Going into the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, many drivers, fans and experts wondered whether Simon Pagenaud would finally find his feet at Team Penske.
Well, everyone can all stop wondering.
The 31-year-old Frenchman delivered his first win for Penske in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in his 19th start with the legendary team and instantly became a clear 2016 title favorite.
Although it took much longer than many thought, the confidence boost that comes with his first Penske win will only make Pagenaud tougher to beat.
“Certainly there's a lot more to come. I think the team – my No. 22 team is tremendous – certainly one of the strongest right now,” Pagenaud said.
“I feel like I'm driving really well, so all the stars are aligned. It's going to be a long championship, you know. We started really well. There's the Indy 500 to come. There's a lot to come. We'll just keep focusing on what we want to do and we'll see what happens.”
The Long Beach victory increased Pagenaud's lead in the championship standings, moving him 14 points ahead of No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon and 28 up on Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya after three of 16 races.
There's also no doubt that the maiden Penske win was much anticipated from a driver who had all the makings of a title contender when he signed with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2012.
Pagenaud arrived at the pointy end of the grid last year after delivering four wins in three years with the Schmidt Peterson squad and three top-5 finishes in the points, including an impressive third overall in 2013. That kind of performance had many thinking he'd be an instant championship threat as soon as he sat in a top ride.
Things didn't exactly turn out that way.
Following his move to the perennial powerhouse, the 2006 Formula Atlantic and 2010 American Le Mans Series LMP/LMP2 champion endured what can only be called a disappointing 2015.
While Pagenaud failed to stay in the top 10 on many weekends last season, his three Penske teammates – Montoya, Will Power and Helio Castroneves – kept themselves in the thick of the championship battle all year.
In the end, the best Pagenaud could do was a third on the streets of Detroit Belle Isle and another at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. That made “When will Pagenaud win?” one of the most-asked questions in the INDYCAR paddock going into 2016.
“I knew it was coming because we've been so competitive since the beginning of the year – it was just a matter of when,” he said. “But I've been saying it, consistency is key for me in this championship, and for the way I drive. It might not be exciting to watch. It might not be the most fun to watch, but it works. I'm just going to stick to what I believe in, and when it's time to win, we'll win.”
Despite the apparent struggles in 2015, Pagenaud insisted before the season that things weren't as bad as they seemed and it was a better year than the results showed.
While the performance was there, Pagenaud insisted in February that execution was the issue that held the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet team back last year. That's why the squad spent the offseason trying to understand what it needed to do to get the little things right and ensure it was firing on all cylinders at every race.
The bad news for the rest of the field is that Pagenaud and Penske have found the zone and there's no doubt about their ability to get the job done together.
“I'm not somebody who puts a lot of pressure on myself, and I like to just be laser focused on my task, and that's what I've been doing this year,” Pagenaud said.
“I felt we were going to be competitive. Every race I come in, I don't really focus on results. I focus on doing my job, and whatever the result is, it's the best I could do at the time. When I don't do that, then I'm upset with myself. Sometimes you might finish sixth and be happy with yourself, and sometimes you win a race and you might not have done the best job.”