What does the move of Simon Pagenaud to Team Penske mean for IndyCar? Motorsport.com's Anne Proffit goes over the smaller details of a really big deal.
Team Penske has never had a four-car Verizon IndyCar Series team - until now.
The most successful squad in American open wheel history - particularly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the team has 16 victories - announced it has hired Frenchman Simon Pagenaud to partner 2014 series champion Will Power, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and second-year team member Juan Pablo Montoya, who has excelled in Indy cars (winning Indy as a 2000 rookie as well as the CART series title a year before), Formula 1 and NASCAR.
Pagenaud, 30, who won four times in the IndyCar Series while driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has worked with Power in the past when both drove for Derrick Walker’s Champ Car team. Pagenaud graduated to the Champ Car Series after winning the Atlantic championship as a rookie in 2006; he also owns a title in the American Le Mans Series in the top P1 category, achieved in 2010. Pagenaud’s sports car resume includes starts at the Le Mans 24-hour race and the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Honda will miss Pagenaud
Known for his testing skills - and for his knowledge of the Honda engine as he’s been the engine manufacturer’s top evaluator over the past few years, Pagenaud is considered one of the more visceral and intelligent racers in INDYCAR. He’s finished in the top five in points each of the last three seasons, this year achieving two victories, a single pole position, three podium results and eight top-five finishes en route to finishing fifth as he chased former and new teammate Power to the close.
This change to the dynamics at Team Penske offers some interesting thoughts, as Pagenaud and Power have had their share of run-ins over the years in INDYCAR, despite having been teammates in the past. It will be interesting to see how this works when both are driving Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy cars on the same team - again.
As is his wont, Roger Penske did not divulge the length of Pagenaud’s contract with Team Penske, and he stated his rationale for the hire thusly: “Simon Pagenaud is a very talented, focused and determined driver. We know how tough he has been to compete with over the last few seasons, and we are very happy to welcome him to Team Penske. With Simon coming on board to join Will, Helio and Juan, we feel we have four drivers very capable of winning on any given weekend and four guys who are legitimate championship contenders.”
Four car teams dominating IndyCar grid in 2015
Not only are the dynamics at Team Penske changed with this hire, the entire Verizon IndyCar Series now becomes a group that features three teams owning about half the paddock. Now that Team Penske has four cars, they join the four cars at Chip Ganassi Racing and four from Andretti Autosport. The latter team has been somewhat vocal about adding a fifth (but that was intended for Pagenaud) and Ganassi - as well as Andretti’s team - has entered a fifth racecar at the Indianapolis 500.
There are also changes for Honda Performance Development (HPD), which depended on Pagenaud’s expertise in testing engine components. He was the first driver to experience Honda’s twin-turbo engine at Auto Club Speedway in 2013. He’s been Honda’s go-to guy and that changes, beginning today. It also marks another exodus from the manufacturer that was loyal to the IndyCar Series during its single-engine-supplier years. With Andretti Autosport as its premier team, Honda will continue to be strong, but it remains to be seen who will be the engine maker’s test guru.
Pagenaud’s hiring at Team Penske allows other dominoes to fall into place, as Schmidt Peterson has at least one seat to fill, depending on the health of Mikhael Aleshin, who crashed heavily at the season finale. There’s the two-car squads of Dale Coyne Racing and KV/SH Racing, as well as single car entries from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, the combined CFH entry (Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) and Bryan Herta Autosport. At this point in time it’s uncertain that Herta’s team will make the bell next year - could they merge with another team as well?
Pagenaud will drive the No. 22 Dallara/Chevy/Firestone entry next year and it’s Team Penske president Tim Cindric’s hope and intent to get the Frenchman in a car by the end of the year; he was at the shop for a seat fitting prior to this conversation. “There’s no specific date, but he will be in a car by the end of the year.” Cindric also doesn’t know yet which personnel will work on the No. 22 nor who will sponsor the car, allowing that the voluminous off-season allows for careful consideration to staffing and partnerships.
This is, Cindric mused, the first time Team Penske has run four cars in the Indy car series and he brought up the comparison in that of his squad going from three to two cars in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. “We learned from the NASCAR side if you don’t handle two cars [well] you shouldn’t add a third, but if we were going to add a fourth car on the Indy car side, there was no one else we’d consider” for that seat. After looking at the number of winners this year in INDYCAR, 11 over 18 races, Cindric believes “the size of the team doesn’t really matter.”
Opportunity you cannot let go
Cindric hasn’t yet spoken with Pagenaud’s long-time engineer, Ben Bretzman. “We haven’t spoken with anybody relative to Simon’s team at this point,” and in fact Cindric has never met Bretzman! “He hasn’t contacted us either.” Again, he remarked that David Faustino, Power’s long-time engineer didn’t join the team until Power had been there for a year and that Will didn’t mention a word about their ability to work together…
For his part, while Pagenaud certainly appreciated the nurturing he’s experienced with Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson, Davey Hamilton and all of their partners, he felt he’d be silly not to take this opportunity. “I’m honored to be part of Team Penske; it’s the next step in my career and this is perfect timing for me and for the team. It’s a tremendous opportunity,” he explained.
As for his rivalry with past/future teammate Will Power, Pagenaud called the Australian, who finally earned his first title after being a three-time bridesmaid, “A tremendous driver. Yes, we’ve had contacts on the track and all that but we’ve known each other a long time, been good teammates and enjoyed working together. I don’t see any problem,” Pagenaud said. While it’s bittersweet to leave Schmidt and Honda, “I make decisions as a man and always wanted to drive for Roger. I had this opportunity and had to take it.”