Pagenaud hungers for taste of another championship

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While he always sounds upbeat, there’s a restlessness in Simon Pagenaud when he looks toward the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.

The 34-year-old Team Penske driver from France always tries to accentuate the positive about what’s ahead, which means not dwelling too much on the recent past. He admits his team struggled to adapt to the new Indy cars with universal aero kits last year, hence his sixth-place finish in the points.

But the 2016 series champion who was just 13 points shy of repeating the next year is focused on returning to the front. He sounds refreshed, confident and, most importantly, happy about the progress made in offseason testing.

“That’s pretty much the recap of my life,” Pagenaud said, while walking through the pits at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, during INDYCAR Spring Training on Feb. 12. “I’m rarely satisfied. I want more. I’m always looking for greater heights and I believe the sky is the limit. I’m looking for those limits to be pushed away.

“You can’t stop. Once you’ve tasted the blood, you want it again.”

Pagenaud was so dominant in 2016 with five wins and five other top-four finishes in his second season driving for Roger Penske, he wonders if another driver can be so strong in a series that has become so increasingly competitive. He had two wins and 11 other top-five finishes to end up 13 points behind teammate Josef Newgarden in 2017.

Coming so close that year still weighs on his mind. And as much as he insists he’s concentrating on the present and this season, last year is also hard to forget. He didn’t win a race and had just four top-four finishes.

“It’s almost like you wake up one day and you get on the road and every light is green, right? So you get to your job and your work five minutes early,” he said. “The next day, you get up and everything is red and there’s traffic everywhere and it’s raining and you can’t get there on time. You didn’t do anything different.”

Like many teams, Pagenaud and his crew kept chasing how to make last year’s car more comfortable, which meant trying to deal with a loose rear end that was hard on tire wear.

“The biggest issue to extract the most out of the car was very difficult for us last year, and as you could see in the races, it showed as well,” he said. “It’s about finding the best compromise to attack at all times and be able to go to the front and stay there. We’re trying to figure out a way to extract the best out of the tires in every situation, be fast on the out lap, be fast on worn-out tires, but also be fast in qualifying because it’s really important.”

Pagenaud was not alone in this endeavor. Team Penske’s trio of series champions – Pagenaud, Newgarden and Will Power – each came up short in trying to win the title claimed by five-time winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. Power did win the Indianapolis 500 and finished third in the points, while Newgarden placed fifth in the standings.

Advancements in technology and the sharing of that knowledge has made the margin for error so much smaller than 10 or 15 years ago, Pagenaud observes.

“It’s like going down the slopes skiing, you hit the first corner perfect and you keep going perfectly,” Pagenaud said of momentum in racing. “In skiing, you hit the first door wrong and it’s a succession of bad corners. It’s the same in the job and work. You make that one really bad, wrong decision and you’re shaky about making the next one. The great ones are the ones that can forget about whatever happened two seconds before and adjust to that moment.

“We’re three champions, so all of us have really strong opinions about things. Sometimes with engineers, it’s not always easy because there’s also preferences on which way we should go to make the car good for everybody.”

Pagenaud ranked fifth out of 25 drivers in terms of the fastest lap on the speed chart in the two-day COTA test, the only official series-wide test prior to the season opener on March 10. Power was third and Newgarden 11th.

After the first day had concluded, Pagenaud took time to fist bump and shake hands with the members of his crew in the pits. He’s always positive and trying to encourage his team.

“It’s been a fun start to the year,” he said. “We’re going through our list. It’s early stages. It’s incredible this team, how humble they are. Despite all the wins and the championships, everybody is willing to always be better. I feel like we had a really good start to the year and I see the potential out there.”

Competitive juices are flowing. And Pagenaud is hungry.

“It’s part of the game,” he said with a smile. “We all are super competitive. If you’re not competitive, you’re not going to survive in this world. You’ve got to live with that knife in your throat. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but that’s actually a feeling that’s fun.

“You want to enjoy yourself when you’re driving a race car. When you’re having fun, you’re having success. Fun brings success.”

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season consists of 17 races, opening with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 26 and concluding with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 22. All races air live on NBC or NBCSN, along with the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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