May 11, 2014, 3:45 PM EST
To some gathered in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press room on Saturday following the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud’s victory was viewed as a surprise or his championship challenge was viewed as… well… a surprise.
Neither should be. If anything, the only surprise is that Pagenaud hasn’t won more. Or that it took saving fuel to do it, rather than the outright pace he showed all weekend.
He was only outside the top three in qualifying, and there he slotted in fourth after the session ended due to Hunter-Reay’s accident. It was one of the team’s best weekends yet in IndyCar
Overall, the soon-to-be 30-year-old (May 18) has been nothing short of a stud since he entered North America in 2006, winning the Atlantic Championship as a then-unheralded rookie, starring on occasion in Champ Car in 2007 and then making a triumphant return to open-wheel after a sports car dovetail (where he won races and a championship).
As he now sits third in the championship – same as where he finished in 2013 – Pagenaud is only six points out of the series lead and poised to make that next breakthrough to jump ahead of Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 title protagonists widely viewed as two of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ best.
If he isn’t already, Pagenaud must be mentioned in the same breath. The Frenchman boasts the rare combination of a cool confidence, excellent setup feedback, detailed technical development, and quick wits and insights that make him a great quote in the media center. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t make mistakes either, so he’s seemingly always in contention on race day.
“I think we are a championship contender,” Pagenaud said post-race. “It’s fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. Being consistent in the championship is what gives you championship wins.
“What the team does really well is the people working in the team are very dedicated and very smart,” he added, of his Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team. “I think the group on the 77 car is very strong. We’re extracting 100% of what we have.”
And that collective unit is into Year 3, as the evolution has come from rookie with no oval experience that still finished top-five in points to his first two wins last year and third in the points.
“We obviously don’t have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we’re a very good group of people that have really open communication,” Pagenaud said. “I think it helps a lot in racing.
“We’re just doing everything we can to check off the bad stuff every weekend. This weekend was pretty much a flawless weekend, a perfect weekend for us.”
Nicer still is the fact that for the first time in several years, Pagenaud has a sense of job security within IndyCar. Although this year is the last of his contract with SPM, he’s done enough to where he could stay on beyond 2014 or move onto one of the so-called big three teams.
It says something after the roughly four-year abyss between his open-wheel stints, where despite starring in sports cars and winning the 2010 American Le Mans Series Prototype class championship, he didn’t know if he’d return.
“I used to stress a lot about my racing career. It’s difficult to make it as a race driver,” Pagenaud admitted. “I’ve been stressing up until last year about my job, security. I’m turning 30, so I’ve got another 12 years hopefully in IndyCar, 10 or 12 years.
“I think I’ve shown speed. I’ve shown consistency. Now I have decided this year to relax and just let my driving do the rest. So I enjoy it.”
And as a Frenchman winning at Indianapolis, there’s a nice symbolism to that, as well. Jules Goux and Rene Thomas won back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 1913 and 1914, so Pagenaud would love to match the latter a century later.
“I’m very proud to be the [third] Frenchman to win in Indianapolis in history and the first to win the Indy Grand Prix,” he said. “It’s incredible to be near the pagoda. I can’t even think what it could be with the Indy 500.”
He’ll get the chance starting today with practice beginning in the No. 77 white and red Lucas Oil car, which shifts liveries after his Charter Communications/Oculus colors depart after the GP of Indy.
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