival of ex F1 stars in Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean?
Pagenaud: “It has been fun to watch the evolution of Pato and Colton, Alex Palou has been very impressive. They are fast, they are ambitious and they are young, and it pushes me to go deeper. I enjoy rivalries and competition and I respect talent and work ethic.”
Finally, what are your ambitions for the future as you now prepare to move to Meyer Shank Racing for next season?
Pagenaud: “It is a new chapter in my career. We have high goals with MSR for the future and we certainly seem to have all the tools. It is going to be a different environment and success will take some time.
“My experience and work ethic is what the team is after, so I look forward to being fully involved in the multiple facets of what it takes to help a team become a regular top team contender.”