No matter occurred to the 2016 IndyCar champion?

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No offense meant to Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi and the Ganassi staff, however I used to be delighted when, Portland Grand Prix qualifying noticed Will Energy, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi lined up 1-2-Three, and the championship chief might handle solely 11th. Since Toronto I’d been anticipating a fifth title for the Kiwi maestro however right here, certainly, was a primary alternative for his three nearest challengers to carve into his factors lead. The thought of arriving on the Sonoma finale with a real four-driver and three-team title battle was all the things we might hope for after an excellent season of racing. I’d have extra to jot down about, there can be extra championship rigidity, it could be send-off for Sonoma Raceway, and hopefully extra eyeballs would watch NBCSN’s protection.

A few hours after qualifying, I approached one Staff Penske member to congratulate him on the entrance row lockout by the silver Verizon vehicles and clarify my hopes for the following day’s race. Then, on the subject of Simon Pagenaud’s desultory P22 within the #22 Penske, I added: “Hopefully the staff can discover a technique so perhaps Simon may also help out Will and Josef, too.”

“Huh!” the Penske man snorted contemptuously. “Yeah, perhaps he can decelerate the others after they come as much as lap him.” He seemed throughout the Penske bay the place all three Penske-Chevys have been being fettled, and shook his head. “We’ve performed all the things to get that man going faster, however…” He pulled a face and shrugged.

It’s uncommon for any staff member at this degree to indicate such despair at a driver’s efficiency, least of all in Penske, synonymous with solidarity and staff spirit. However on the penultimate occasion of a season through which Pagenaud had typically seemed a shadow of his former self, my companion allowed his frustration to leak out.

After all, as we all know, Energy’s and Newgarden’s championship hopes all-but-disappeared on Sunday in a welter of gearbox points, sandtrap visits and badly timed yellows, whereas mockingly Pagenaud was aided by the identical fall of yellows to return by way of to complete sixth.

4 days later at Sonoma Raceway, a spot the place he has gained the previous two years, Pagenaud had a poor check… then seemed his outdated self come race weekend, buying and selling quick lap instances together with his teammates, Dixon and the Andretti vehicles. Simon went on to qualify eighth and end fourth – undeserving of a tickertape parade, however sufficient to set off his goofy grin once more.

So was the finale the beginning of his breakthrough? And what precisely was the issue all 12 months? Pagenaud had been refreshingly sincere to all types of media in admitting he didn’t just like the 2018 vehicles’ inherent instability on the rear, that he couldn’t discover the boldness to push to the restrict in qualifying. But there had been sufficient anomalies, sufficient flashes of the 2016 champion’s pure expertise – beginning third at Lengthy Seashore and Toronto and being superfast in any oval qualifying session – to deserve a deeper clarification.

Ben Bretzman, who’s been race engineer for Pagenaud at Highcroft Racing sportscar staff, at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in IndyCar, and now once more at Penske, is the person to ask.

“Notably initially of the 12 months, random issues that don’t usually occur began hitting us each time we had an opportunity to do properly,” Bretzman tells Motorsport.com. “Like after we crashed out at Lengthy Seashore [Pagenaud was punted by Graham Rahal] we have been joking about how uncommon that’s. There was Pocono in 2016, and earlier than that I believe it’s a must to return to Brazil in 2013!

“Then at Barber, we have been operating eighth or ninth and enjoying a method sport and pitted early. We got here out 16th after which they red-flagged it – however allowed everybody to refuel earlier than the restart subsequent day. So then it took us all race to get again as much as eighth.

“So there was simply this common malaise initially of the 12 months. Every thing went in opposition to us as much as Indy, and by that point you’re to date again within the factors, you begin attempting large flash-in-the-pan concepts to make issues occur, whereas on the identical time attempting to study in regards to the automotive and get him snug in qualifying.

