Pagenaud: “We have nothing to lose” in Sonoma

Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud says that the simple aim of trying to dominate the Sonoma weekend as he did last year has taken the pressure off him.

Pagenaud: “We have nothing to lose” in Sonoma
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet celebrates Verizon P1 pole award
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet

Pagenaud scored five wins and seven pole positions on his way to last year’s championship, but this year has achieved just one of each. However, his stunning consistency – just three finishes outside the top five in 16 rounds – has kept the #1 Penske-Chevrolet driver in the hunt for the 2017 title. He heads to Sonoma in fourth place, but just 34 points off points leader and teammate Josef Newgarden.

The Frenchman, who is ending his third year at Penske said: “Quite frankly, we have nothing to lose, which is a very pleasant position to be in. All we've got to do is be aggressive and go to the front and try to win the race. It's a very simple way to look at it with not much pressure. The goal is just to be the best you can be… to repeat what we did last year there and dominate the weekend

“The Penske cars are usually very strong there, so I've got a really strong hope, and leaving Watkins Glen, I felt like we had a really strong chance to make it happen.”

With double-points on offer, there are theoretically seven drivers eligible for the championship –  Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Pagenaud, Will Power, Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal. However, the last two almost require Newgarden to not attend the Sonoma race in order to win the title.

Pagenaud, by contrast, could retain the title were he to win the race with Newgarden and Dixon finishing fourth or lower. Given the closeness of the IndyCar field and the speed of drivers such as Power, Castroneves, Watkins Glen winner Rossi and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, the chance of both Newgarden and Dixon failing to reach the podium is strong.

Pagenaud pointed out: “My points deficit on Josef is less than Will's deficit on me last year, and quite frankly, all it took last year was for me to have the problem Will had [mechanical DNF] for him to win the championship. I understand how possible this is, and right now I'm sitting here thinking I've got all the chances in the world to make it happen.

“I don't see the points deficit being such an issue. I think the most important thing is to go into Sonoma very confident and just simply try to score maximum points. The rest you can't control. I can't control what Dixon is going to do, what my teammates are going to do. All I can control is me, and like I said earlier, those situations are my favorite. That's when I do my best.”

Shifting baseline affected the stats

Pagenaud admitted that he had struggled to produce the same statistics as last season because it was harder to stay on top than reach the summit.

“I think it's even harder to repeat, quite frankly,” he said. “I found myself in a great situation last year with a dominant performance, but repeating is even harder just because you have a baseline of things that worked the year before, and you're hoping it will do the same.

“But reality is you have to adapt to situations, and this year has been a very different year for me  – which is no real explanation for it, it's just the way it is. But that's what I've found the most challenging thing in the next year of a championship.

“The championship this year has been very competitive, multiple winners, a lot more winners than usual, a lot of good luck and bad luck for some, a lot of good cars, as well, Honda making a jump compared to last year in terms of performance. Obviously that tightened the ranks between Chevy and Honda and made it possible for a lot more drivers to win.”

Pagenaud implied that effectively the top four in the championship will face a ‘winner takes all’ scenario in Sonoma.

“I think all four of us or even five with Will, everybody is going to have to be very aggressive to make it work, and quite frankly, it's going to be who makes the best decisions. Without being pretentious, that's something that I think I do well. So that's why I think my chances to win this championship are very high.

“If Helio wins the race, then he's probably going to win the championship. If Newgarden wins the race, then he's going to win the championship and so on. At the end of the day, I just have to focus the best I can and extract the best out of the car all weekend, and like I said earlier, just focus on myself because you can only control what you can control.”

Tire questions provide “blank piece of paper"

One of Pagenaud’s regular struggles in qualifying this year has been adapting to the tweaks Firestone has made to its red tire compounds at certain tracks from 2016 to 2017. He implied there was a good and bad side to that change in relation to the Sonoma shootout.

“It is going to be a big change for sure, the tires that Firestone is bringing,” he commented. “My understanding is that the black tires from [Sonoma] last year are becoming the red this year, which means the red we had in qualifying last year disappeared. It's really a shame because we had a fantastic car with them. It's a real shame for me, I think, for my team.

“But you know what? At the end of the day, we have a lot of testing at Sonoma, and you know, it's actually a good thing because, like I said earlier, I can't go back on the stuff that I learned last year, so we're going to restart from a blank piece of paper. I think that's a good thing because then we can focus on what really works with these tires without having any questions on last year and why was last year so good.

“I'm actually happy about that because it's been a tough thing to do this year, just focus on '17 when '16 was so good, and finding why was a difficult thing. So I'm quite excited, actually. I think it puts everybody on a level playing field, and we just have to do the best we can and learn those tires and go for it.

As well as the series open test at Sonoma on Thursday 14 September which effectively turns the series finale into a four-day event, the four-car Penske team will be testing at Sonoma this Thursday, too. Pagenaud said that he believes they will be using the new 2017-spec black tires in that test.

 

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