Ask most Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and they'll tell you that the biggest story after four races in the 2016 season is Simon Pagenaud's dramatic emergence as the front-runner for the championship.
While his rivals already knew Pagenaud had the right stuff, the No 22 Team Penske Chevrolet driver's podium-filled start still raised a few eyebrows in the paddock.
“After the season he had last year, no question he has been incredible – good props for him and his team for overcoming the obstacles,” said teammate Helio Castroneves.
“We never had any doubts about his ability. Sooner or later, he was going to come alive.”
Pagenaud struggled to deliver results in 2015 and ended the year 11th overall in his maiden season with Team Penske, but erased that memory with an impressive start to this season that clearly served notice that he's the early title favorite.
The French driver scored a pair of second-place finishes in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway before taking consecutive wins in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
Pagenaud’s 188 points are 48 ahead of No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy driver Scott Dixon (who won at Phoenix) and 52 ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya (winner at St. Pete) in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevy. Castroneves is fourth, 70 points adrift in his No. 3 Team Penske Chevy.
Although it took a few starts and a bit of better luck, the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” better known as No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver James Hinchcliffe, seems to be back into the swing of things. The hugely popular driver returned to the cockpit this year after a long layoff due to injuries sustained in an accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. He missed the final 12 races last year following the May 18 crash.
The Canadian had a couple of rough outings to begin 2016, with contact in the first corner ruining his day in St. Pete and a practice crash in Phoenix essentially putting him off balance for the rest of the weekend. After 19th- and 18th-place finishes, respectively, in those two races, Hinchcliffe bounced back to take eighth in Long Beach before topping that with a strong drive to sixth in Barber.
“It was a solid day,” Hinchcliffe said after Barber. “It’s good that two weekends in a row we’ve come out with strong finishes and hopefully we can keep this momentum going through the month of May.”
The biggest surprise so far, according to an informal poll of drivers, is the two essentially full green-flag races at Long Beach and Barber.
The run began with the tilt on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street course in Long Beach where the dizzying speeds in close quarters between ever-present concrete barriers often cause sparks and carbon fiber to fly. This year, the drivers threaded the needle flawlessly for 80 laps and produced a caution-free race that turned out to be the fastest-ever race there. To top it off, Long Beach ended with the closest finish in the 33-year Indy car history of the race, with a nail-biting 0.3032 of a second separating winner Pagenaud and runner-up Dixon at the checkers.
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama did begin with two laps behind the pace car after aborted starts, so technically speaking it wasn't caution-free. Once the green flag waved at the end of Lap 2, it went flat out for the final 88 laps as the drivers battled wheel-to-wheel for supremacy on the twisty and challenging 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course.
That adds up to 169 caution-free, edge-of-your-seat, hard-racing laps of a possible 170 in the last two races.
A huge reason for the dearth of cautions is the talent level in INDYCAR, insisted No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda driver Graham Rahal.
“The quality of drivers in the field is higher than it's ever been,” he said. “Literally no bad guys anymore and no field fillers – all guys that can win.”
Fans also loved the tough competition with the race on the streets of St. Petersburg attracting the biggest television audience for a Verizon IndyCar Series season opener since 2011. The series' successful return to Phoenix also delivered good TV numbers and respectable crowd of nearly 20,000 despite a tough Saturday night time slot.
The events in Long Beach (180,000 estimated) and Barber (83,765) saw lots of fans spin the turnstiles over the weekend, while the television audiences were also up for both events.
The uptick in TV numbers and numbers fans in the stands will only get better as the series prepares for the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, which is expected to attract a massive crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in living rooms across the U.S. and around the world.