“In case you take a look at the factors, Simon scored greater than Josef and Will from Texas onward, however we weren’t placing up as many as Dixon. Simon hasn’t forgotten the way to drive or something like that. His race craft has been actually, actually good. It’s simply that we now have to maintain engaged on getting him to the place he’s assured in qualifying. It actually helps to start out within the high 5 moderately than have to return from 15th or one thing…”

Probably the most extreme examples of Pagenaud’s issues when looking for that edge in qualifying got here at St. Petersburg (11th), Detroit 1 (13th), Street America (14th), Mid-Ohio (17th) and that notorious 22nd in Portland. One glib, simplistic concept is that Pagenaud can solely excel in high-downforce vehicles, corresponding to he discovered within the sports activities prototype class of the American Le Mans Sequence or within the producer aerokit period of IndyCar. Sure, he was mighty spectacular with Schmidt Peterson within the spec DW12s of 2012-’14, however they have been inherent understeerers. The shedding of 20-30 % of downforce in 2018’s breed of IndyCar and the resultant looseness of the 2018 automotive raised crimson flags with Bretzman and Pagenaud early on.

“Yeah, fairly quickly into testing of the brand new package, Simon was pretty sad,” says Bretzman. “It’s exhausting if you’ve come off two seasons the place you win the championship in a single and end second within the different. You’ve acquired plenty of momentum and confidence, and then you definately get into one thing so overseas that doesn’t drive such as you count on it to.

“We began questioning ourselves – ‘Are we tackling this the correct approach?’ However such as you say, we managed to get him OK in sure circumstances. On the Indy highway course, we felt he made large beneficial properties in what he thought he needed from the racecar. That acquired him in the correct temper, began to get his confidence again. However then Detroit 1 was actually, actually tough in contrast with the place have been at in St. Pete and Lengthy Seashore, so then we began doubting ourselves once more.

“So we opened our personal eyes a bit by doing one thing very completely different on the automotive for raceday and Simon began to have some good issues to say about it. And in reality what we found there made us faster at Toronto for all three of the vehicles. However in fact by then we’re midway by way of the season and we’re nonetheless throwing large issues on the automotive.

“It was an odd deal all-around, to be sincere. We acquired out of Mid-Ohio and Simon made up about 10 locations from his beginning place with none warning intervals and we have been comparatively joyful. However once more, it had taken us all the way in which till the race to get to that joyful place. As I instructed you on the time, he has performed a extremely good job within the races as a result of his race craft has been actually good.

“It’s the alternative downside to our first 12 months at Penske, 2015, after we have been quick however simply didn’t execute very properly. This 12 months we’ve been chasing ourselves setup-wise all weekend till the race, however then we’ve executed properly – no errors from Simon, robust tempo, nice pitstops and so forth. I suppose that what makes me joyful going into the offseason. We had some crew turnover earlier than this season however we meshed very well however we carried out very well as a unit.

“Going ahead, what we’ve acquired to study to do is establish his points earlier within the weekends and treatment them in time for him to qualify a lot stronger.”

It should, I enterprise, have been a substantial weight for Pagenaud to hold that perhaps for the primary time in his profession he couldn’t puzzle his approach out of those technical cul-de-sacs – or not less than, not earlier than he had a damagingly low grid place.

“Yeah, he’s such a ‘psychological’ driver,” agrees Bretzman. “The way in which he approaches his driving, the way in which he approaches a lap, the way in which he approaches setting a automotive up and the way to make it go sooner… However when it comes right down to race time, you set all that apart and simply go racing and also you’re not stressing over 100lb of spring, what dampers are on the automotive or how a lot entrance wing you’ve acquired in it.”

Bretzman mentions dampers there, and these appeared to change into key to Pagenaud’s quest for pace. Was that to offer higher stability or higher ‘really feel.’

“Higher really feel,” says Bretzman. “He drives very methodically, and is continually asking himself, ‘How a lot grip do I’ve?’ The rationale he doesn’t crash when he’s laying down a qualifying lap is that by then he all the time has an excellent data of how a lot grip he has and the way properly the tires work. He can hit the identical braking level lap after lap however then he can attempt to brake 5 ft deeper to find how a lot additional he can go. That approach he builds his database, and may subsequently hone his driving and his automotive setup too. That’s why he was capable of get seven poles in 2016: he knew precisely what the automotive and tires have been going to do and subsequently push it to its absolute restrict.

“Now, for him, if he’s lacking a chunk of that data and doesn’t have really feel for what the automotive’s doing, he’s going to lose confidence as a result of he can’t construct that database. In order that’s what he’s been trying to find all 12 months, that really feel to inform him the place the restrict is and what his automotive is able to.”

It appeared odd, subsequently, to see Pagenaud contending for pole within the treacherously damp observe circumstances encountered in qualifying at Toronto. There he appeared to know precisely what the automotive was going to do, he was error free, and he certified third, forward of Energy and simply behind Newgarden and Dixon.

“Ah properly, do not forget that stemmed from Detroit,” replies Bretzman, “the place we discovered one thing on our streetcourse bundle that helped maximize the tires in qualifying. And at that time we have been capable of then swap our focus extra onto his driving, how he’s going to do higher on this sector or that sector. In Toronto, it was extra like earlier years, the place I might make minimal adjustments to the automotive and as a substitute simply discover the pace together with his driving method.”

Not solely have been the fundamental dealing with traits of the 2018 automotive to not his style, Pagenaud needed to settle for additionally that this was this aerokit’s first 12 months, and subsequently Staff Penske, together with all different groups, was nonetheless exploring completely different setup avenues.

“It was consistently evolving, so its dynamics have been repeatedly altering – that additionally made him much less capable of predict its dealing with traits,” says Bretzman. “That’s one more reason why I believe Simon can be a lot stronger subsequent 12 months – as a result of now we now have an entire 12 months’s price of information with this aerokit. We’ll be giving him a automotive that’s that a lot additional down the highway of growth, and on the majority of races we ended up with one thing he appreciated.”

It’s been notable that there have been zero points for Pagenaud with the brand new automotive on oval tracks this 12 months. He was quickest of the Penske drivers in qualifying at each Phoenix and Indy (the latter of which additionally included four-time Indy polesitter Helio Castroneves), and within the Texas race he was the most effective of the Penske drivers at defending his tires, and was rewarded with a runner-up end – his first of solely two podiums this 12 months.

“Yeah, he loves this automotive on the ovals,” says Bretzman. “It sounds humorous however we have been really aggravated with fifth on the grid at Pocono – it screwed up our oval qualifying common as a result of we’d been on the entrance two rows on the others. However severely, he’s been actually robust, and loves the general Penske bundle for ovals. He’s not fairly as aggressive as Josef, however he’s getting there, and his racecraft is getting higher and higher. 4 or 5 years in the past, you may need mentioned ovals have been our weak hyperlink however that definitely wasn’t the case this 12 months.”

The thought, in fact, is that there are not any weak hyperlinks come 2019. Did Sonoma present a real foretaste of what’s to return from Pagenaud subsequent season? Bretzman thinks so, and admits that testing there every week earlier than race weekend was key.

“That’s the entire cause we try this check early,” he says. “It offers us an opportunity to place our considering caps on and course of the check information, discuss to the drivers after which react to what we’ve found. It’s higher than testing on the Thursday instantly beforehand the place it feels such as you’re simply doing it on the fly. Additionally, to be sincere, due to the place we have been in factors, we really used the Portland check and the Sonoma check to experiment with stuff for 2019, and attempt to work out our struggles from earlier within the 12 months. It gave us some good concepts.”

A few months in the past, one among Pagenaud’s rivals, listening to of the 2016 champion’s points with the brand new spec aerokit, expressed some sympathy for him, however then added: “The factor is, the most effective drivers adapt, and a few folks have had much more to adapt to. Rossi needed to adapt from F1, Wickens needed to adapt from touring vehicles, Veach needed to adapt from Indy Lights. Pagenaud simply needed to discover ways to drive an IndyCar with a lot much less downforce than the final one.

“The factor is, you will be messing round with setups all apply attempting to adapt the automotive to your type, however sooner or later, as you go into qualifying, what you’ve acquired is what you’ve acquired, and it’s then as much as you to adapt your type to the automotive.”

As an skilled in endurance racing, and in addition managing an IndyCar over an entire stint, that needs to be properly inside Pagenaud’s grasp. He’s simply gotta have that feeling.

“Sure,” agrees Bretzman. “If Simon will get the suggestions from the automotive, he can then really feel assured and unleash himself, give 100 % and he’s quick. So this low season is about ensuring we will try this for each observe we go to – and from the very begin of a race weekend. Being buried within the pack initially simply makes life so tough for ourselves.”